By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
In this modern, high-tech world, access to the internet is essential. Whether it’s for streaming movies or doing homework, it’s almost impossible to live or work without broadband.
But in Wyoming, urban areas and solid wi-fi signals are few and far between. So the Wyoming Business Council is working hard to bridge the gap.
“I think a lot of Wyoming – I don’t think that there’s a lack of service entirely, but it’s underserved,” said Kristin Fong, Northwest Regional Director for the Wyoming Business Council. “So we’re a little slower, maybe, than other areas across the United States. And broadband is needed in order to grow businesses, in order to compete with other states that are making waves and growing constantly.”
Fong pointed out that because more and more people are working remotely and because schools are relying more heavily on internet-based applications, there has been an increased demand for broadband service.
“I mean, I’m on the internet all day long,” she said, “whether it be looking on your phone for directions on how to get somewhere, or checking your emails. And so for schools and teachers, educators, and college students, obviously, that’s a huge need, especially when classrooms are working remotely or hybrid.
“But we’re seeing a huge influx of people moving to the state, and they’re able to work remotely,” she continued. “And so, depending on where they want to live, there’s obviously a need for them to be able to access broadband. There’s huge demand, as much demand as there is for housing.”
Several companies around the state are working to address that demand. TCT West, based in the small town of Basin, has led the charge in northern Wyoming to increase access to broadband signals.
Richard Wardell, Executive Director for TCT West, said TCT has moved past the traditional copper wiring to fiber optics, which increases upload and download speeds exponentially.
“Where we offer fiber services, we have gigabit and potentially even multiple gigabit speeds capable,” he said. “And so we’re at that paradigm shift of moving from the old technology of copper, transitioning to fiber, which means when we move to that direction, we’re able to deliver gigabit and above to those customers that can touch the fiber.”
Wardell noted that with fiber optics, distance is not an issue, which is important in a state where communities lie miles apart.
“In the DSL (digital subscriber line) days, if you’re over 4,000 feet from the electronics, you basically would be considered underserved by today’s standards, because you can’t receive at least 25 (megabytes per second download) by 3 (mbps upload),” he said. “But distance changes all that with fiber. And so now, if we can get fiber to your home, we can provide 100 by 100 very easily. And the gigabit is all kind of all the same at that point.”
Wardell pointed out that TCT is working hard to expand that service – even in remote locations such as Ten Sleep, Hyattville and Manderson.
In 2019, TCT was awarded a federal government contract through the “Connect America” program to expand broadband services to homes in rural areas in north-central Wyoming.
“Recently with a ‘Connect Wyoming’ build we (took fiber optics to homes) between Manderson and Worland,” Wardell said. “We have some fiber services in Basin and in Greybull, and we did a big build in Shell. Also portions of Lovell, we did quite a bit of work in Cowley, and we took services from Deaver towards Powell.”
The Wyoming Business Council, in recognizing the need for greater access to internet service in this primarily rural state, has come up with a way for residents to be their own advocates.
“So, we’ve got a Broadband Advisory Council, which is a group of local community leaders spread around the state weighing in on how that looks, and where we need the service,” Fong said. “And they’ve put together a very cool, very useful tool, so that we get a better understanding of what service looks like in all of the places that we’re using broadband. It’s getting the evidence that we need in order to prove the need.”
The speed test, which can be found on the Business Council’s website, allows residents to submit the internet speed at their particular location. Fong said that the data allows the Business Council to prioritize where to focus their efforts on advocating for more access to broadband signals for residents and businesses around Wyoming.
“I think the key is to take the speed test really frequently, at different times of day and in different locations,” she said. “You can take it on your laptop at home, you can take it on your tablet, while you’re trying to watch movies at night, you take it when you’re at school, trying to do classwork, and take it at your place of business.
“Take it as many times as you can in as many locations as you can,” she continued. “If we can take measurements of what that service looks like across the state, then we’ll have a better idea of where we need to pinpoint and where we need to increase activity.”
Wardell added that the expansion of high-speed internet service to more rural locations is a draw for younger people to move to Wyoming.
“Without internet, you’re not going to attract young families that have the ability to telecommute and telehealth,” he said. “You’re not going to attract people, if you don’t have the ability to have broadband. And so if you look at attracting businesses, attracting families, broadband plays a key role in all of that.”
In 2021, the website WhistleOut.com reported that Wyoming saw a 62.6 percent increase in average internet speed across the state.
But the work to blanket the state in high-speed, reliable internet access continues, according to Fong.
“If we’re in a small town like Meeteetse, and the school superintendent is telling me that they can’t be checking their email from their home at the same time that their child is trying to zoom class, that’s really important information to gather and to bring back to Cheyenne,” she said.