Powell Economic Partnership is looking to tackle rural broadband. The effort runs parallel to a federal program, which recently granted TCT (Tri County Telephone) $3 million to increase broadband …
Powell Economic Partnership is looking to tackle rural broadband. The effort runs parallel to a federal program, which recently granted TCT (Tri County Telephone) $3 million to increase broadband access in rural areas around Cody and Powell.
It’s a daunting challenge, since fiber optic cables can be expensive to build out. Building cables to areas with a handful of people just isn’t financially feasible.
“You guys have a real challenge up here,” then-State Broadband Manager Russ Elliott told Park County commissioners in August.
“You’ve got Powell that sits and brags about their municipal fiber network, right, and how great that is. You have Cody that’s well-connected with its Charter and the carriers here in town,” Elliott said. However, between the two population centers, there’s “probably ... the worst connectivity in the state,” he said.
Elliott said that Powell’s city-owned fiber network “takes away any kind of interest from any other provider to come in and try to serve somewhere between Powell and Cody.”
Christine Bekes, executive director for the PEP, said high-speed internet is an important component to economic development, as any business in the Big Horn Basin not located in the main population centers is going to have difficulty operating in today’s internet-dependent business environment.
“Rural Wyoming, it’s my opinion right now, is in a very critical place,” Elliott warned commissioners in August. “Maintaining the intergity of the rurality of this state is going to be very challenged if we are not successful in getting ubiquitous broadband out there.”
Among those residents facing challenges are Charise Rose and her husband, Russell, who run an oil field service business from their home in Penrose.
Rose said the broadband speeds out there are “atrocious,” which really impedes their business. They have to do invoicing and submit safety data to the government over the internet, and they also buy from online auctions, which are hard to run on their spotty internet.
“Our internet can’t keep up,” she said.
The Roses have wireless internet, which is a solution often used in rural areas. She once lived in the Meteetsee area, where she used satellite internet. She said that option was as bad, if not worse. She hasn’t even bothered looking into satellite in Penrose.
“After that experience, it left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said.
Wireless internet requires an antenna pointed directly at a tower. Since the signal travels across large distances outside, it’s vulnerable to interference. Anytime there’s a storm, Rose said she gets slow internet or loses it all together. Likewise, her phone line runs through the system, which means she often gets calls dropped on her land line.
She pays TCT $150 per month for a maximum of 15 megabits per second download, though she said she usually only gets 2 to 12 megabits per second.
Speeds directly on a fiber line are up to 1,000 megabits a second, which can be pricey. Typically, the range of about 25 megabits is considered good enough for most home and business applications and is affordable in areas fed by fiber.
Royal Stukey, owner of Stukey’s Sturdy Shooting Benches, has his home business located in Willwood and uses wireless options. He used to get less than 1 megabit download speeds, but TCT recently put up another tower. He said from that tower he now gets about 3 megabit speeds, but it costs him about $75 per month. Though faster speeds are available, for his needs, he said he can’t justify paying more.
For its part, PEP is trying to coordinate with public and private entities to help develop strategies to address the issue.
“If we don’t think about this strategically, in five years, we’ll be having the same conversation,” Bekes said.
She said it’s a vital component for economic development — not just for business operations, but also education and health.
TCT was the successful bidder in a reverse auction to supply improved broadband in areas between Cody and Powell. A reverse auction starts at a price fixed by the FCC. Through a series of 12 bidding rounds, the price was reduced until a final bidder was selected. CenturyLink is the current service provider to the area.
As the successful bidder to the area, TCT becomes the carrier of last resort, meaning it’s obligated to provide service to the area, even if it’s not economically viable to do so at prevailing rates.
The buildout will need to be complete by October 2025, and the $3 million in funds the FCC awarded the company will be paid out over the course of 10 years.
The services will provide at least 25 megabits per second download, and 3 megabits per second upload to those areas.
Richard Wardell, chief technology officer for TCT, said the company will build six new wireless tower sites, which will serve approximately 1,950 locations. Many of those towers will be fiber-fed, and that will allow the possiblity of additonal services, such as cellular service, to be added in the future.
“The areas that TCT bid on are areas that TCT has been building service to or are adjacent to areas that make it possible to provide a very robust service to these underserved areas,” Wardell said.
These services will be wireless and prices aren’t likely to be any better, but they will provide coverage for more rural homes and businesses.
(Tribune Editor CJ Baker contributed reporting.)