Lack of broadband in rural areas causes difficult situations to become dangerous

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 10:34 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - On Sunday we told you how the Black Hills’ poor broadband infrastructure is affecting businesses in the area.

Now we’re looking at the issue from a public safety perspective, how it impacts first responders and how it can keep you from reaching 911.

If you’ve tried streaming music or making a call while driving down Highway 385, you’ve probably had the same experience as most of us: You can’t.

While that’s a first-world problem, it is important for quality of life, especially as the hills become more populated.

A lack of cell phone coverage isn’t just an issue on Highway 385. Right now, if you were to be standing in the middle of the Black Hills and you had an emergency, with the lack of cell phone coverage, you’d be out of luck and 911 would not be an option.

Silver City is one small community where wireless services do not have reach. The town’s Fire Chief, Phil Schlief, says that while other fire departments can rely on cellular data to access satellite maps, his firefighters don’t have that luxury. “It’s much more difficult without connectivity. We do download the maps to a tablet in our trucks and can pull that up, but it’s slow and it’s not always accurate.”

Without decent broadband, not only are emergency workers slower to respond, it is also harder for those in distress to notify authorities when they need help.

“A year ago, we had a side-by-side accident down in a valley, and those people hiked 25 minutes to get a cell phone signal,” said Schlief. “Your cell phone has to make that connection to a tower, and if you’re not making that connection, you’re not going to get to 911 either.”

In the meantime, the fire chief says they’ll have to continue trucking on, with or without broadband. “It’s just something that we’ve dealt and move forward. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we’ll be jumping into the 21st century.”

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