State offers matching grant program for rural Internet enhancement

By Carrie Haderlie

Wyoming Business Report

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — Imagine you’re a cattle rancher in rural Niobrara County, where only 4.3% of the population has access to broadband internet speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) or faster.

You want to trade your cattle online, but you have to go to the public library in Lusk to access internet fast enough, leaving your ranch office to make the long drive into town just for a Wi-Fi connection.

Imagine now that you’re a business on Hamilton Street in Douglas who – because of a bid from the state of Wyoming to a local company for fiber internet to the schools of Converse County School District 1 – now has access to speeds up to 250 Mbps because of infrastructure improvements in your area.

Neither of these scenarios are hypothetical. Both are happening in Wyoming.

“Access to broadband offers greater opportunities for rural Americans to participate in our nation’s economic growth,” said Brian Woody, chief customer relations officer for Union Wireless.

“Small businesses gain better access to national and global markets. Rural-based companies can compete with what have historically been urban businesses in the creative industries, such as graphic design,” Woody said. “Broadband also offers better access to education, and faster, more convenient access to health-care services that otherwise require rural residents to travel long distances to receive.”

The Broadband Advisory Council, created by a legislative mandate in 2018 to advise the Wyoming Business Council, hopes to ensure access to high-quality business and residential broadband across the state. The advisory council has oversight of a $10 million grant fund available to communities interested in expanded broadband capability. The Federal Communications Commission has established that “advanced telecommunications capability” requires access to download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.

While 79.9% of Wyomingites have access to wired broadband 25 Mbps or faster, Wyoming ranks as the 44th most connected state, according to Wyoming’s average download speed is just 17 Mbps. Niobrara County is the most underserved county in Wyoming, followed by Crook and Sublette counties.

“How can communities be open for business for broadband to come to their area?” said Stacie McDonald, director of public relations at Visionary Broadband in Gillette. “It really is a partnership and a collaboration, and it isn’t just that people want internet so a company goes in and provides it.

“There is a lot of discussion and things that go into it. There is figuring out cost, and even getting help from the Broadband Council’s funding, and those are ways to help us get into these underserved areas,” she said.

In late 2019, Brian Worthen, CEO of Visionary, was appointed to serve on the Broadband Advisory Council, which he said has taken up the mantle of serving all Wyoming residents with FCC-level service.

“Wyoming has established that $10 million fund to hand out to a provider where there is a city, a county or a joint powers board to deliver that level of broadband to underserved areas,” Worthen said. “There are two applications in for that fund right now.”

“There are a number of people on the advisory council who bring different strengths and abilities to that council,” Worthen said. “What I’m bringing is an understanding of broadband, so I can help analyze these applications, and I can help determine if this will be the best way to serve an underserved community.”

Wyoming is famously a bootstrap community. Where there’s work to be done, there’s typically someone to do it. Worthen said the culture is no different within the broadband internet community.

“Wyoming is a roll-up-your-sleeves type of environment, and we deserve this kind of stuff,” Worthen said. “We see the change that (broadband access) can generate in a small community, or even what is simply a census-designated place. We are making an impact in those areas.”

The first grant application under review by the advisory council is one from Albany County and Vistabeam to extend a fixed wireless network into the Centennial area, and to the area around Rob Roy Reservoir in Albany County. The grant request is for $196,895, with an equal match, for a project total of $393,750. The project would pass 15 businesses and 423 homes, providing broadband access or upgrades to 95% of households in the area.

The second is from Northern Arapaho Tribal Industries, doing business as Wind River Internet, and the Northern Arapaho Tribe to implement broadband infrastructure through a fiber to the premise internet protocol based system, to 849 “premises passed,” including government, education, businesses and residents within the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The proposed system would meet or exceed the FCC’s benchmark standard of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. The grant request is for $3.7 million, with a $4.4 million match, for a project total of $8.1 million. The project would pass 45 businesses and 849 homes, providing broadband access or upgrades to 100% of households in the area.

The two applications received are the first requests from the $10 million set aside in 2018, and there is no firm date for when the Business Council will vote on either, according to Noelle Reed, community development manager with the Business Council. The Broadband Advisory Council has not made a recommendation to the WBC, but staff has reviewed the applications and conducted site visits to the communities. Further clarity is needed on the application process before the Broadband Advisory Council and Business Council board vote on any awards, Reed said.

The Business Council is not alone on the learning curve – when it comes to internet access, the general public often has many questions, as well. People confuse fiber access and wireless internet. A rancher, for example, would likely have wireless service, and a school or downtown business would be much more likely to tap into the fiber infrastructure.

“There is a learning curve to getting people to understand what it will take to get broadband to a community that isn’t as accessible as some of our bigger places,” McDonald said.

The issues also extend outside Wyoming, Worthen said. He’s part of a group called INCOMPAS, or the Internet and Competitive Networks Association, a national trade group that advocates for competition policy across all networks. INCOMPAS represents internet, streaming, communications and technology companies both large and small, advocating for laws and policies that promote competition, innovation and economic development.

“It’s important to retain as many tools in our belt as possible to serve rural America,” Worthen said. “Federal money that goes to larger companies will not benefit rural America, because we all know that these larger companies don’t spend time in Douglas or Cody or Rawlins. … They don’t even spend time in Casper or Cheyenne.”

As far as the U.S. government and FCC are concerned, if a company says it offers broadband to a part of Cheyenne, all it must do is serve one customer in a census block to be considered as serving that entire census block.

“I can build service to one person north of Cheyenne, and because there are 35 other houses in that block, but I serve one, I technically serve that area,” Worthen said. “A lot of our broadband mapping is wrong, and so INCOMPAS has been spending time lobbying for better mapping.”

McDonald said the issues extend beyond simply being rural, or having slow internet.

“It’s also about being more secure, being more stable and being faster,” she said.

Worthen said he sees it as his role to help educate people about the industry as a part of the advisory council.

“It is really crazy how the business world is changing, and in order to keep pace, you have to have broadband, no matter what size business you are,” Worthen said.