CHEYENNE – Though the Laramie County Library was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people kept showing up outside of the virtually empty building this spring, seeking an essential part of modern life: internet access.
When coffee shops and other places with Wi-Fi closed in mid-March, the county library parking lot was one of few places Laramie County residents could connect to the digital world. Even before the pandemic, the library’s Wi-Fi had been a hot commodity, library spokeswoman Kasey Mossey said.
“A lot of people use our Wi-Fi, either on their own devices or by utilizing our computers,” Mossey said. “I think it fills a need for our community that people rely on.”
But statewide, there is still a lot of work to be done to meet that demand, as recent research shows Wyoming ranked among the bottom 10 states for internet coverage, speed and price. To improve that ranking, state lawmakers are hoping to spend some of the state’s federal relief money – which must be spent by the end of the year – to expand Wyoming’s internet capacity.
A few bills advanced by the Legislature’s Broadband Task Force earlier this month would set up initiatives to improve the state’s broadband performance, including a grant program for fiber-wire infrastructure projects and an initiative to fund community internet anchors, like the one at the Laramie County Library.
The bills as currently drafted would appropriate $185 million of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal relief funding for the expansion efforts. Along with the bills, the task force also agreed to send along a formal recommendation to the governor’s office for the initiatives.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, who serves on the task force, said the federal funds could be “a big moonshot” for the state to improve both its internet capacity and its cellular phone reception.
“You shouldn’t be driving down the highway in Wyoming and drop your calls, and that happens on our interstates and our state highways,” Harshman said in an interview. “We want to make a big jump in this whole connectivity ... it’s not all fiber, a lot of it’s going to be cellular, too.”
Gov. Mark Gordon has the ultimate authority to spend the federal relief money, about a quarter of which has already been appropriated for business grant programs. Federal guidelines require that each state spend its relief money by the end of the year, and all uses of the funding must be related to the pandemic, rather than supplementing lost revenue. Harshman was confident the spending on internet connectivity would meet the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidelines.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the governor said Friday that no final decision has been made on the use of CARES Act funding for broadband, adding there are still questions on what exactly is permissible under federal guidance.
The bills crafted by the Broadband Task Force will likely now go to the Legislature’s Management Council, which could sponsor them for a possible special session or for the Legislature’s regular session next year.
The House speaker noted the benefits to telehealth and remote education – both of which have become crucial during the pandemic – that could come through the effort. But he was also eager to start spending the money before the clock runs out.
“Time is of the essence, so we’ve got these recommendations ready for the executive branch,” Harshman said. “We’ve got to get that going in the next week or two. It’s already almost July.”