It’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit on a February morning in Lander, and Tara Friday climbs into a manhole to thread fiber optic cable through plastic conduit. After a few days of sub-zero temperatures, today’s conditions are more manageable for working outside.
Friday is a fiber technician for Wind River Internet, a broadband provider owned by the Northern Arapaho tribe. Despite shifts that can stretch past 6 p.m., the occasionally bitter cold snaps and injuries ranging from broken thumbs to baseball-sized lumps on her knees, she’s happy with her work. “As long as it’s for my people, it’s worth it,” Friday said. “It’s something for my kids to be proud of me for.”
The Wind River Internet fiber crew, all Arapaho tribal members, have been working at a breakneck pace for the past few years — digging tunnels, connecting fiber to towers and setting up the gray boxes that allow residents to get online.
“Most of the private providers, they say they want to come out and help. But in reality, they’re businesses and you want to go where the population density is, and it’s just not there on the reservation,” Wind River Internet Executive Manager Patrick Lawson said. Because the return on investment wasn’t enticing enough for private industry to expand service to the reservation, the Northern Arapaho Tribe became its own provider.
Powell did something similar. In the 2000s, the city — population roughly 6,300 — issued a bond and built out its own broadband infrastructure.
“We took care of ourselves decades ago,” said Zach Thorington, Powell city administrator. The city rents out the infrastructure to internet service providers, and if developers want to build a new subdivision in the city, they must install fiber along with other basic utilities like water and electric lines.
But local initiatives alone haven’t been enough to close Wyoming’s digital divide. Wyoming is at the bottom of the list for access to affordable fast internet, according to a report from the Broadband Now.
Increasing access to high-speed internet has been a focus of economic development efforts by Gov. Mark Gordon, and his predecessor Matt Mead.
In 2018 Wyoming began to ramp up broadband efforts, when the Legislature passed Senate File 100. The bill set aside $10 million to fund broadband expansion projects. But the grants went largely untouched because eligibility was limited to public/private partnerships, and, some argued, there wasn’t enough money on the table to get private providers on board.
Now the sluggish and piecemeal nature of Wyoming’s broadband expansion is poised to change. An influx of federal funds has sped up the process; and larger internet service providers are now competing to build out service in rural and less profitable areas. Additional funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, may finally provide households and businesses across the state a chance to connect.
In 2020, the Wyoming Business Council received $100 million in CARES funding for a broadband expansion initiative. The business council ultimately approved 37 applications totalling roughly $86 million. The federal dollars required projects be completed by the end of 2020, forcing some providers to return funds or decline grants.
Some 12,421 homes and 612 businesses were connected to broadband service through the deployment of CARES act funding, according to the Wyoming Business Council.
“Last year’s CARES [Act funds] just felt like an amazing opportunity to really bring broadband to nooks and crannies that weren’t going to get that attention otherwise,” Stacie McDonald, the public relations officer for Visionary Broadband, said. Visionary, a 28-year-old company based in Gillette, completed roughly $17 million worth of projects in 77 business days, according to McDonald.
The company hired furloughed workers to complete the project. “Pretty soon we had a bunch of oilfield dudes smoking and joking in our parking lot,” McDonald said. “And it was just the most Wyoming thing ever.”
Wind River Internet also received CARES funding. The company had a total of 30 people working on the CARES-funded project, said Lawson, the executive manager. It’s applying for additional funding through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Lawson anticipates that if they receive the funding, “It really is going to connect everything on the reservation. Literally every last last drop,” he said.
More funding coming, regulations up in the air
Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, anticipates forthcoming ARPA funds allocated to broadband will be used to unlock even more federal funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “We’re sort of playing chess so that we can get as much money as possible for the state in broadband,” said Dorrell. The language in the House ARPA funding bill currently reflects that strategy.
Freed from the stringent public/private partnership and fund-matching requirements that accompanied state dollars, companies have been able to accomplish far more on tight timelines with federal funds, according to industry representatives.
“Ultimately, they’re on the hook for federal dollars. So they gotta make sure that they’re delivering what they say,” Dorrell said. “What we found is providers in Wyoming are pretty darn trustworthy.”
The Federal Communications Commission announced in July it was taking steps to tighten eligibility for federal funds “in light of complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas.” In January, the FCC released its “Rural Broadband Accountability Plan,” which included ramping up audits of grant recipients and releasing publicly available reports on providers’ progress.
In Wyoming, lawmakers discussed regulation of ARPA allocations for broadband in a Feb. 22 House Appropriations Committee meeting. “We don’t have an agency that regulates broadband, we need to do that,” Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) said.
“While it’s heavily subsidized, it’s unregulated,” according to Ryan Kudera, former Wyoming broadband manager for the Wyoming Business Council.
Competition is on
The House’s first draft of Wyoming’s ARPA broadband allocations explicitly encouraged providers to over-build infrastructure across the state. Some industry lobbyists objected to the language.
“The pie is very small in Wyoming, so the moment you have local governments starting to compete against industry, it becomes a disincentive for investment,” a Charter Communications lobbyist said at an appropriations meeting. Charter won roughly $1.2 billion in federal funds.
McDonald with Visionary doesn’t consider overbuilding to be a problem: Federal funds can serve as a wake-up call to a company that’s been hesitant to expand or improve their service. “It increases competition, and it makes everybody work a little harder to offer a better network to people on your service,” McDonald said.
While the Legislature is still ironing out dollar allocations and regulations, communities in Wyoming are starting to see the benefits of broadband expansion efforts. More places are experiencing the benefits that Powell did decades ago.
Back in Fremont County on the below-freezing morning, standing outside on a job site at the Lander branch of the Central Wyoming College, Tara Friday talks about the communities she and her team have provided with internet access. People in Ethete have access to fast WiFi. They’re wrapping up in Fort Washakie and in Arapahoe too.
Even her grandmother, who is 78, used her newly installed WiFi to watch Friday’s daughter play basketball one evening.
Her mission is simple. “Let’s get it in, and let’s get it in right, because it’s ours,” she said.
Tennessee Watson and Joel Funk contributed reporting.