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USDA to fund broadband access in rural South Dakota

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The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment, with Lori Walsh.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun taking applications for funding to expand broadband Internet access in rural areas across the country, including South Dakota.

USDA made the funding available under the ReConnect Program, which also received new funding under President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Rural Development South Dakota State Director Nikki Gronli said she has been conducting listening sessions in rural communities like Fort Thompson, McLaughlin and Lake Andes to determine community needs in rural areas.

"We're looking at those communities that are historically underserved, maybe haven’t been accessing any of the programs of rural development, and we’re looking for those community leaders to hear from them and connect them to programs,” Gronli said.

She added the broadband program would make broadband more accessible in places that are hard to get to or would require expensive installations of equipment.

The program will also focus on getting Internet access to rural students, both in their homes and schools. Many schools in remote locations or on tribal lands faced challenges during COVID because students did not have Internet access at home to complete schoolwork.

"That’s when we heard the stories about kids who are sitting in the parking lot of the high school to try to access the Wi-Fi, because they didn’t have it at home,” Gronli said.

The State of South Dakota also has its own broadband program. Gov. Kristi Noem launched Connect SD Broadband during COVID to bring more Internet access to homes and business across the state.

These two programs, however, cover different areas of need. Connect SD covers a wider selection of locations and critical access areas, while the ReConnect Program focuses on isolated, rural areas in America.

Though Biden’s infrastructure law has been met with political pushback, Gronli said she has not seen much disapproval of the ReConnect Program.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” she said. “This has to do with serving our state and the people.”

Applications for telecommunication companies are open until Nov. 2. Gronli added that community members should reach out to their telecom providers about the application, as well.

"If you’re someone who’s been in an area that’s underserved, reaching out to your telecom saying, ‘Hey, are you guys applying for this? Is there any chance we can be a part of this?’ is really important,” she said.

Jordan is a senior English and journalism major at SDSU in Brookings. She is from De Smet, South Dakota. She is based out of the Sioux Falls studio.