NIOBRARA COUNTY – Rural broadband is a talking point for politicians at the state and national levels, but the situation has yet to be rectified in Niobrara County.
Parts of Niobrara County, including Manville, lack access to any broadband internet providers, according to BroadbandNow, a database of providers whose mission is to help consumers access broadband service.
Niobrara County Commission Chairman Pat Wade has been working for over five years to give rural residents access to high-speed internet and phone service. He is one of these eastern Wyoming residents not able to access this service in his home, instead using lower speed satellite service. Niobrara County lacks a redundant internet connection, which is a link to the internet that activates when your main internet connection fails.
“For our county to have any sort of good broadband, we need to have a redundant fiber feed into the town of Lusk,” Wade said.
The internet is becoming an increasingly necessary part of everyday life in 2020. The need for connectivity is exacerbated by the pandemic, as spring left students and employees at home working via the internet, whether they had access or not.
Internet access isn’t the only issue, as both Wade and State Representative Hans Hunt (R-Niobrara County) pointed out. Hunt said there is a great need for access in rural unserved and underserved areas in the county.
“It’s not just an issue of internet service, it’s an issue of communications and cell phone service and everything else that goes with it,” Hunt said. “Frankly it’s a safety issue when it comes to someone who would have a medical emergency and also of course during fire season and inhibitions to being able to communicate with neighbors.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing more than $1.7 million to provide broadband service in rural areas in southwestern South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, including Niobrara County, according to a Sept. 29 USDA press release.
According to the release, Golden West Telecommunications Cooperative, Inc. will use a $1.7 million grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 218 people, five businesses, 65 farms and one essential community facility to high-speed broadband internet in Fall River and Custer counties in South Dakota and Niobrara and Weston counties in Wyoming.
The USDA’s grant is part of the ReConnect program funded by Congress, which allocated $550 million to the second round of the program.
Wade said Golden West is planning to run a fiber optic line west from Edgemont, S.D., to Mule Creek Junction, Wyo., roughly 45 miles north of Lusk. Golden West provides the landline phone service for the northeast corner of Niobrara County, but he said he is not certain if they intend to extend fiber to their existing customers in that area.
Wyoming’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and former Rep. Cynthia Lummis discussed the issue with voters at an event on Sept. 25 in Lusk. She told The Herald redundancy is one of the issues residents seemed most concerned with.
If elected, she said she would like to serve on the Senate Committee on Commerce, which has jurisdiction over rural broadband, something that greatly affects Wyomingites.
“(Residents are) a little concerned that if the one fiber goes down, it would cause a real hardship,” Lummis said.
Still, despite talk of improving Niobrara County’s connection, solutions have yet to surface. Wade said Niobrara County attempted to form a Tri-County Joint Powers Board with Goshen and Platte counties.
He said the three county attorneys involved could not find an agreement, and thus it has yet to come to fruition. COVID-19 has also put efforts on hold, he said.
“That Tri-County Joint Powers board would have been a better situation for us to go out and start looking for grants, whether they are federal or state,” Wade said. “The state has some money that has been set aside that flows through the Wyoming Business Council (WBC) for broadband.”
The state legislature signed a law in 2018 providing $10 million to establish a broadband infrastructure grant fund and $350,000 to establish a broadband coordinator position at the WBC and a Broadband Advisory Council, according to the WBC.
WBC Broadband Manager Ryan Kudera said ACT Communications was offered CARES Act grant money to install broadband that would reach Niobrara County, but there is a restriction on CARES funding that requires beneficiaries to complete their projects by Dec. 30, 2020, which was deemed impossible given the size of the project.
“We were really excited about that, we thought our problems were solved,” Wade said.
“We have not given up on this project, continuing to examine how to make this happen,” Kudera wrote in an email to The Herald.
For now, residents can visit the Niobrara County Library to use internet connection inside and outside of the building. Library Director Debbie Sturman said people use it every day.
If you have a story about how lack of internet access has affected you, call The Herald office or email [email protected]