Tara Friday, a fiber technician for Wind River Internet, unfurls cable outside of the Lander branch of Central Wyoming College in February 2022. (Sofia Jeremias/WyoFile)

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

“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, Visionary Broadband

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. 

Funding bonanza 

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.” 

Patrick Lawson, Executive Manager of Wind River Internet, works inside the plant service locator at the Lander branch of Central Wyoming College. (Sofia Jeremias/WyoFile)

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. 

Sofia Jeremias reports on healthcare, education and the economy in Wyoming. She received her master's degree from the Columbia Journalism School and previously reported on the West for Deseret News.

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  1. There’s one very important keyword and concept totally missing from this article and the circumspect discussion about building out broadband in rural Wyoming:

    SpaceX’s revolutionary low orbit satellite broadband system was created just for places like Wyoming, where vast empty tracts of geography and low population preclude any company from providing pricey fiber optic, cable , or even wireless towers to reach that ranch up the creek at the end of the two track dirt road.
    As we saw in Ukraine this week, and the Pacific island nation of Tonga the week before, or the isolated Innuit fishing and whaling villages in Alaska for the past two years. Starlionk is a godsend for broadband where none was before , or was destroyed by disasters and warcraft.

    I know people near my town of Cody who have been utterly disserved by the likes of the Century-Link telephonic dinosaur , or any of the other legacy 20th century telecom providers who rely on rapidly obsoescent copper wires and aging fiber optic runs. What century is it you are coming from , Century Link ? We live in the 21st century now.
    I also have friends who are already using StarLink , and they all love it. They got in early during the beta test phase of the satellite service rollout, and now are fully enrolled in commercial service … which by the way keeps getting faster, broader, and more reliable as SpaceX lofts more satellites. They launched 48 more satellites an hour ago…

    Three years ago this coming August I initailly contacted the fledgling Wyoming Broadband Initiative’s newly hired director , Ryan Kudera. I was polite at first trying to sell him on StarLink, which at that time was still in its infancy. He wasn’t interested at all. As time went on I would bring StarLink back to his attention as the service got better, emphasizing that Wyoming should go all in on StarLink and offer to incentivize ground stations being placed here. I provided specific details on those installations, again emphasizing that StarLink was tailor made for Wyoming’s rural connectivity demand. Kudera still wasn’t interested. Last year after StarLink was proven to be faster than most metro cable internet here in Wyoming, Kudera finally admitted it should be in the mix, but would not give it equivocation with those copper and fiber dinosaurs he was so willing to bankroll.
    Fast forward to 2022 , and StarLink is out of beta and rolling out service globally…. 2100 satellites currently in orbit and a few thousand more to come. Download speeds are now over 300 Mbps, uploads are north of 50Mbs, and the all important ping time ( latency ) is the same as my Spectrum cable in downtown Cody …. but StarLink is three times faster !!!
    What is really frustrating is there is now a 2 year waiting list for new customers to get terminals, thanks to huge demand and the global chip shortage. Ryan Kudera and the State of Wyoming totally blew the opportunity to get in on the ground floor ahead of the tech curve for once, and make StarLink available to our rural resident. Totally blew it off because they were so beholden to the legacy providers of last century tech. Politics. Sheesh….
    Follow the money. It costs $ 30,000 per mile to lay fiber optic, and involes a heckuva lot of legal work and physical labor and truckloads of hardware. A 5G cell tower while providing faster phone speeds doesn’t have the range of 4G, but the towers can cost $ 500,000 per. Don’t even get me going on the plain old phone comay’s ancient copper wire DSL broadband service, because it is not longer considered broadband in thisd ay and age , but still costs a lot. Starlink terminals on the other hand cost $ 1000 up front and the service is $ 100 / month. For the cost of one mile of fiber laid, Wyoming could have bought 30 StarLink terminals

    Wyoming should be fully enrolled in StarLink by now. But …it …is …NOT . Because Wyoming always finds a reason to get in its own way.

    I tried. Wyoming wanted nothing to do with StarLink when they had the chance, and is barely lukewarm to it now. We be dumb…

  2. I am just a concerned woman asking Wyoming to research the harm of electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetic frequencies emitted by wifi and smart phones, smart meters are doing to living bodies of humans and animals. We were looking to move into WY because you seemed smarter by not falling for that health risk trap. Listen to the people of other areas who have suffered seriously and permanent damage to their bodies natural electrical system which our brains and heart use the most energy and are the most affected. Please listen to the people harmed after their elected officials put profit before their people’s health in their area even after complaints of headaches, Dizziness, nausea, trouble sleeping, anxiety, irritability, painful ringing in the ears is how it’s affecting us. You can look at Weston A. Price Foundation who have listened to others including people who worked/installed these services to ‘five g’ reporting the truth from those who noticed harme since implementing ‘upgrades’ in their fed. funding which people would rather not trade their health for ‘funding’. Please, life is more important than funded technology which has proven harmful to the living including birds, in the air with the wifi and worms , and ‘protected snakes’, etc in the ground with the cables. Research for yourself before damage is done.