Groundbreaking marks start of ‘virtual broadband highway’

No visible construction will follow a groundbreaking ceremony held at Vermillion High School Thursday.

Workers won't begin laying the foundation for a new addition to the school building, or an expansion of the high school's outdoor track.

The ceremony marks the beginning of the groundwork for the ultimate building of what Vermillion Mayor Jack Powell describes as an invisible virtual broadband highway.

SDN Communications of Sioux Falls broke ground Sept. 9 at VHS on Project Connect South Dakota – a $25 million effort that will bring increased broadband access to 305 hospitals, schools, government facilities and public safety offices in more than 75 South Dakota communities.

Thursday's celebratory event marks the start of work in Vermillion, the second community to benefit from the construction. SDN started work in Rapid City last month.  

The entire project will add 359 miles of new fiber-optic cable and will be completed by December 2012. Beyond Vermillion and Rapid City, SDN will begin fiber construction in Watertown yet this year.

"The broadband connection is an important teaching tool. In a world that has become smaller and flatter, connectivity to other schools and to the World Wide Web prepares our students for anything," Superintendent Mark Froke said at Thursday's ceremony.  "Maybe most importantly, it prepares our community so that we can have an economy that can compete and allow our young people to remain here."

SDN was selected in December 2009 to receive a $20 million grant as part of the Department of Commerce's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The company will contribute an additional $5 million to the project.

SDN was likely the first company in the nation to begin construction on the BTOP initiative. SDN's application was one of the nation's first 18 funded, making it among the top 1 percent of the telecom companies receiving an award.

"I think it's appropriate that we're here at Vermillion High School, with the campus of USD being down the street. Bandwidth and connectivity at USD rivals that of any other campus across the country," said Jim Edman, director of the South Dakota Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.

He noted that use of broadband and the internet across the state and across the world "has just exploded" over the past few years, and that services such as distance learning, research, and business use of the internet require high-speed broadband access.

"For South Dakota to be able to compete in the 21st century for our global markets and the economies that are coming, we have to have high speed broadband access, not just in our larger metropolitan areas," Edman said, "but equally, and more importantly, in our smaller, more rural communities across South Dakota."

"There is nothing better to see a South Dakota community grow and succeed, especially when the benefits go directly to our citizens," Powell said. "The growth of SDN, along with its owner companies, the independent telephone companies of South Dakota, have put our state on the digital map."

Powell noted that describing the benefits of the virtual broadband highway being constructed by SDN can be difficult "because it is invisible to us. It all goes underground. It is also mysterious because it is hard for many of us to imagine that what we type on a screen, what we say on a cell phone, what we shoot on a camera – all of this can be instantly condensed down to bits and bytes and then delivered through a fiber line the thickness of a human hair in a split second to virtually anywhere in the world.

"This thin line will be more life changing to our community than any other partnership we have had with the federal government because it delivers the world to us and it delivers us to the world," the mayor said.  

"In Vermillion, we'll be touching the Clay County Courthouse, the Vermillion High School, some of the other public schools in town, along with Sanford Vermillion Hospital," Mark Shlanta, chief executive officer of SDN Communications, said before Thursday's ceremony. "I believe there are a few other sites in Vermillion we'll be touching as well. We have a presence already at the University of South Dakota, and now we're looking at health care, public safety, state and federal government facilities – those are types of facilities we'll touching, and those will be the buildings in Vermillion we'll be connecting with this project."

SDN Communications, he said, offers services designed to serve large enterprises, such as government entities, businesses and health care facilities, rather than individual homes.

"We are owned by the independent phone companies in the state of South Dakota, so we started as a way to aggregate some advance services for the phone companies to offer in their markets, and we've begun to take those services to larger enterprises and state government over the last 12 to 15 years," Shlanta said.

SDN Communications is currently hard at work to get as much fiber buried underground as possible before winter sets in.

"Over the course of the winter, the connections that we're placing right now will be 'lit.' Many of those facilities will go into service over the course of the spring of next year, and really be into service for up to 20 years into the future providing high-speed connectivity," he said.

Even though SDN's services are designed with government institutions and larger businesses in mind, people throughout the state, Shlanta said, will be impacted positively by the improvements that are in store.

"Citizens across South Dakota will be the beneficiaries as Project Connect South Dakota brings better service to many of the entities state residents regularly rely on," he said.

From a public safety standpoint the project will, for example, allow law enforcement agencies across the state to one day arraign prisoners via a video link.

"That will free up a deputy's time. As time goes on, we'll be able to have more of those types of services available, freeing up county resources and hopefully taking a bit of stress off of county budgets," Shlanta said. "I think another application we'll be able to see will be a greater distribution of telemedicine resources across the state, allowing practitioners in some of the smallest markets in our state access to on-demand video connections with some of the specialists in some of the state's larger population centers.

"Those are types of things that South Dakota citizens will begin to see, frankly, over the next few months," he said.

"These advanced technologies will not only improve services to taxpayers at all levels of local government," Powell said. "It will also deliver a bigger broadband backbone to Vermillion, providing a new economic attraction to businesses interested in locating here."

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