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. 

A graphic from a recent Wyoming Business Council Broadband Office listening session outlines the timeline for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. (Screenshot/Wyoming Business Council)

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. 

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. It seems that the Wyoming senators would rather follow their ideology rather than help its citizens. Maybe they would feel better if Wyoming paid for their internet structures? Maybe pay for interstate highways too? Bite one hand to spite the other?

  2. Whadda bunch of hypocrites conservatives truly are. Wyoming would dry up and blow away without all those federal dollars, paid in taxes on working people…in other states. The state has, for decades, gotten back far more fed dollars than it paid in. Some folks would call that welfare.

    1. Harvey. It not just Wyoming but Feds are and have been pumping BILLIONS of dollar’s into all 50 states to keep economies going. PPP was free money for thousands of businesses that didn’t need it. Vaccines were billions pumped into economy. Why do you think we have inflation. Now they getting ready to pump more money into Ag side to the poor farmers/ranchers. Hang on more inflation coming

    2. I’m happy to read about the restrictions and targeted planning to make sure the project proceeds as planned and should actually reach the problem areas.

      I do know installing the fiber optic lines is extensive! For once in a very long time, the investment is designed to help people at the bottom of the food chain!

      But, again, VERY disappointing that our senators vote against the needs of our state, but sure are happy to grab the money. I hope the restrictions can keep them from dishing it out to their friends.

      1. Give it time. If there is any way the welfare ranchers can get their hands on more federal money, they’ll do it. And they’ll complain about federal money while it pays for their livelihood.

  3. The BEAD program sounds, at first, like a good idea – but, like other similar programs such as BIP and BTOP before it, is implemented by NTIA in a way that will waste money and in many cases do more harm than good. It discriminates against the most cost-effective technologies that could be used to serve Wyoming, and also against small, in-state businesses (in favor of large, out-of-state corporations). In many cases, it funds redundant overbuilding – that is, building networks in areas that are already served while neglecting one’s that aren’t. And it’s ripe for fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, the Wyoming Business Council, seeing only dollar signs, is not working to correct these problems. The result: the program will harm Wyoming while bringing broadband primarily to the well heeled owners of “prairie mansions” who need no assistance in obtaining broadband. A shame.