Park County will be becoming a little more of a home on the “internet range” in the near future.
It was recently announced the Federal Communications Commission will deliver Basin-based Tri-County Union and Telephone more than $3 million to improve broadband and voice services in Big Horn and Park counties, providing a significant boost to local rural broadband.
In a survey by the Wyoming State Broadband Program of more than 2,400 residents in targeted rural areas, 26.9 percent of respondents said they lacked reliable broadband access.
“These are neglected areas,” said Richard Wardell, chief technology officer for TCT. “TCT is filling that void in that area for phone and internet.”
The funding is part of $1.5 billion being dispersed nationwide this year as an initiative to deliver broadband to underserved rural homes and small communities.
TCT won the $3 million in funding through the Connect America Fund Phase II auction that included 12 rounds of bidding. After the FCC provided a fixed starting price, multiple different communications companies competed to offer the lowest bid.
Since broadband is already prevalent in downtown Cody and Powell, the coverage upgrades will occur in the South Fork and in rural areas east and south of Cody. TCT also will increase fixed wireless services to 10 properties in Big Horn County.
Internet services do exist in these places already but in most cases it is expensive or low in speed. CenturyLink is currently servicing all of the areas that TCT bid on.
Wardell said the increased services will not necessarily lower prices but will increase quality. The FCC does mandate that TCT offer prices competitive with what other carriers are offering.
Michelle Dean, a resident in the upper South Fork and a teacher at Valley School, is one person the upgrades could positively impact. She said her internet is so bad she has to rely on a hotspot cellphone connection just so she can check her email.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “The AT&T hotspot is the best of the best. There’s absolutely no streaming.”
Jenine Phelps runs Double Diamond X Ranch, also in the upper South Fork. She said although her vacation rental guests are generally understanding about her lack of high-speed internet, it still bothers her and her husband. After calling TCT for service about two years ago, she said she was denied.
“We would definitely get it if the opportunity came up,” Phelps said.
The new upgrades designate TCT as a “carrier of last resort” which requires the company to provide a minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second and three Mbps upload speed to these regions. This service will be fixed wireless and Wardell said TCT will use existing towers and build six new towers along US 14A and in the South Fork over the next few years that will provide coverage to 1,950 total locations – 1,785 of which in Park County.
“With wireless, over-subscription becomes an issue so we need to build more towers to really beef up that network,” Wardell said.
He said many of the tower locations will be fiber-fed to allow for future growth potential.
“Now that the approvals have been granted TCT will begin implementing its plans and has applications for new tower sites being submitted,” Wardell said, “along with network upgrades taking place, so that the individuals and businesses that live in these census block areas will be able to take advantage of these new services.”
The FCC requires 40 percent of service to be complete within three years and a 100 percent completion in five years.
Off US 14-16-20, east of Cody, and on the west side of WYO 120 South, speed requirements will be even higher, with a 1 gig-500 megabyte minimum baseline for 135 locations that will be fiber serviced.
These improvements could also bring Rochelle Slight’s family closer. Slight, who runs her lamb business from her Schultz Drive home, just south of 14-16-20 East, laments that when her children come home for the holidays, they have to go to the library in order to do work. Her only internet access comes from a Verizon Wireless hotspot.
“The kids will actually be able to come home and work,” Slight said with a laugh.
As a carrier of last resort TCT is required to provide telephone service along with broadband internet in the areas it bidded successfully for. It will receive monthly governmental funding over the course of the next 10 years.
Wardell said the areas that TCT bid on are locations that the company has already been building service to or adjacent to areas that make it possible to offer robust service.
One region TCT did not pursue in the bidding was the North Fork and Sunlight Basin. Wardell said the company found the mountain and wilderness region to be too large an undertaking at this time.
“It’s such a broad area, we would have loved to have done it,” Wardell said. “But we could not feasibly make the business case to do that.”