CHEYENNE — Wyoming's efforts to expand broadband internet access across the state go beyond making sure people can binge their favorite TV show no matter their ZIP code.
Connectivity is just as vital for small communities as it is for large population centers. Being able to access the internet provides a multitude of economic opportunities for members of rural communities, and allows them not only to sustain their population but grow it, as well.
Access can provide medical care to patients with mobility issues and allow elderly residents to stay in their home. And much like the telephone did decades ago, reliable internet access can provide a way for isolated people to be connected to their community.
"Faster internet can help with the ability of people to stay in touch with each other," said Tom Lacock, associate director for Wyoming AARP. "Internet access is just like access to landlines in the past. It allows you to have access to emergency care. It can allow you to have access to being able to just talk to someone else and fight off social isolationism."
Lacock said isolation, especially for older residents, poses a serious detriment to one's health. Studies have shown prolonged periods of social isolation are the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes, and help lead to higher instances of infectious diseases, higher blood pressure and earlier onset of dementia.
All the benefits of a connected society have driven Wyoming state government's efforts to expand access to residents in the more rural areas of the state. And as the first deadline looms for Wyoming to receive a piece of more than half a billion dollars in federal money for expansion, current efforts to truly illustrate the need across the state are a vital piece of the puzzle.
Through the United States Department of Agriculture, the federal government will make $600 million available for a combination of loans and grants for projects to expand rural broadband access.
Russ Elliott, state broadband manager, said Wyoming is putting in hard work to gather data to paint a complete picture for the need in the state's most rural areas.
While the first deadline for applications for the program is near the end of April, there will be another opportunity to apply in the fall, Elliott said. And even if Wyoming doesn't receive funding in this first cycle, he believes it is well positioned to receive funding in the second cycle.
Part of preparing projects in Wyoming for funding is illustrating the issue of connectivity in the state. Cities like Cheyenne and Casper have good access, but for more rural areas, like in the eastern part of Wyoming, Elliott said the economic realities of putting in major infrastructure to serve a small group of people has left them without connectivity.
Elliott and others are using wyobbmap.org to establish a comprehensive, navigable database of Wyoming's existing internet infrastructure, service providers and internet speeds. And the group is in the process of mailing out requests for input from residents in rural areas to help paint a complete picture of where the state needs the most help.
"The areas that are less served or not served by providers are very hard economic models to make work with the small populations," Elliott said. "Hence the need for federal or state assistance to make it possible for providers to be able to invest in those areas."
By providing low-interest loans, grants or some combination of the two for various projects, Elliott said the cost for companies goes down, and the barriers to investments go away, too. The lower product costs also should translate into reasonable rates for access and providers, since there's less investment to cover.
Chad Rupe, Wyoming director for the USDA Office of Rural Development, said the state's efforts to gather as much information as possible on the need in each community should help projects here have a better chance of receiving funding.
"Connectivity is one of the major needs of rural America to be able to fill that urban-rural divide gap. Our ability to deliver broadband expands rural areas' capacity for job creation and expanded opportunities for people to have a high quality of life," Rupe said. "So many can come from just being connected and gaining access to the rest of the world.”