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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Kaycee’s Mark Largent holds the championship trophy above his head after the Buckaroos' victory over Burlington in the Wyoming State High School Class 1A Boys Basketball Championship on Saturday at the Casper Events Center.

In Wyoming, access to high-speed internet depends on where you live

When it comes to internet, Rocky Courchaine lives in a bit of a no-man’s land.

His sleepy little town of Beulah – pop. 33 – is only 15 miles from Spearfish, South Dakota, and 19 miles from Sundance. He may as well be on the moon.

“Nobody claims us. It’s really tough,” he said recently. “We have no internet access and our phone line is iffy.”

Courchaine, the director of the Crook County Museum, has been unsuccessfully championing for better internet access for eight years, and isn’t sure it will ever improve. His problem is a common one in a state with small towns spread across big empty distances: Establishing high-speed internet is expensive.

The town of Sundance, just south of Beulah, has had access to some levels of broadband for years, and Range Telephone Cooperative is connecting the town bit by bit to fiber lines.

“The way to get broadband that will be a lasting product for everybody will be to replow the world with fiber optic cable,” said Paul Brooks, the Sundance mayor and a central office technician for Range Telephone. “The problem is money. There are a lot of routes of fiber going out to SAI, surface area interfaces, that are fed by fiber probably inevitably leaving those with fiber to go to homes, but somebody has to come up with the money.”

Connecting to high-speed internet is not just a luxury for someone eager to stream their favorite show on Netflix. It’s crucial for educators, business owners, job seekers, workers and just about anyone else in today’s world, said Tony Young, Wyoming’s chief information officer. Gov. Matt Mead believes it’s essential to attracting new businesses to the Cowboy State.

“Access to internet is the great equalizer,” Young said. “It’s the way to the future. It’s how we’re going to learn. It’s how we’re going to communicate.”

Lack of access

A person’s ability to connect to high-speed internet depends greatly on where he or she lives. Across the U.S., approximately 91 percent of urban dwellers have access to broadband while only 70 percent of those living in rural areas do, according to 2016 data presented in a Federal Communications Commission report released in February.

Even as technology advances “the barriers to Internet adoption existing in rural communities are complex and stubborn,” according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

That divide is even more stark in the mostly rural Cowboy State.

About 22 percent of all Wyomingites don’t have access to internet that meets the FCC’s standards for “high speed,” according to data from the commission’s report. About 45 percent of Wyoming residents in areas designated as rural by the U.S. Census Bureau don’t have access to high-speed service, compared to only 2 percent in urban areas, which include towns ranging in size from Casper to Kemmerer.

An FCC map of internet access in Wyoming illustrates that divide. While there aren’t any internet providers in Sublette County that meet the commission’s minimum speed standards, residents in larger towns have multiple options. In other counties, like Niobrara, access is nonexistent outside of larger towns like Lusk.

According to the report, Wyoming ranks as the state with the fifth highest rate of people without access to high-speed internet, listed behind Mississippi, Oklahoma, Montana and Arkansas.

The situation is improving for rural Wyomingites, however. In 2014, 63 percent of those people could not connect to broadband.

To meet the federal speed standards, providers must have download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. At that speed, it’s possible to stream video, download large files in a reasonable amount of time and support a small business of up to 25 people.

Wyoming’s rural nature and its difficult terrain has always made phone and internet access difficult, said Young, the chief information officer. For example, while many city residents across the country have access to high-speed internet through fiber optic cables, that technology isn’t cost-efficient in more rugged areas.

“Getting that fiber in the ground and getting it across areas like Togwotee Pass or Casper Mountain, that’s very expensive,” he said.

Looking ahead

As Young sees it, the future of broadband access in Wyoming relies on new technology that is less dependent on expensive infrastructure.

For example, some companies are now offering high-speed internet through a low-orbiting satellite. Another method uses a tower that broadcasts broadband access to homes or businesses with a receiving antenna.

“There’s a lot of technology that’s coming along,” he said. “I think we’re very well positioned to have a lot of connectivity in the state.”

Expanding access to broadband internet has been high on Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s list of priorities for years. It’s necessary not only for those who already live here, but to attract new businesses, he previously said.

His program to diversify Wyoming’s economy, the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming initiative, listed expanding broadband as one of its top priorities.

“Access to high-quality business and residential broadband is essential to developing, growing and attracting businesses, improving academic performance, supporting healthcare, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, attracting investment, educating the workforce of the future, quality of life, and improving Wyoming’s position as a global competitor,” the council’s report states.

