AARP Eye Center
With the onset of COVID-19 quarantine came a realization of just how much citizens of Wyoming have come to rely on the internet for everything from social contact to buying groceries. This Legislative session, AARP supported three bills to aid in the development of cheaper, faster internet across the Cowboy State.
State Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) sits on the Legislature’s Broadband Task Force and is a recognized leader in the Legislature in the area of high speed internet. Sommers says he felt like the three bills aimed at increasing speed and availability of internet service in Wyoming could be game-changers.
“The whole point of SF76 was to make the State’s Broadband Program even more user-friendly, with the hope of getting more projects on the ground,” Sommers writes to AARP. “HB14 was created to ensure faster approval time for broadband projects during the local government permitting process. HB197 recognized the good work accomplished utilizing CARES Act dollars through Connect Wyoming by establishing a priority for broadband when the Legislature decides how to spend American Rescue Plan dollars.”
Since its inception three years ago, the Wyoming Broadband Enhancement Program has developed a state plan for how to improve internet speeds in the state, but has not spent the $10 million it has in its grant program. That is due in-part to an onerous rules process internet services providers had to follow to apply for that funding. Senate File 76 should make that process a little easier, allowing for the relaxation of some rules of the program, while allowing for grant funds to be spent on middle mile projects. Middle mile projects are the fiber that connects communities and provides a path between the community and a connection to the larger internet. The hope is by allowing for the middle mile projects to be funded through this program, high speed internet to the home becomes less expensive.
The passage of House Bill 14 makes it easier for companies who are constructing or maintaining broadband lines to get access to the right-of-ways along the roadway. HB14 also cuts the time that a community or county has to approve permits to dig in the right-of-way in hopes of making it quicker and easier for broadband companies to move projects forward. The bill also directs the Wyoming Department of Transportation to petition the federal government for a blanket easement to the state of Wyoming for rights-of-way for broadband providers to set their fixtures and facilities along, across, or under public roads located or through federal lands in Wyoming.
House Bill 197 was brought by Cody Republican House member Sandy Newsome and provides a framework for continuing to spend federal dollars on infrastructure for high speed internet in Wyoming. In August, Governor Mark Gordon authorized federal CARES Act dollars to pay for projects that would support high speed internet around Wyoming. The result was 37 individual projects around the state got the green light. However, due to Wyoming’s short construction season and a lack of available equipment and crews, not all of the projects were completed. House Bill 197 allows for the remainder of those unspent CARES Act dollars to be used this year, in addition to any other federal funds, such as those that would come from the American Rescue Plan or the Infrastructure Proposal going through Congress in April.
“The creation and initial funding of the Connect Wyoming program was a great start,” says Newsome. “We have more work to do and the funding provided in HB 197 will help connect more rural communities in Wyoming that may not have had the chance to get adequate service otherwise. With this additional funding, the people in Wyoming’s most rural communities will be able to access the essential services they need to access the opportunities that high-speed internet provides for years to come.”
House Bill 197 passed the House with just 12 no votes and the Senate with one.