PIERRE | Don and Becky Bergeson are only a 15-minute drive from South Dakota's capitol building. Over the course of the six-mile drive, the landscape transforms from Pierre's small-town atmosphere to rural, sprawling prairies punctuated by ranch homes and dirt roads.
The Bergesons love it here; it's quiet and private, but close enough to town to grab a gallon of milk when you run out. But despite being close to everyday conveniences like Walmart, they didn't until this week have reliable access to high-speed internet.
On Tuesday night, that changed. The Bergesons' home is one of more than 330 in the area to be hooked up to Venture Communications Cooperative's new high-speed network, as part of the Connect South Dakota initiative.
When Gov. Kristi Noem first proposed the $5 million state-funded grant program in her State of the State and budget address in January, homes like the Bergesons' were the type she described: Far enough out of reach from town centers' networks but not secluded enough to qualify for some rural internet programs provided by the federal government.
On Wednesday, Noem appeared with the Bergesons and representatives of Venture Communications to celebrate the Hughes County project, which is one of eight leveraged by the state this year. Venture Communications' site received about $2.8 million.
The grant program — passed into the state fiscal year 2020 budget by the Legislature in March — utilizes public-private partnerships with communications companies in order to fund the projects. Rod Kusser, a member services manager for Venture, said Wednesday that without the state dollars the company couldn't have brought internet into the Hughes County project site.
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"I can tell you now we wouldn't be here without (the grant)," Kusser said. "The numbers just wouldn't have worked."
Noem said Wednesday that thanks to the grant program, South Dakota is also now eligible for more federal dollars for rural broadband.
"For a little bit of state commitment, you can multiply that and impact so many more people," she said. "That's really the type of stuff that makes sense and that South Dakota has to take advantage of if we're going to modernize and really keep up with the rest of the world."
Other areas benefiting from this year's grants are the East River counties of Dewey, Davison, Codington, Clay, Union, Minnehaha and Moody.
It is undecided whether the grants will be funded again in fiscal 2021. Noem said that her administration will continue focusing on rural broadband, but "this has been a tough year revenue-wise" thanks to ongoing severe weather, less crop planting and lower sales tax collections so far.