Broadband internet in unincorporated Park County, as with the rest of rural Wyoming, can be spotty at best.
“These are areas that are desperate for some connectivity,” said state broadband manager Russ Elliott.
For many parts of Park only 1-2 internet providers will provide service, leaving many customers without much choice as to what they must pay to get broadband internet and what quality of internet they can hope to get.
The Wyoming State Broadband Program has created an online mapping system that allows the state and public to view internet speeds across the state from residences surveyed. Since launched April 1, Elliott has already collected about 1,100 mapping sites.
“I’m doing whatever we’ve got to do to set a standard for everybody else to follow,” Elliott said. “I’m trying to do something that’s unique and setting a standard for the state of Wyoming.”
The Federal Communications Commission requires a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second and 3 Mbps upload speed for a residence to be considered broadband serviced. Downloading is typically associated with casual consumer use while businesses and those who work in document-heavy industries such as the medical field are generally more concerned with uploading.
Upload speeds of 10 Mbps are generally considered fast, as is a 25 Mbps download, whereas any speeds less are not considered broadband, but instead a digital subscriber line.
In 2018, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill providing a one-time $10 million in grants for telecom companies to install infrastructure – an incentive program designed to improve rural broadband, which Elliott’s department facilitates.
“I want to make sure technology I do put in is scalable … try to get to 100 mbps,” he said. “If the equation makes sense it’s done. What’s not done is what doesn’t make sense.”
To initiate this service and a potential upgrade, Elliott said sometimes all it takes is starting a conversation.
“It’s not about throwing anybody under the bus,” Elliott said. “We’re trying to work with those providers and say, ‘here’s the opportunities and here’s what we can do.’”
Home on the digital range
Within the sparsely populated confines of Wyoming, it’s not uncommon to find DIYers who run a business from their home. Businesses run the gamut from traditional ranching to retail, but in order for Wyoming to remain competitive with the rest of the country what all rural businesses share is a need for strong internet.
“For Wyoming to continue its rural nature, we have to have broadband,” Elliott said. “That farmer who wants to manage their center pivot sprinklers. The rancher who wants to monitor their cows. We have to find ways to drive broadband.”
Some especially sparse counties are extremely limited in their internet access. Crook County in northeast Wyoming has an average download speed of 14.5 mbps.
After moving to rural Cody from a different rural locale online teacher Paige Bacon said her internet service has become significantly better. She currently uses fiber through CenturyLink, which she said has provided consistent service, aside from a nationwide outage that hampered the provider last December.
“Internet is a necessary function of the everyday operations of what I do,” Bacon said. “We are blessed.”
Park County has some of the better average broadband service speeds in the state at 101.5 mbps for download and 71.7 upload, but Elliott said those numbers are skewed by its two sizable municipalities, Powell and Cody.
From a randomly selected location in the South Fork, the Enterprise found Spectrum offers 60 Mbps internet at $45 per month, a relatively competitive rate to many in-town rates. But Elliott said services can vary greatly based on location.
Service still lacking
Just because a service is offered doesn’t mean it’s economical for the consumer.
Kristi Taylor runs a candle company from her home, from where she creates products and then sells them online with craft retailer Etsy. She recently moved from Cody to about 15 miles out of town, off the Powell Highway. In her new home-internet options have drastically dropped, with CenturyLink DSL her best affordable option, with comparable wireless internet offered but at triple the cost.
“If you’re an online seller, you’re storefront is online,” Taylor said. “You need that internet speed to upload content.”
Taylor is now running the sales and web aspect of her business through her cell phone’s 4G network in order to stay efficient and competitive.
“It’s a definite slow down,” she said.
Dossie Overfield, a Park County Commissioner who resides about eight miles northeast of Cody off of US 14A, said she is forced to rely on her Verizon Wireless hot spot as her broadband internet source, to fulfill her commissioner and Midwest Assistance Program board duties.
“I was told that’s the best option,” Overfield said.
Marty Morris and his wife sell antiques online from their South Fork home. He said although service has noticeably improved over the years, it still leaves something to be desired.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does,” Morris said.
Boone Tidwell, also a South Fork resident, runs his bail bonds company with wife Shirley out of his home, monitoring his clients digitally through GPS ankle monitoring systems.
“It’s not great but does it work? Yes,” Tidwell said of his internet. “The weather heavily effects it … snowstorms, wind.”
Like many people in the South Fork they receive Tri-County Telephone wireless internet from a tower located on Sheep Mountain. Boone’s wife Shirley said the recent rainfall significantly hampered their internet service.
“Internet in Wyoming is like two mules and a lightning rod,” Boone Tidwell said.
Wireless vs. Copper vs. Fiber
When it comes to broadband internet fiber cabling is considered the best performance option.
“The ultimate scalable technology is fiber,” Elliott said.
It can also be cost prohibitive for providers to install fiber in non-dense residential areas, running up to $1 million for install to a single residence.
“When you put the (backhoe) in the ground and start plowing down rows and connecting each individual customer to that, the cost goes up,” Richard Wardell, chief technology officer for TCT said.
Wireless internet is distributed from a tower or “cabinet” to surrounding rural areas and runs about $15,000-$20,000, Elliott said.
How close a residence is to this tower will highly impact the quality of service one will receive.
“Any time you increase the length of the distance you start to degrade service,” Wardell said.
Standalone copper is generally considered the lowest speed of technology for broadband service in rural areas, but is actually extremely efficient when used in dense residential areas, Elliott said. Wardell said his company has found success twisting fiber with copper and combining fiber with wireless towers in some rural areas, but this is not a widespread practice at this time.
When it comes to broadband dead zones it’s not that the technology doesn’t exist to service these areas. Wardell and Elliott both agree, it comes down to what’s most efficient for internet service providers, when it comes to increasing service range and quality.
“The challenge is right of way and cost,” Elliott said. “It’s all about what’s most economical, most bang for the buck.”
Cause for hope
Elliott said every one of Wyoming’s 23 counties have at least some broadband dead spots in their corridors. By developing his mapping system, he hopes to coordinate with broadband companies and residents to help more people become connected.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect Program also offers similar solutions which Elliott said many Clark residents are taking advantage of and Overfield said her board is starting to “lay the groundwork” for plans that would work to extend broadband in rural America, through the Rural Community Assistance Partnership network.
In recent years broadband coverage has improved nationwide. According to the FCC, as of 2016, 92.3 percent of all Americans had access to broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, up from 89.4 percent in 2014 and 81.2 percent in 2012.
Taylor was recently on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. working on behalf of Etsy, meeting with lawmakers and their staffs to provide education on the need for expanding broadband access in rural America and net neutrality.
“I felt like it was really productive,” she said. “We were really trying to provide education. There’s a lot that gets lost along the track of narrative.”
Wardell said TCT is always looking for new tower sites and will likely be expanding service in the near future with FCC Connect America auctions upcoming likely this year that his company will be bidding in.
To participate in and view the state broadband map, visit wyobbmap.org.