Elaina Zempel, Wyoming Broadband Director

Elaina Zempel, manager of the Wyoming broadband office, laments that the office didn’t have more funds to distribute in its recent Capital Projects Fund (CPF) program, which awarded funding to network operators to cover some of the costs of deploying broadband to 15,000 unserved and underserved locations.

The $70.5 million in federal funds that the office had available to award was only 22% of the total amount of funding that network operators applied for.

Fortunately, NTIA allocated $347.9 million in rural broadband funding to Wyoming for the BEAD rural broadband funding program, so there is still an opportunity to fund many of the failed requests from Wyoming’s CPF round of funding.

The CPF allocations were for fiber projects, but Zempel expects the BEAD funding to skew more toward less costly technologies. Industry experts estimate that Wyoming will be one of the states that will deploy the least per-capita fiber in the BEAD program. Only 30% of unserved and underserved locations will get fiber, according to an analysis from Cartesian and ACA Connects.

According to Zempel, the state’s BEAD allocation is roughly a third of what would be required to get fiber to everyone.

“We are grateful for the investment but there isn’t enough money to deliver the program’s stated goal of broadband for all” with fiber, Zempel said.

Wyoming’s situation arises, in part, because the state is the most sparsely populated in the U.S., with less than six people per square mile.

“Urban centers in Wyoming aren’t even urban centers – is 500 people urban?” said Zempel.

The biggest problem, she said, “is that our population density doesn’t make the investment worth it, companies can’t get the cash flow to work. Businesses are for-profit entities, and we need to respect that.”

Alternative Technologies

Fixed wireless will be a tool used to reach remote locations, but in some areas, there may not even be a business case for fixed wireless, Zempel explained.

“Fixed wireless won’t be the answer alone as it doesn’t go around a mountain, go through trees, or climb a cliff – we have a lot of natural barriers making satellite the only option for many areas,” she said. “Our plan will need to lean on other technologies including fixed wireless and satellite, but what does that mean? Do we buy people a dish? We are still figuring this out.”

Zempel herself relies on a satellite connection for her home, where she reports receiving slightly better that 100 Mbps. But performance is highly weather dependent.

People Skills

Zempel is the third person to head up Wyoming’s broadband office, which was established by the state legislature in 2018 as part of the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) program. The broadband office is housed in the Wyoming Business Council (WBC) and overseen by the Wyoming Business Council Board of Directors, which includes Governor Mark Gordon.

Zempel, who has a long history serving in economic development, is the only person in Wyoming’s broadband office. Nevertheless, the position requires strong people skills, she said.

She jokes that she sometimes needs to get everyone looking forward instead of airing grievances from past disappointments, “It’s like a marriage, you have to move on… you can’t bring up what happened in 1985… it’s not productive.”  

Looking Forward

In preparation for BEAD, Zempel encourages applicants to actually read the grant guidelines, five-year plan, etc. from the broadband office before applying.

She says selecting CPF recipients in Wyoming was simple in that “applicants that paid attention and read what received points did very well, those who didn’t seem to read the grant guidelines didn’t receive funding. I would encourage entities that want BEAD funding to read what receives points. The object is to reach as many people as we can.”

As the Wyoming office gets ready for the application process, Zempel is running a ‘prequalification round’ to make sure that all the pass/fail requirements for compliance are taken care of ahead of time.

“We can’t take in applications until the challenge process is done, but we can . . . prequalify,” she said. “We learned in CPF that we absolutely need prequalification so that people can be ready to go.”

Zempel said this will tighten up the contract process and get construction underway faster in 2025. Project areas in Wyoming are being defined by grouping census blocks.

The latest count of Wyoming’s unserved population is 29K and its underserved number is 18K. Zempel does point out, though, that many people literally come to Wyoming to disconnect, so universal access should be measured differently here.

“The goal of ‘broadband for all,’ for us, that will be hard,” said Zempel. “We need to respect the wishes of folks who want to unplug and realize ‘universal’ in Wyoming might be closer to 95 than 100%.”

Join the Conversation

2 thoughts on “Wyoming Broadband Manager Doesn’t Expect to Fund Much Fiber

  1. In today’s world, the need for internet access (by any means) is as necessary as electrical service was in in the early 1900’s. Internet service should be considered as a utility, just like electricity, gas, water and sewage. Internet service – not content – should be under the control of local public utilities commissions.

    1. The services you reference, gas, power water, etc. are cost based rate structures not subjected to competition. What competitive alternatives do you have available if your power rates are too high? Solar? Generator? Wind? Water? The Telecom Act of 1996 enabled competition and required Telecom providers, to open their networks to Competitive Local Exchange Carriers. While this act did, in fact, drive technological development. It left those of us (me too) in high cost to provide adequate services, areas out in the cold. The recent federal funding, initiated during the Obama admin has helped bring fiber to the ranch, etc. But, if the ROI doesn’t pencil out the grants offered by the Feds may not gain any traction.

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