The ENDOW Council recommended establishing a state broadband coordinator within the Wyoming Business Council who will oversee an advisory council. It also recommended that the broadband council set a goal that each Wyoming county have access to internet that meets the federal government’s minimum speed by 2021.

ENDOW leaders also recommended creating a $10 million grant fund that would help businesses expand and upgrade broadband access, particularly in rural areas.

Now Wyoming legislators will have to decide if they agree with the recommendations.

The Management Council sponsored a bill — Senate File 100 — that would create a system for the state government to award money to companies wishing to install or upgrade broadband across the state. The approval process would favor projects that bring the service to areas without high-speed internet or to “economically distressed” areas of the state. It would also set aside $10 million for the grant program.

The bill would create an 11-member broadband advisory council and designate an employee of the Wyoming Business Council as the broadband coordinator for the state.

“The work on Senate File 100 is a great example of all the stakeholders working together to develop legislation that will be to the benefit of all of Wyoming,” said Cindy DeLancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance. “This is a step in the right direction for everyone.”

The bill passed out of the Senate with some changes and will now be heard in the House Appropriations Committee.

Companies interested in bringing broadband access to rural Wyoming could also apply for a new round of federal subsidies from the FCC. The commission is providing up to $2 billion to offset the costs for private companies.In Wyoming, up to 19,000 rural homes and businesses could gain access to high-speed internet through the program, called the Connect America Fund. Companies awarded money through the program will then have six years to build their proposed network.

“We’re basically saying: You guys compete for the money,” FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said. “Whoever can expand broadband for the most people with the best quality wins.”

Slow speeds

Jill Mackey, director of the Crook County library system, likes the idea of faster, more affordable internet. While Sundance has broadband — they recently upgraded the county library to a higher download speed of 50 megabits — it’s still not fast enough for the traffic the library receives.

“We have people in the area that don’t have computers at home so they rely on the library computers,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs you have to apply to online, if they’re in here trying to get an application online depending on the time of day it can really slow them down.”

It’s even worse for online students who go to the library for exams. She could upgrade the library once more, but can’t afford the cost.

Range Telephone will have fiber optic lines connected to her side of town next year. The lines should help the situation by bringing at least 1 gigabit to every home.

The internet future for a place like Beulah, however, is a little hazier.

“It probably will happen,” Courchaine said. “But the cost will probably be outrageous.”

NFL Combine
Former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen makes his mark at the NFL Combine

INDIANAPOLIS — Players participating in the NFL Scouting Combine vie for the chance to one day play in front of thousands of cheering fans. But the Combine drills themselves take place in a quiet setting.

Lucas Oil Stadium was almost library-like Saturday as the first group of quarterbacks and receivers paired up for drills. The groans of receivers who let passes fall through their fingers were easily heard, and the congratulatory claps of the two positions groups, or lack thereof, gave an instant assessment of each performance.

There was one collective noise, though, that the team executives and limited media members in attendance did let slip. It was a laugh of disbelief, and it landed just after Josh Allen’s pass did, more than 60 yards downfield from where he launched it, into the hands of an in-stride receiver.

It might not have revealed anything new about Allen, whose arm strength is well-documented, but it was an impressive throw nonetheless. Many of the passes in that segment reached their targets around midfield.

Allen, who chose to forgo his final season at Wyoming for the NFL Draft, is expected by many to be selected higher than any Wyoming player has ever been drafted. The combination of his success as a redshirt sophomore in 2016 and his uncommon physical traits catapulted him to a national platform that few Cowboys, if ever, have reached.

Those traits were on display at this weekend’s Combine, the landing ground for elite draft hopefuls attempting to further improve their standing. Allen’s nearly 6-foot-5 height made him stand out among the quarterbacks — though his sleeveless shirt and slight farmer’s tan, a look consistent with his rural upbringing, didn’t hurt.

And his athleticism was as good as advertised in his tests Saturday. Allen led all quarterbacks in the broad jump (9 feet 11 inches) and vertical jump (33.5 inches). He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, third among quarterbacks, though Jackson didn’t run. His three-cone drill time of 6.90 seconds trailed only South Florida’s Quinton Flowers among quarterbacks. He tied for eighth among quarterbacks in the 20-yard shuttle (4.4 seconds).

