When a young woman wanted to turn a love of fashion into a gainful career, she didn’t have to leave South Dakota’s landscape for New York’s cityscapes. She could start her business here and sell nationwide with just the click of a mouse.
The internet is a powerful tool, connecting small businesses to their customers, doctors to their patients, students to their professors, and curious minds to the world. Despite tremendous strides in recent years, however, many in rural South Dakota still lack adequate access. And even for those who do have access, the challenge becomes keeping service affordable and in line with industry standards.
Part of the challenge is the expense of servicing rural consumers. In large communities, dozens of families can be connected with every mile of cable, but in some areas of South Dakota, the population density falls to just two people per square mile. With the goal of offering internet connectivity to everyone, rural broadband providers receive support through the Universal Service Fund (USF), a self-sustaining account that does not require taxpayer dollars. This support helps compensate for higher costs so they can offer people more affordable rates.
Until very recently, however, USF support was only offered for customers who purchased traditional phone service and internet access together, which is why bundling services was often cheaper than stand-alone internet. The arrangement didn’t make sense in the 21st Century. After significant pressure from me and others, the rules were updated, but challenges remain in making sure they are implemented properly.
Unfortunately, internet access isn’t the only communications challenge facing rural South Dakota. Companies in the business of routing voice calls sometimes purposefully drop long-distance calls headed for rural areas as a means to save money. Maybe you’ve experienced this at some point. While even the sheer inconvenience of it is inexcusable, some of these calls involve emergencies, leaving rural families in an unnecessarily dangerous situation.
To address this issue, I’ve helped introduce H.R.460, the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act. Among other things, this legislation would require companies to abide by basic call completion standards. The House of Representatives passed the bill in January. I’m hopeful we’ll see the Senate act soon, so we can better ensure calls are no longer dropped just because the person on the other end lives in rural South Dakota.
Young people should never feel as though they need to leave South Dakota in search of opportunity. Even in the most rural parts of the state, people should be able to stream movies and TV, participate in interactive classroom discussions, access world-class health care, and even start a new business that hires locally but operates globally. By keeping the channels of communication open, all of this is possible with the click of a mouse.