Rural broadband lessons from South Dakota

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Community broadband or bust – what does Mississippi Mills have in common with Mitchell, South Dakota?

by Nathan Rudyk

Mitchell, a community of 15,000 on the plains of South Dakota, is the center of a region that has lost 30% of its population over the past 70 years. It’s not unlike the situation around Mississippi Mills, where the Upper Canada School Board recently made the tough decision to close 12 elementary schools (Pakenham’s school thankfully avoided the latest cut through successful lobbying by parents and municipal staff and politicians).

Mitchell managed to carve out a sharply different destiny by embracing high-speed Internet infrastructure, just as Mississippi Mills Council decided to do this week by writing a letter in support of a citizen-led “Broadband Working Group” application for a share of the $500 million Federal Connect to Innovate program.

Taking advantage of a similar U.S. Federal broadband stimulus program, Mitchell has developed a fibre-to-the-premise network serving every business and residence. It has leveraged its agricultural heritage into academic leadership in precision agriculture, in which farmers use satellite and remote sensing data to develop a highly detailed portrait of their land and apply that knowledge to boost yields.

As part of a strategic plan called “Focus 2020” (coincidentally, our Town’s broadband initiative flies under the banner of “MM2020”), local government, business, primary and secondary schools and a major hospital promote digital literacy and supply a highly trained workforce that is in increasing demand by area businesses. These include growing software companies, data centers, customer service centers and communications consulting firms attracted by Mitchell’s high-speed network.

Because of its focus on broadband, Mitchell has held onto its population and is establishing a new era of prosperity. The sheer intensity of its broadband investment, coupled with an effective plan to leverage its other economic assets, has made this rural community a meaningful node in the global broadband economy despite the relatively small size of its population. Its entrepreneurs and youth well understand that they don’t have to leave for the big city to participate in the 21st century economy.

What our community can learn from Mitchell’s success is that a municipal commitment to broadband must embrace every corner of the community for the municipality to succeed. Our Broadband Working Group has determined that without a similarly strategic approach, high-speed Internet providers such as Bell and Rogers will service the “low-hanging fruit” of densely populated areas, but leave rural parts of our community unserviced.

That’s not acceptable. Our rural residents have just as much right to prosper from broadband access – whether that’s to equip a farmer’s daughter with the technologies to keep her Dad’s operation profitable, or to enable her brother to pursue online courses in digital animation that allow him to supply Montreal and Toronto gaming companies with his creative talent from the very same farmhouse.

To that end, as part of the MM2020 effort, our Broadband Working Group is reaching out to technology partners willing to extend “last mile fibre” to every part of our community, not just the densely populated neighbourhood streets.

If established Internet providers can’t or won’t “step up” to build this community-critical infrastructure, one way to fill the gap may be through a private-public partnership. There is a precedent for such partnerships in our Town. Our early 1900s investment in hydro generation and distribution assets returned $381,000 to our Town’s coffers in 2016 (the amount varies year to year depending on maintenance costs of the infrastructure) and helps keep a lid on hydro costs that have skyrocketed in other parts of Ontario.

Unlike Mitchell before it invested in its own broadband initiative, Mississippi Mills is fortunate not to be shrinking. While to the rural West of us there is an all-too-typical hollowing out, to the urban East just 30 kms away, we have the economic dynamism of Kanata North’s $7.1 billion tech engine. To attract new families of knowledge-based workers who work there, and (more importantly) companies to relocate here, and offer our children 21st century opportunities to prosper in today’s increasingly technology-enabled careers, we must seize the moment to build our broadband future.