“We prepared well for it, training with Ryan Flaherty, making sure that we were doing the right drills,” Allen said to NFL Network afterward. “Our quarterback coach Jordan Palmer had us doing the right things. So when we got out here, it was kind of a muscle memory type deal.”

But the larger questions surrounding Allen pertain to his accuracy. His impressive long ball came on the seventh of 10 passing drills the quarterbacks went through. None of the quarterbacks were flawless in the group, and Allen had his misses, though there were passers who had more. As with his time at Wyoming, Allen’s inaccuracies tended to come in the form of overthrows, including one significant airmail on a slant route. However, he did have a pass on a crossing route that was slightly behind Oklahoma State’s Marcell Ateman, who fell over after making the catch.

But overall, Allen connected with his targets. His put the ball where it needed to be on short sideline throws, out routes, comeback routes and post corner routes. He overthrew his first target on a 40-yard deep pass, but appeared to step into his next two throws, perhaps an indication of the footwork he said he has worked on while training in Southern California.

“It went well,” Allen said. “This is kind of something that I’ve always dreamt of as a kid is being able to come here. Obviously, we had some crowd noise in the building today, obviously throwing in front of all the GMs and scouts in the league. It was a really cool feel. Kind of expected and what I dreamt of.”

Allen’s most high-profile competition in the first group was Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. Southern California’s Sam Darnold, who some expect to be the No. 1 quarterback taken, was also in the group but chose not to throw at the Combine. Other quarterbacks in the group included Flowers, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Virginia’s Kurt Benkert, Washington State’s Luke Falk, Memphis’ Riley Ferguson and Arkansas’ Austin Allen. The second quarterback group included Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, another potential top pick.

Allen will train in California for another week and a half before returning to Laramie to prepare for Wyoming’s Pro Day on March 23. A little over a month later, the NFL Draft begins. If Allen continues to make noise before then, he could also end up making history.

How 'stand your ground' became controversial in the gun-friendly Wyoming Legislature

CHEYENNE — “Stand your ground” bills in state legislatures across the country tend to be fraught. For proponents, the phrase “stand your ground” has become shorthand for the rights of law-abiding gun owners to use their weapons when necessary. For critics, it’s an ominous step toward a vigilante justice system, often racially tinged, where people perceived to be criminals are gunned down in the streets without consequence.

But shorthand aside, the legislation introduced in both the Wyoming House and Senate, meant to enshrine in statute the existing legal doctrine of self-defense, would make very real changes to state law by initially granting automatic immunity to suspects. Despite widespread support for the concept of allowing Wyomingites to defend themselves when threatened, lawmakers were not ready to back down on concerns about the immunity provisions.

“It’s not just the title of the bill that we’re voting on,” Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, pointed out during floor debate.

If it was, there is little question that the Republican-dominated Legislature would have passed the bills with minimal dissent.

Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who introduced the Senate version, said he has heard repeatedly from critics who say they support “stand your ground” while taking issue with the substance of his bill.

“They’ve said that on the whole bill, that they support the idea — but,” Bouchard said.

‘Awkward position’

The paradox of being ostensibly pro-gun but opposing, or at least criticizing, a bill that is one of the top priorities for groups like the National Rifle Association and Wyoming Gun Owners is not lost on those who spoke out against aspects of the measure.

“I did feel like I was in an awkward position,” Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police executive director Byron Oedekoven said. “Because we support the Constitution.”

In addition to supporting the Second Amendment and being a member of the NRA, Oedekoven said he agrees with the concept of “stand your ground.”

The objectionable provision is one that would bar police from detaining or arresting suspects in cases of assault or homicide if the individual in question credibly claimed he or she was acting in self-defense. Prosecutors would likewise be unable to charge a suspect in an alleged self-defense case unless they could prove to a judge beyond a reasonable doubt that legitimate self-defense had not been used, at which point the case could then proceed to a jury.

Bouchard and advocates of the “stand your ground” bill’s immunity clauses said they were necessary to prevent innocent individuals from being dragged through the criminal justice system, a process that can sometimes take years, only to be acquitted in the end.

Oedekoven said that is a noble goal but that the law would not only protect the innocent.

“The discussion is how to do deal with the good guy who ends up being placed in a very bad position,” he said. “(But) how do we actually deal with the bad guy who does the shooting?”

The bill’s immunity clauses left much unclear to both law enforcement and attorneys. For example, Oedekoven noted in committee testimony that the measure both stated that police should follow standard investigatory procedures when responding to cases where self-defense is claimed. But it also said they could not detain suspects without first determining guilt, which would violate standard procedure.

