Stimulus funds may bring more broadband
Legislative task force to investigate internet expansion
June 11, 2020
Crook County may be able to seek funding to bring broadband to underserved rural areas through a task force newly created within the Wyoming Legislature. Representative Tyler Lindholm spoke to the county commissioners last week about the intent of that task force to utilize CARES Act funding for broadband – and how it may solve lingering issues that have affected the Wyoming Broadband Advisory Committee.
The task force meets for the first time this week, Lindholm said, and its purpose is to see if CARES Act money can be spent to bring broadband to more homes. The impetus is the students of Wyoming’s schools, he said, who were forced into a position of learning from home when the pandemic hit.
Because not every home has broadband, he continued, “there were a lot of kids who slipped through the cracks”. A second reason for the task force is to stimulate the economy, he said, by providing more people with the ability to start a business in rural Wyoming or telecommute to their current job.
“We haven’t officially met as a group yet but we wanted to get the ball rolling,” he said. The task force will create ideas that will be presented to the full legislature later this month.
Commissioner Jeanne Whalen stated that the commission has been interested in the state’s broadband initiative since the Wyoming Broadband Advisory Committee was created in 2018, because the county is well qualified to request assistance to bring better internet to more rural areas.
However, she said, it has proven difficult to get the ball rolling. While the county has wanted to get a request for proposals out for a long time, she said, she has been told that the document is not ready.
Jason Hendricks, Chief Regulatory Officer with Range Telephone, agreed, stating that, “We’ve been pushing to get that document out for two years” but it has proven challenging to make the document match up with the associated statute.
Whalen also commented that she has heard from a couple of “wisps” – small companies that specialize in hopping broadband from tower to tower to serve a smaller number of customers, as opposed to installing fiber. One of them is ready to put towers up but the cost of running electricity to the tower is a limiting “unexpected hurdle” at an estimated $23,000.
Options have been explored for the county’s in-kind match for a state grant that could help make a project of this nature happen, Whalen continued. For example, perhaps the Sheriff’s Office could rent space on the towers to decrease costs, or the county could offer right-of-way access on its roads.
“I think we have some options there for these companies to try to recruit some [grant] money,” Whalen said.
Hendricks spoke to the challenge it can be for even a larger cooperative to expand broadband within its service area. This summer, he said, Range will be expanding fiber to Sundance Canyon Ranch.
There are areas where the cooperative acts as the carrier of last resort and does “the last mile”, he continued, and these are the areas looked at when federal broadband funding is available.
“We expand as we can,” he said. However, it’s not always possible even with that funding.
For example, Hendricks said, if you look at the cost estimates to bring broadband to Aladdin, factoring in the distance, number of customers and expected cost, even with a 50% state grant it would be a “double digit number of years before we could get recovery of those costs”.
Meanwhile, Beulah was thought to have potential with a 10% match from the county and 50% funding from the state. However, a survey was sent out to potential customers and, “We didn’t get hardly any responses and the ones that we did weren’t overly positive.”
“Nonetheless, we continue to look at it,” he added.
Lindholm admitted that the original legislation became convoluted during its passage and has made it difficult to actually implement the goal of bringing broadband to rural parts of Wyoming. However, he said, there may be new opportunities thanks to this task force.
At present, Lindholm explained that the task force is looking at a grant situation based on what is already available in a certain area; the worse the current broadband, the more the grant would provide. For example, if an area has less than 50mb of broadband available, the grant could be for 100% of the cost with no match.
The task force will also be looking at the possibility of a statute to make state rights-of-way available to broadband companies, as long as they live up to the regulations. Additionally, he said, it may be possible to allow towers on school trust lands.
“I think that idea’s got merit,” he said, particularly as this project pertains to increasing student access to education. One of the biggest barriers to broadband expansion is the need to secure right-of-way access and leases, he said – a comment that Hendricks concurred with.
When Whalen pointed out that the cost of bringing electricity to a tower on school lands could be even more prohibitive due to the often remote location, Lindholm explained that the state would just be making the opportunity available. It would still be up to the private or public entity to make it happen.
If the grants go into law, Lindholm said, Crook County would want to put out a request for proposals. If no industry member was interested in the task, even with the grant funding, he noted that the county could take it on instead.
As was recently done in Kemmerer, according to Lindholm, the county could complete the installation of fiber in the necessary places. Thanks to the survey completed by many county residents, the commission already has a good idea where the gaps in service are.
“The county would never own the broadband company itself, or anything like that,” he explained, but once the fiber is in the ground, “I don’t think you’re going to have a problem finding somebody to light it up.”