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South Dakota struggles to provide rural broadband access

July 12, 2021 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — As federal officials debate investing billions of dollars in broadband access, South Dakota is planning to invest $100 million as it struggles to extend reliable internet service to every corner of the state.

Data reported by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on Monday suggests that many South Dakota schoolchildren and adults who worked from home during the pandemic struggled with sub-par access to high-speed internet, particularly in the state’s poorest and/or least populated counties.

Advocates say the “digital divide” across South Dakota and the rest of the U.S. is due largely to two factors: a lack of internet infrastructure in rural areas and relatively high costs that have made broadband unaffordable for many in urban centers.

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In about half of South Dakota’s counties — 34 of 66 — measured by a Federal Communications Commission study, broadband access is available to at least 88% of residents. Yet in about half of the state measured by Microsoft — 33 of 65 counties — no more than 28% of households actually have high-speed access, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

That helps explain why the South Dakota Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem earlier this year set aside $100 million — mostly federal pandemic relief money — to help the telecommunications industry build fiber lines and antenna towers in rural areas.

Last month, President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of lawmakers reached a deal on a far-reaching infrastructure plan that would direct $65 billion to increase broadband connectivity from coast-to-coast. In South Dakota, 13% of residents don’t have adequate broadband infrastructure and 48% live in areas with only one internet provider, according to the White House.

The proportions of South Dakota households with high-speed access varies widely. In Mellette County, it’s just 5% and in Ziebach County, it’s 9%. Leading the state are Hyde County with 93%, Lincoln County with 77% and Potter County with 63%.