Doing business in rural Wyoming has its advantages — the wide-open spaces, slower pace of life and easy access to outdoor adventures are attractive fringe benefits that are hard to come by. Still, it isn't always easy, as Mark Marlatt, the IT Director for Bloedorn Lumber Company, knows. With few options for providers and limited bandwidth at the company's corporate hub in Torrington, Marlatt has suggested to the company’s leadership that perhaps it makes better business sense to relocate the hub somewhere with more reliable and less expensive broadband connectivity.
Torrington has served as the company's home since its founding in the early-1900s, and has been the headquarters of its impressive expansion to 27 branches in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana. Each branch relies on connectivity to the Torrington office to operate at its peak efficiency.
Despite the challenges, the company’s owners aren’t keen to sever their deep roots in Torrington. In fact, supporting the community is so important to them they are willing to pay a little more to buy office supplies locally rather than online, for example; and willing to pay more for fast internet than they might if they moved out of town. Meanwhile, Marlatt advocates for better broadband access – both in terms of speed and redundancy – to improve the company’s efficiency in Torrington.
Bloedorn Lumber is just one example of a Wyoming company that would benefit from improved broadband coverage in the state. Better internet access boosts business recruitment, fosters retention and encourages the creation of high-tech startups that add jobs and strengthen the economy.
Wyoming public officials recognize fast, reliable internet is critical to modern business. So, the Legislature created a broadband program during its 2018 session to deliver just that.
Hold on. What is broadband?
"Broadband is simply a pipe to the internet," explained Aaron Sopko, the general manager at Advanced Communications Technology (ACT) in Sheridan.
The size of the pipe determines the speed and amount of information flowing through it, he said. A narrow pipe can be sufficient for everyday use by a family running a handful of connected devices, or a smaller mom-and-pop business processing a few credit cards and sending emails. A much wider pipe is required for a bigger company with multiple locations, all sending huge files back and forth.
Or, think of it like a highway, Sopko added. The wider the road, the more traffic and higher speeds it can accommodate; and the more expensive it is to build and maintain.
What's Wyoming's roadblock?
Larger cities like Jackson and Casper offer internet providers reasonable bang for their buck, explained Ashley Harpstreith, the CEO of Goshen County Economic Development. In areas of concentrated populations, providers can reach many paying customers with relatively little investment in cables and infrastructure.
It’s the area between cities, and there's a lot of that in Wyoming, that poses the challenge. It doesn't make sense to providers – who are trying to run their own successful businesses, of course – to invest in long lines of cable to reach only a handful of outlying customers.
By the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) definition, every town in Wyoming is served adequately; but that data is incomplete, explained Colin McKee, policy advisor to Gov. Matt Mead and the interim Broadband Coordinator for the Wyoming Business Council. The FCC’s data isn’t detailed enough to get an accurate picture of coverage in the state, he said.
The expense of building the infrastructure leaves some areas of Wyoming “unserved.” To be clear, the term “unserved” does not necessarily mean there is no internet access in the area. Rather, "unserved” is defined as download speeds of less than 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of less than 1 megabit per second.
At a download speed of 10 megabits per second, a user could download a Netflix movie in about an hour, run a business of 3 to 5 employees and meet medium-tech business demands like using web-based software. Larger, high-tech businesses like architects or marketing firms couldn’t operate efficiently at that speed.
In addition to speed limitations in the state, there is often only one provider operating in a particular area; so there's coverage, but there's a lack of competition keeping costs low, and a lack of redundancy to provide backup should an essential connection be lost for any reason.
Wyoming officials recognize the challenges and have successfully improved the state’s broadband coverage for years. For example, in 2014 the Unified Network connected schools and government buildings throughout the state and provided a backbone of infrastructure the community could use.
“Things are OK as far as broadband coverage in the state,”
McKee said. “We’re just working to make it better.”
What’s the Broadband Advisory Council going to do?
The 2018 Wyoming Legislature created the Broadband Advisory Council and allocated $10 million to expand broadband coverage to the state’s unserved areas. An additional $350,000 was allocated to develop the program, including creating a broadband coordinator position within the Wyoming Business Council. Russell Elliott, a business operations professional and telecommunications expert with an M.B.A., was hired in that role last month.
The Advisory Council will first determine the areas of most need by mapping and inventorying coverage in the state. It will then direct grants to public-private partnerships in those communities to fill the funding gaps needed to build out the infrastructure. If all goes according to plan, McKee said, initial grant proposals could be considered toward the end of 2018 or early 2019.
The Legislature directed the Wyoming Business Council to appoint Advisory Council members from a variety of regions and professions, which it did in early June.
What’s the long-term goal?
This program and its $10 million allocation could be just a first step in boosting broadband in Wyoming, McKee said. Once the unserved areas are addressed, it could potentially grow to support “underserved” areas, as well.
With even faster and more reliable broadband, Wyoming's wide-open spaces become less of a challenge and more of an opportunity. Companies can hire skilled employees who can work remotely from anywhere in the world. At the same time, employees can locate themselves in Wyoming's fresh air and safe neighborhoods while working remotely in the skilled, high-tech jobs that have typically required city living.
Melanie Araas is just one example of that opportunity. She started her own photography and graphic design business, 3 Willow Design, out of her home in Sheridan about 10 years ago. She says her internet access isn't perfect – it goes down occasionally and she's stuck using her cellphone to email clients – but it's generally fast and reliable enough to do her work.
Araas and her husband lived in Colorado for a while, but moved back to Sheridan for the slower pace and closer proximity to the mountains. They are now raising their kids in Sheridan, and she says the schools are top notch. Plus, she's only a short drive from the fly-fishing adventures she loves. Fast, reliable internet means Araas was able to start and run a business while staying home with her kids when they were younger, she said.
With internet technology like Skype, "I can pretty much do what I do anywhere, with anybody," she said.
While great internet is important to a business’ bottom line – whether it’s the 27 branches of Bloedorn Lumber Company or the one-woman, home-based 3 Willow Design – it's also a quality-of-life improvement for residential customers seeking access to everything it provides. From efficient healthcare access to educational opportunities and instant entertainment, it’s an upgrade that serves to lure talent to and keep it in Wyoming.