Rural South Dakotans are now seeing internet reach their homes

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Computer Hand

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — They live a mile up a gravel road off SD 34 three miles east of Pierre. But until recently, Don and Becky Bergeson didn’t have internet at their ranch, because they didn’t have a way to get service.

Thanks to Governor Kristi Noem spurring the Legislature to make $5 million available, the Bergesons and thousands of other rural South Dakotans are now seeing internet reach their homes, ranches, farms and businesses, through her Connecting South Dakota program.

The money was part of a long list of 2019 revisions to state government’s budget. Noem spread the $5 million around to eight internet providers through a competitive process run by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The co-ops and companies in turn committed their money, and in some cases federal aid, that she said now totals nearly $25 million.

In Bergesons’ case, they now have reliable cell-phone service too at the ranch, thanks to a wi-fi connection made possible by the fiber line running to their house.

“It’s pretty amazing to have the fast service and reliable service now that we wanted for a lot of years,” Don Bergeson said.

Becky is a registered nurse at St. Mary’s hospital in Pierre and serves as director on the medical-surgery floor. Don ranches and runs Medicine Creek Convenience, a combination bar, grill and store on US 14 over in Blunt, about a half-hour away.

Having internet where they live means they now can do the business bookkeeping at home, rather than at the store. “It’ll be really nice, make things go a lot more streamlined, doing paperwork and such,” he said.

He said getting internet service is “going to be huge” for them.

“We run a cow-calf operation,” he said. The home place is 240 acres, plus 300 acres at Hayes, and he leases approximately 1,400 acres. “Being able to market, look at commodities, check resources” are some of the other ways he plans to use it.

Venture Communications Cooperative, based at Highmore over in Hyde County, laid the cord up Dry Run Road to reach the Bergesons’ place.

Fay Jandreau is operations manager for Venture Communications. He said the co-op has somewhere between $2.7 million and $3.1 million invested in what he called “phase one” of the West Hughes project.

Jandreau said Venture couldn’t have afforded it without the state help.

Governor Noem visited the Bergesons Wednesday afternoon. She said state government is feeling the pinch of a tough rural economy, but she hopes to find money for more internet grants at some point in the future.

Noem said she saw while in Congress the past eight years there were gaps in the federal aid for internet. She said one of her top staff can’t get internet at her home just three miles outside Watertown.

The governor said it was exciting to meet and talk with the Bergesons.

“You know, you really start learning about how it’s going to change their lives. They talked about not having internet service, not having cellphone coverage. What we’re doing here today will give them both of those options. That’s going to change their way of life,” she said.

Venture is adding about 700 customers, according to Noem. She said there would be thousands of households and businesses that benefit from the program.

One such place is Timber Lake, a community of 443 people across the Missouri River in Dewey County. Noem said the local grocery couldn’t process credit cards and EBT cards because there wasn’t internet service.

She said some communities had lost their weekly newspapers because the pages couldn’t be electronically transmitted to a printing plant, and she heard from parents whose children did homework at school or sat in the car after classes getting it done, because they couldn’t get internet at home.

“So in today’s day and age, having this connectivity is incredibly important, to help families be successful, and to help our businesses grow. So much of our businesses happen on-line now, and in a rural state like South Dakota, it’s important we have that kind of technology,” Noem said.

She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision for South Dakota in the Wayfair case was important. It lets state and local governments charge sales and use tax on remote sellers of goods and services purchased through the internet.

“That’s obviously more revenue into the state as well. 2019’s been a difficult revenue year for us, because of the natural disaster that we’ve been going through. But all of these different types of technologies will help us be much more successful and profitable into the future,” Noem said.

About Connecting South Dakota, she added, “And I’m hoping this isn’t a one-year program, that we have the revenues next year that we can make it a priority, because I want to continue to see this build-out happen, so that it will benefit more and more families and businesses in our state.”

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