An infusion of nearly $350 million in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could grow high-speed internet access and affordability in Wyoming while helping the state keep pace with rising broadband demand, officials say.
U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) voted against the 2021 legislation citing its price tag for roads, bridges, water pipes, broadband and other projects. Other Republican officials from rural states, however, are embracing the influx of federal dollars aimed at broadband. That includes Gov. Mark Gordon, who has made increasing access to high-speed internet a focus of economic development.
“Wyoming has been dedicated to bridging the rural digital gap,” Gordon said in a tweet. “We will distribute this federal funding with a goal of ensuring our communities and businesses are able to develop the modern infrastructure they need to access critical services.”
More than 39,200 homes and small businesses in Wyoming still lack access to a high-speed internet connection, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. High-speed internet is not just necessary for modern daily tasks like streaming movies or shopping online. Gordon has called it essential for Wyoming’s future.
“Not only does broadband give our students a tool to compete with the rest of the world, it is necessary for healthcare delivery — especially in rural areas where other specialized doctors are not available,” Gordon said in his first State of the State Address. “Advancements in [broadband technology] improve the quality of life in Wyoming, solve complex challenges, create jobs and will allow entrepreneurs and established businesses to see even our smallest towns as fertile ground to grow a company.”
The money is the latest chunk of change from the federal government meant to improve internet speed and accessibility in Wyoming. In February, the U.S. Department of Treasury awarded the state $70.5 million to fund a project to connect an estimated 11,700 homes and businesses. Similar to that particular funding, Wyoming’s allocation from the infrastructure bill will be awarded through competitive grants, known as the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program.
“We’re optimistic about the next few years as we are able to utilize various federal funds, starting with [the Treasury Department award], then leading into the Federal Digital Equity Program and the [BEAD] program,” Elaina Zempel, broadband manager for the business council, said in a February press release. “All these opportunities will bring several hundred million dollars in infrastructure development to Wyoming to grow our local capacity in a very crucial area.”
This time is different
Despite 2018 legislation meant to boost broadband efforts in Wyoming, it was federal funds that sped up the process in 2020 when the Wyoming Business Council received $100 million in CARES Act relief funding for a broadband expansion initiative. That funding connected roughly 13,000 homes and businesses to broadband service, according to the business council.
But this latest round of funding is different from past federally supported efforts aimed at improving broadband, according to Justin Cooper with BroadbandNow, a research and advocacy organization. For one, the program prioritizes building fiber-optic networks, which consist of thin strands of glass that enable data to be transmitted as pulses of light. Fiber — unlike copper lines, existing phone networks or other cables — “is really the only technology that has a chance of being future-proofed,” Cooper said, pointing to its ability to handle increased broadband demand, which has been doubling every three or so years.
Despite this superiority, building out fiber networks has lagged in rural areas. Fewer than 11% of Wyoming residents have access to fiber-optic service, according to BroadbandNow research. The high cost of building fiber networks — which usually involves digging up the ground — has led private internet providers to prioritize urban areas, Cooper said, where they stand the greatest chance of getting a return on their investment.
“This is really the first time we’ve taken a concerted effort at the national level to deploy this historic amount of funding specifically for, or at least, prioritizing these fiber backhaul networks,” Cooper said.
Public input and planning
A second critical distinction of the BEAD program, Cooper said, is its state-centric approach. Wyoming, for example, is required to craft a plan using extensive public input and will need federal approval before the money is distributed.
Previous efforts have taken a more hands-off approach, Cooper said, “where a lot of the programs over the past 10 years have looked like, ‘Let’s just give this lump sum of money to any provider that wants it with the stated goal of just improving connectivity across the U.S.’”
The idea, Cooper said, is to ensure rural areas and other underserved populations aren’t left out of the equation.
While states’ readiness will play a substantial role in the ability to effectively deploy the funding, “the success of the program also will depend on local and tribal governments’ capacity to participate in the implementation,” according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, a public policy nonprofit.
In June, Gordon along with Barrasso and Lummis hosted a four-day summit to help local governments, nonprofits and other organizations navigate the complicated and labor-intensive process of securing and administering federal support.
Additionally, the Wyoming Business Council Broadband Office hosted several in-person and virtual listening sessions to gather public input ahead of submitting its requisite five-year plan for BEAD funding. That plan is due next month. Another more comprehensive proposal is due at the end of 2023.
“Our Wyoming team is working with internet service providers, communities, businesses, and partners to better understand where broadband is and isn’t and we’re focused on ensuring reliable, high-speed connections in all corners of the state,” according to the broadband office website, where stakeholders are encouraged to complete a number of surveys.