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.
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.”
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.”