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Wyoming internet providers see huge surge in internet use, interest in broadband
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Wyoming internet providers see huge surge in internet use, interest in broadband

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Joey Bray, a CenturyLink technician, checks the signals on wires in a crossbox behind the Albertsons in 2012 on Friday afternoon. Demand for reliable internet has jumped during the coronavirus pandemic, as more people work and study from home.

Internet providers in Wyoming say more people stuck at home because of coronavirus prevention efforts has meant a surge of work, as well as giving them and policy makers an even better idea of the number of Wyomingites with, or without, a broadband connection at home.

At the same time, parents now forced to work from home – usually at the same time children need to be online for school work or are otherwise busy using their devices – have put a strain on home internet speeds.

That’s all in a state that is among the worst for access to broadband internet connections, which brings with them speeds providers say are needed or helpful – especially when customers are demanding more at once from their internet because more people are stuck inside their homes to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

The increasing demand has resulted in some internet providers in Wyoming being flooded with requests for new internet connections or requests to upgrade service. Providers have also done what they can to increase their capacity to offer increased speeds to customers.

“We’re seeing a lot of activity right now. The workload is crazy,” said Brian Worthen, CEO and one of the owners of Gillette-based Visionary Broadband. “It’s an unprecedented situation, but we’re all encountering it, not just one or two providers. It’s every provider.”

Visionary Broadband provides service in 94 Wyoming communities, as well as Washington, Colorado and Montana. Some of Visionary Broadband’s work crews have been logging seven day workweeks to keep up with demand, Worthen said.

Other providers in the state have said they’ve been similarly busy, said Ryan Kudera, Wyoming broadband manager for the Wyoming Business Council. Some companies, he said, have told him that they’ve seen their installation and service calls jump by as much as four times their usual levels.

Despite the increase in usage and changes in use habits, like needing a speedy upload connection for work or school projects, providers have said service interruptions or outages have been minimal lately, according to Kudera.

Providers and their employees have also had to adjust how they work to protect customers and prevent spreading the coronavirus, providers said. That means limiting face-to-face interaction with customers by not going into homes and having customers complete all paperwork online.

For Patrick Lawson, executive manager of Wind River Tribal Industries, which operates Wind River Internet, the emphasis on protecting customers and not spreading the illness even prompted the company to buy a 3-D printer to make its own personal protective equipment like masks.

The Federal Communications Commission has also asked providers to take a number of steps, including not shutting off service to businesses or homes that can’t pay their bills due to the coronavirus’ economic fallout and providing Wi-Fi hot spots to those who may need them.

Kudera said many providers in the state have signed on to the pledge, increasing speeds for free to workers like teachers or increasing the number of free, public hot spots, for example.

“Wyoming providers have really stepped up and (are) helping the communities,” Kudera, the Wyoming broadband manager, said. “Everybody’s just kind of hanging in there and keeping things going.”

‘Exaggerating the issues’

The surge in demand – whether it’s a business seeking to add capacity for remote employees using a virtual private network, a local government having to move all of its work and meeting online or students studying at home – comes as Wyoming policymakers and internet providers are working to increase availability of broadband internet in a state with one of the lowest rates of home access.

In Wyoming, 81 percent of residents have a broadband internet subscription, among the lowest rates in the country, according to the most recent Federal Communications Commission estimates.

But, according to at least one group’s recent report, that number – along with the FCC’s estimates for other states – is likely significantly overestimated.

The number of Wyoming residents with a broadband home connection, according to the group, BroadbandNow Research, is a little more than 62 percent, making it the fifth worst state in the country for access to broadband.

In Indian Country, access to broadband internet is even more limited, with about 53 percent of those living on a reservation having a broadband connection, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

FCC chairman visits reservation to see progress on high-speed internet project, discuss access

On the Wind River Reservation, Lawson has previously said that Wind River Internet, which offers internet connections for homes and businesses on the Wind River Reservation and in parts of Riverton, provides a connection for about one-third of the homes on the reservation. A few other companies also provide service to a small number of homes on the reservation.

“It’s been hectic,” Lawson said of the demand from customers. “It’s been exaggerating the issues we have with broadband.”

To ensure that students especially can complete their work, he said the company has installed hot spots at several public places on the reservation where students can go do work from the safety of a parent or guardian’s vehicle.

Lawson said Wind River Internet is also continuing with its project – partially paid for with money from the FCC – to increase the number of homes connected to speedy fiber internet.

The pandemic has helped to further demonstrate the importance of a speedy, reliable internet connection as more than a luxury, but something that could be viewed as an essential utility service, Worthen said.

He said the current situation has also illustrated the value of telemedicine, which requires reliable internet on both ends.

And with internet providers hearing from so many current or potential customers, policymakers and providers should now have a clearer idea of the work remaining to increase the number of Wyoming residents with access to broadband, or speeds they have access to, Worthen said. While a map that relies on self-reported information currently shows internet speeds in Wyoming, it is an incomplete picture.

“The current pandemic situation we’re in has propelled broadband potentially above sewer and water,” he said. “The world changed in a period of a few weeks. Never has it really felt so necessary when you think of so many students working from home.”

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

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