Feds Approve $70 Million for Wyoming to Improve Internet Access
Funding from the American Rescue Plan represents the latest major investment to close the ‘digital divide’
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Feb 24, 2023
The U.S. Treasury Department this week approved over $70 million in federal funding for Wyoming to expand and improve its broadband internet infrastructure. (Press Association via AP Images)
By Jacob Gardenswartz
Special to the Wyoming Truth
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced this week that Wyoming will be among the latest group of states to receive tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to support the development of high-speed internet infrastructure.
The $70.5 million earmarked for Wyoming comes from the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which consists of nearly $10 billion in federal funding appropriated to U.S. states and territories by the American Rescue Plan Act. That sweeping economic stimulus package spearheaded by President Joe Biden was narrowly approved by the U.S. Congress in 2021.
“[The COVID-19 pandemic] was the moment when it became so crystal clear to every American what many leaders and advocates had argued for a long time,” senior White House advisor and American Rescue Plan coordinator Gene Sperling said on a call with reporters previewing the funding announcement Tuesday.
“Having affordable broadband that was capable of allowing two parents to telework, [of allowing] more than two children to do homework, could not any longer be considered a luxury,” Sperling added. “It was a basic, basic measure that every American family had to have to have equal educational and economic opportunity.”
The funding will benefit an estimated 11,700 households and businesses throughout the state, according to the Treasury Department, and will be distributed by Connect Wyoming, a grant program of the Wyoming Business Council which handles broadband internet modernization. To qualify for funding from the program, internet service providers must participate in the Federal Communication Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, providing a subsidy of up to $30 per month towards internet service for eligible low-income households and up to $75 per month for qualifying families living on Tribal lands.
“This CPF award will be a great continuation of Wyoming’s broadband development efforts, allowing us to provide internet service to areas that were previously difficult to serve,” Elaina Zempel, the Council’s Broadband Manager, said in a statement shared with the Wyoming Truth. Coupled with other similar programs, the new funding “will bring several hundred million dollars in infrastructure development to Wyoming to grow our local capacity in a very crucial area,” Zempel added.
High-speed internet access lags in Wyoming
According to an analysis by BroadbandNow, an independent research agency which tracks high-speed internet access in the U.S., Wyoming ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of internet availability. Just over 84% of households in the state have access to some sort of internet service, but only 79% have access to high-speed broadband, defined by that group as 100 megabits per second.
Over 10% of Wyoming youth aged 5-9 lack access to broadband internet, government figures show. In more rural parts of the state, some school districts lack a single household with reliable internet service.
Expanding access to broadband internet has been a priority of local and national figures for some time. In 2020, Gov. Mark Gordon and state legislators used some $87 million of COVID-19 relief funding to develop the Connect Wyoming program, something Gordon said at the time would “help connect rural communities in Wyoming that may not have had the chance to get service otherwise.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) has highlighted the lack of reliable broadband as one of “the biggest impediments to economic growth and diversity in Wyoming,” promising earlier this month to use her post on the Senate Commerce Committee “to work to expand rural broadband and address transportation needs for communities and small businesses throughout the state.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has similarly worked on broadband issues in the past, most recently sending a letter calling on several federal agency directors to loosen regulations surrounding broadband infrastructure permitting to help speed up approvals.
“It is crucial we close the digital divide by expanding access to high-speed internet—a top priority for our rural areas—and we cannot accomplish that without improving the permitting process,” Barrasso wrote in the letter, signed by a bipartisan group of senators including Lummis.
Even President Joe Biden has spoken out about the need to improve internet access throughout the nation. In his recent State of the Union address, he said no parent “should have to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot so their kid can do their homework online.”
And yet, Biden also hasn’t been shy about calling out Republican lawmakers touting funding they voted against — something several lawmakers outside Wyoming have done in recent months.
“To my Republican friends who voted against [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans,” Biden said in those same remarks. “We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”
Asked about how Biden’s comments knocking Republicans for hypocrisy might impact this funding announcement, Sperling told the Wyoming Truth that “my job as American rescue plan coordinator is to work with every state, every governor, every county.”
“Whether you’re urban [or] rural, whether you’re small [or] large, whether you’re in a red state, blue state or purple state… everything we do is to help everyone use those funds the best,” Sperling added. “Were happy when anybody works together with us.”
In a statement Thursday, Gordon celebrated the announcement, noting the funds “will help Wyoming address many of the challenges laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in rural areas of our state.”
“We will utilize these funds to ensure Wyoming communities and businesses have access to the high-quality, modern infrastructure they need to access critical services,” Gordon added.
Neither Lummis nor Barrasso — both of whom opposed the American Rescue Plan and infrastructure law — have commented on the new internet funding. Their representatives did not respond to questions about their stance on the Wyoming broadband investments.