Influx of federal money could help bridge the Wyoming Internet Gap – WyoFile

An infusion of nearly $350 million in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could increase high-speed Internet access and affordability in Wyoming, helping the state keep pace with increased broadband demand officials say.

US Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) voted against the 2021 legislation citing its price for roads, bridges, water pipes, broadband and other projects. Other Republican officials in rural states, however, are embracing the influx of federal broadband dollars. This includes Governor Mark Gordon, who has made growing high-speed Internet access a focal point of economic development.

Wyoming is dedicated to bridging the rural digital divide, Gordon said in a tweet. We will distribute this federal funding with the goal of ensuring that our communities and businesses are able to build the modern infrastructure they need to access critical services.

More than 39,200 homes and small businesses in Wyoming still don’t have access to high-speed Internet, according to the US Department of Commerce. High-speed internet isn’t just necessary for modern day-to-day activities like streaming movies or online shopping. Gordon called it essential to Wyoming’s future.

Not only does broadband give our students a tool to compete with the rest of the world, but it’s also needed for health care especially in rural areas where other medical specialists aren’t available, Gordon said in his first State address. Advances in [broadband technology] improve the quality of life in Wyoming, solve complex challenges, create jobs, and will enable entrepreneurs and established businesses to see even our smallest cities as fertile ground for growing a business.

The money is the federal government’s latest piece of change intended to improve the speed and accessibility of the Internet in Wyoming. In February, the US Treasury Department awarded the state $70.5 million to fund a project to connect some 11,700 homes and businesses. Similar to that particular funding, Wyoming’s allocation from the infrastructure bill will be awarded through competitive grants, known as the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

We are optimistic about the next few years as we are able to use various federal funds, starting with [the Treasury Department award]leading then to the Federal Digital Equity Program et al [BEAD] program, Elaina Zempel, broadband manager for the works council, said in a February news release. All of these opportunities will bring several hundred million dollars in infrastructure development to Wyoming to grow our local capacity in a very crucial area.

This time it’s different

Despite legislation in 2018 intended to ramp up broadband efforts in Wyoming, it was federal funds that accelerated the process in 2020 when the Wyoming Business Council received $100 million in CARES Act relief funding for an initiative to broadband expansion. That funding connected about 13,000 homes and businesses to broadband service, according to the company council.

But this latest round of funding is different from past federally backed efforts to improve broadband, according to Justin Cooper with BroadbandNow, a research and advocacy organization. First, the program prioritizes the construction of fiber optic networks, made up of thin strands of glass that allow data to be transmitted as pulses of light. Fiber, unlike copper lines, existing telephone networks or other cables, is really the only technology that has a chance of being future-proof, Cooper said, noting its ability to handle the increase in demand for broadband, which doubles approximately every three years.

Despite this superiority, the construction of fiber networks has lagged behind in rural areas. According to BroadbandNow research, fewer than 11 percent of Wyoming residents have access to fiber-optic service. The high cost of building fiber networks, which usually involves excavating the ground, has led private Internet providers to prioritize urban areas, Cooper said, where they have a better chance of making a return on the Internet. ‘investment.

This is truly the first time we’ve made a concerted nationwide effort to deploy this historic amount of funding specifically for, or at least prioritize, these fiber backhaul networks, Cooper said.

A graphic from a recent Wyoming Business Council Broadband Office listening session outlines the timeline for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. (Screen/Wyoming Business Council)

Public input and planning

A second key distinction of the BEAD program, Cooper said, is its state-centered approach. Wyoming, for example, is required to come up with a plan using a large government grant and will need federal approval before the money is distributed.

Previous efforts have taken a more direct approach, Cooper said, where many of the programs over the past 10 years seemed like, We’re just giving this lump sum of money to any vendor who wants it with the stated goal of improving connectivity in the U.S.

The idea, Cooper said, is to ensure that rural areas and other disadvantaged populations are not left out of the equation.

While states’ willingness will play a substantial role in the ability to effectively distribute funding, the success of the program will also depend on the ability of local and tribal governments to participate in implementation, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, a public policy nonprofit .

In June, Gordon along with Barrasso and Lummis hosted a four-day summit to help local governments, nonprofits and other organizations navigate the complicated and laborious process of securing and administering federal support.

In addition, the Wyoming Business Council Broadband Office hosted several in-person and virtual listening sessions to gather public input before presenting the required five-year plan for BEAD funding. That plan is due next month. Another, more comprehensive proposal is expected by the end of 2023.

Our Wyoming team is working with ISPs, communities, businesses, and partners to better understand where broadband is and where it isn’t, and focused on ensuring high-speed, reliable connections in all corners state, according to the Broadband Office website, where interested parties are encouraged to complete a series of surveys.

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