Likewise, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association said a pre-trial hearing to determine guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” was not only unprecedented in the nation but confusing. At what point in the case would the hearing take place? Would it be in circuit court or district court?

Immunity taken out

Crafting legislation is a process, and both the House bill and Senate bill appeared from the start to be in flux. Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Dubois, sponsored his own version of “stand your ground” but then promptly amended it to substitute Bouchard’s text from the Senate bill. Bouchard, meanwhile, planned to bring amendments to his own bill. For example, he was going to suggest removing the prohibition on police detaining suspects in self-defense cases.

But before that happened, Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, called for stripping most of the immunity provisions from the bill. And before Perkins’ amendment came for a vote, the NRA and Wyoming Gun Owners sent a warning to lawmakers.

It wasn’t the kind of implicit warning that powerful groups wield without lifting a finger. Instead, NRA state liaison Travis Couture-Lovelady and Wyoming Gun Owners lobbyist Aaron Dorr hand wrote notes to most of the 30-member Senate to make their stance crystal clear.

The messages were written on notecard-size slips of paper that lobbyists use to call lawmakers into the lobby or provide them a quick piece of information before a vote. The slips offer just a few lines to get a message across. The gun lobbyists did not mince words.

“(B)oth NRA + WYGO will score the (Perkins) amendment as anti-gun vote + will report it as such to our members,” one version of the note read. “Pls oppose it.”

‘I don’t like bullies’

The reaction was swift. Perkins began his comments on the amendment by referencing the notes and refusing to withdraw his proposed changes. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, then rose to say that Senate rules barred the consideration of outside interests during deliberation and called for his colleagues to pass the amendment on that basis alone.

Kinskey declined to comment on the bill or the amendment but Perkins said he believes that sending the note led to four or five additional senators voting in favor of his amendment. It passed 22-8.

“They were trying to bully the Senate,” Perkins said in an interview. “I don’t like bullies.”

Sen. John Hastert, a senior Democrat, said he had never seen a note like the one sent regarding Perkins’ amendment. Perkins himself said he could count on one hand the number of ultimatums he’d received from lobbyists during his 12 years in the Senate.

Dorr said in an interview that the legislation was important to Wyoming Gun Owners membership and it was fair to let lawmakers know that the group was watching.

“Our note simply told the lawmakers we saw the amendment, we thought it was detrimental to the bill and we would report it down the road,” Dorr said.

Couture-Lovelady said that he was not authorized to talk to the media and referred a reporter to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Bill Cubin, a longtime GOP consultant, said that lobbying groups sometimes believe going to the mat is necessary.

“If the legislators who claim to be Second Amendment supporters don’t actually use their votes to support the Second Amendment and groups like the NRA threaten to call them out on it, that is perfectly legitimate,” he said, though noted he had not carefully followed the “stand your ground” bill.

Cubin added that lobbyists may have less leverage to play hardball at the Legislature than in Washington, D.C. Wyoming’s citizen lawmakers rely less on large contributions from outside groups and are rarely career politicians.

“The vast majority of legislators vote their conscience on every issue,” he said. “They’re not calculating.”

The Senate passed a few amendments backed by Bouchard and Wyoming Gun Owners that slightly rolled back Perkins’ changes. But the bill the Senate finally approved nonetheless stripped both the restrictions on law enforcement and the requirement for pre-trial hearing to determine guilt.

The Senate’s bill has been forwarded to the House, where it is awaiting consideration by the appropriations committee. Appropriations chairman Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, had brought an amendment similar to Perkins’ on the House’s version of the bill, though he withdrew it at the last minute likely out of recognition that the Senate bill is the one that will eventually become law.

Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said his chamber is unlikely to consider the House’s version of the bill and will simply wait to reconsider its own bill once it passes through the House.

“The House ... I think they sent us over a bad bill that ... they expect us to take care of,” Bebout told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “I think our bill will prevail.”

As for Bouchard, he said the Senate bill is probably as good as it’s going to get for “stand your ground” at the Legislature this year.

In the end, Perkins saw no shortage of irony in the fierce opposition to his amendment to a bill that he otherwise voted in favor of.

“In a private meeting with the NRA, I asked them if the bill as amended included a clear statement of ‘stand your ground’ and they said, ‘Yes it does,’” Perkins said. “The bill as amended has the support of the NRA.”