A few years ago, Tom Knapp could never have envisioned how vital high-speed internet would become to his Kaycee auto repair business.
“It’s amazing how dependent you are for information to get something done,” Knapp said. “Even our tires and our auto parts – I rarely call the auto parts store and say, ‘Do you have this?’
“I just punch some buttons, bring up the catalog. I immediately know if there’s one in Buffalo, one in Billings, how many are in Denver.”
Knapp is one of a growing number of businesses across Johnson County and around the state benefiting from the boom in high-speed internet access in Wyoming. But a bit more than a year out from Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature establishing the Wyoming State Broadband Program to spread broadband to all corners of the Equality State, there are still noticeable gaps, said Russ Elliott, state broadband manager for the Wyoming Business Council.
And nowhere are those gaps more notable than in Johnson County, said Knapp, who also chairs the JoCo First board, and Bill Novotny, chairman of the Johnson County Commission.
“Given the overall state of broadband in Wyoming, we’re actually very fortunate,” Novotny said. “With our proximity to I-90 and I-25 and the fiber (optic) lines there, we have good connectivity. Where we do struggle some is the building out into our rural areas in the county. We do need to definitely increase that.”
There are options available in the incorporated areas of Johnson County – primarily Buffalo and Kaycee – for high-speed, broadband internet for everything from accessing repair catalogs for Knapp’s shop – books that once occupied shelf upon shelf in his shop – to streaming movies, gaming and more. Getting that service out into the county isn’t as easy as tapping one of the main feeders running along the interstates, however.
“All through Wyoming, all the municipalities have fiber optic cable – they’re all doing great,” Elliott said. “The outlying communities, the outlying areas, are the ones suffering right now. Even here in Laramie County, where we have good connectivity, there are still a lot of challenges. We’re discussing plans around that.”
With the establishment of the broadband program, a $10.3 million fund was set up to help finance access for unserved areas and improve connections in areas deemed “underserved,” Elliott said. There’s money remaining in that fund, available to pay for studies, infrastructure and more to get internet into those areas, he said.
Wireless connectivity is one option Elliott and his crew are currently looking at to expand broadband into unserved and underserved areas, he said. Along with setting up the state’s broadband program, the 2018 legislation codified minimum download and upload speeds to qualify as broadband of 25 megabytes and 3 megabytes, respectively. Any less than that is now considered “unserved” by state statute, Elliott said.
One issue is it’s cost-prohibitive to try to hardwire the state for internet, Elliott said. But those download/upload speeds are easily attainable via wireless connectivity, he said.
To get wireless access into unserved areas, transmission lines could be run from the fiber-optic “backbones” or other high-speed feeders to centralized towers, which would then transmit internet to receivers, either centralized to serve a number of businesses and residences in unincorporated communities or attached directly to residential or business computers. A big challenge is organizing communities to learn what they want while keeping them open to all the possibilities, Elliott said.
“We have to be technology-agnostic,” he said. “We can’t say we need fiber to all these areas. I think we have to open our minds to the fact its not just about fiber, it’s about other types of technology. There’s a lot of fiber out there, along the interstates and county roads. We just have to figure out how to get access.”
Satellite providers are, right now, the only option many outside the incorporated areas of the state have for internet service, Knapp said. But Elliott said satellite internet is a less-than-desirable option for most.
During the initial round of funding, Johnson County didn’t apply for funding from the state’s broadband program, Knapp and Novotny said. One of the focuses of the program at the beginning was establishing “loops” – areas of redundant service, with internet coming into communities from more than one source. That way, if service was interrupted from one direction, it could be easily switched to another feed line, Knapp said.
“And we’re always open to industry that’s wanting to build out that capacity,” Novotny said. “But we can always do better. The county always tries to make road right-of-way available.”
High-speed internet in recent years has moved from being a luxury to almost a necessity for business, as well as a quality-of-life issue for residential customers, Knapp and Novotny said. Continuing to get that service to as many people as possible – ideally, all, Elliott said – is the challenge of the future.
“A lot of people want to make it feel like it’s very difficult, very expensive,” Elliott said. “But it’s all in how you build the network – you can build a network so it has the capacity to be very robust, but you can also build on a shoestring so we can just get by.”
“As things get pushed even further into the digital age, demand is only going to go up,” he said. “This is not something where we can be static – we have to expand, add more connectivity for everyone.
“We’re going to continue to move forward,” Novotny said. “If we want to have that high quality of life, we’re going to have to have the capacity to support it.”