CHEYENNE — With Wyoming ranked near the bottom among U.S. states for broadband access, internet provider Bluepeak is investing $70 million toward local expansion to help close that gap.
The initiative brings the company’s modern, fiber-to-the-home network to communities across the state, which will improve internet access and speed for more than 70,000 residents and businesses, according to a company news release. Construction in Cheyenne has already begun, and next year, Bluepeak will break ground in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan.
“Fast, reliable broadband connectivity is integral to every community, regardless of size, especially now,” Rich Fish, CEO of Bluepeak, said in the release. “Wyoming is one of the fastest growing states, making choice of carrier and access to a next generation, fiber-to-the-home network increasingly important for economic development.”
Wyoming ranks 46th in the nation for broadband access, according to BroadbandNow.
The digital divide in Wyoming has been a concern for state and local government officials, businesses, schools and residents for many years now, due to a significant portion of the population having little to no high-speed internet access.
But the pandemic has driven the need for a reliable network further.
“We found that it’s really critical over the last 18 months, and this Bluepeak investment will definitely help us with that,” said Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins.
The landscape of socialization, work, health care and education has changed in nature because of the push for virtual options. Instead of going into the office or taking a class in person, he said many people have turned to using Zoom and other technology as a safer method in the interest of public health.
This can mean those without access to broadband may experience social and economic inequalities and lack advantages some people take for granted, according to ACLU Wyoming Communications Director Janna Farley.
“People without broadband access just don’t have access to equal opportunities in education, employment, banking and other important components of social mobility,” she said. “I think that was the case before the pandemic, and it’s even worse now.”
She also explained how communities with higher percentages of people of color, as well as rural populations, are more at risk of insufficient internet connections.
The Cowboy State is no exception to this. Nearly 47% of residents live in frontier areas of the state, meaning 17 of the 23 counties have fewer than six people per square mile, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Laramie County Commissioner Gunnar Malm said he agrees this may be the cause of the local digital divide, because it’s difficult for companies to make a financial investment without knowing whether there will be a significant return or a large number of broadband participants.
“They’re driven by business considerations and profits,” he said. “And so it’s quite an outlay of expense, with limited return, in some cases, just because of our population density.”
But he and other officials said this should not deter companies from developing broadband infrastructure in regions with these characteristics. He considers investing in communities across the state an opportunity to increase economic vitality and social freedom, especially since telework will play an even larger part in the future.
“Getting access to as many citizens as possible to not only work from home, but learn from home, is critical,” he said. “High-speed internet access allows people to enjoy the quality of life that we have here in Wyoming, while still working from anywhere in the world.”