USDA ReConnect Grant Helps Valley Telecommunications Connect Rural South Dakota

Over the last few months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a steady stream of awardee announcements for the first round of its ReConnect broadband program. Among the recently announced recipients is Valley Telecommunications Cooperative Association in Flandreau, South Dakota. The telephone co-op will receive a grant of about $9.5 million to connect nearly two thousand underserved households, businesses, and farms to it’s existing fiber network.

The first round of ReConnect funding made $600 million available in grants and loans to Internet service providers to expand broadband access across the country. Many of the round one awards have gone to locally-run, community-owned providers, like Valley Telecommunications, to build fiber networks. This includes grants to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative; Orangeburg County, South Carolina; and Star Telephone Membership Corporation, as well as awards to two economic development agencies in Tyler and Wetzel Counties, West Virginia.

Valley Reaches a Peak

Members of Valley Telecommunications Co-op can already subscribe to gigabit speed fiber connectivity. From 2008 to 2016, the co-op replaced all of its old copper lines with a modern fiber optic network. “One hundred percent of our members in north central South Dakota can receive gigabit broadband services via that fiber network,” shared CEO and General Manager Jeff Symens at a press conference announcing the ReConnect grant.

Soon after completing the fiber buildout, the co-op decided to expand into nearby communities such as Volga and De Smet, operating under the name Valley FiberCom. However, this still left some homes and businesses outside of the towns unconnected. Symens explained:

It never solved the most underserved areas in these territories and that was the rural areas just outside of those towns, where some people struggled to get any Internet. And if they did, it was minimal bandwidth and it wasn’t too reliable.

To reach those rural locations, Valley Telecommunications applied for the ReConnect program and received a grant for $9,591,131. The funds will allow the co-op to connect at least 1,750 homes, 40 farms and businesses, and one community anchor institution in underserved parts of Brookings, Kingsbury and Moody counties to its growing gigabit fiber network.

logo-valley-telecom.png This kind of high-speed connectivity is not an anomaly in rural South Dakota. As we’ve reported before, in articles and on our podcast, South Dakota already has more fiber networks than people outside the state might expect, thanks to the investments made by locally rooted companies and cooperatives over the past decades.

In fact, it’s often the parts of South Dakota served by national companies that suffer with the slowest speeds. “There are [areas without broadband] in our state, and that’s usually CenturyLink,” said Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen at the press conference. “And so that’s what all of you are trying to figure out: how we get high-speed Internet to our rural communities.”

Connecting Fields and Offices

Farms and agricultural businesses in particular stand to benefit from the reliable, high-speed Internet access promised by Valley Telecommunications’ ReConnect project.

For example, the press conference announcing the award was held at local business River Thru Agriculture Services, which sells seed and chemicals. The company could use the faster broadband speeds to conduct operations more efficiently, USDA said in a blog post.

USDA also shared the story of a local insurance company, explaining how better Internet access enabled by the ReConnect grant could help the business:

Local business woman Jeralynn Andersen shared that access to broadband will give her insurance office in Arlington the opportunity to provide growth and efficiency by connecting with customers and providing information for them in situations when her office is closed. . . With the broadband expansion, Jeralynn will have the ability to pull a farmers file from home and provide the information her customers need without waiting until a week day.

USDA continues to announce awards for other round one ReConnect applicants. In the meantime, ReConnect round two will give providers a second shot at an additional $550 million in grant and loan funding. USDA will accept applications for this round from January 31 to March 16, 2020.

Photo credit USDA NRCS South Dakota [Public domain]