It's a frigid, blustery January day in Guernsey, Wyoming.
As snow flurries whip through the air, a helmet-clad man climbs into a bucket lift, hoisting himself to the top of a tower on the city’s perimeter. He and a teammate hang antennas, run cables, connect wires and test circuits.
The rattling din of diesel engines cuts through the small-town quiet. There are more wandering antelope, curiously pricking up their ears at the commotion, than humans out on this grassy, windblown prairie.
About 1,151 people call this single-square-mile town in southeast Wyoming home, according to census estimates.
Guernsey’s remoteness, with its ample fresh air and breathing room, appeals to many of its residents; but it comes with challenges. For one: internet.
Despite its largely remote nature, Wyoming isn’t lacking in internet capability compared to the rest of the country. The state has invested significantly in improving its broadband access. For example, the Unified Network was installed in 2014 and provided a sprawling web of public internet infrastructure across the state. It means Wyoming schools rank first in the nation for internet connectivity, and Wyoming is one of only two states with 100 percent connectivity to all its schools.
Still, Wyoming ranks only ahead of Alaska in population density so there are wide distances between people here. It’s a challenge that generally doesn’t appeal to internet providers, who bank on reaching enough subscribers to pay for – or at the very least, to break even on – the cost of the cables, towers and other infrastructure required to reach them.
Until shortly after crews ascended that tower on the outskirts of town, the city of Guernsey was operating with a patchwork of internet connections – one for the town hall, one for the police department, one for the fire department, one for the pool, etc. The city was paying a total of $2,600 a month for internet and voice service, and receiving no more than 10 megabits of speed at any location. Under the state’s definition, that made Guernsey “unserved” for broadband.
That distinction is what brought Russ Elliott, the Wyoming Business Council’s new broadband manager, to town.
Russ Elliott, Broadband Translator
In the eight months since he was hired last June, Elliott has folded his 6’-tall frame into his compact, bright red Toyota Prius – which, he admits with a laugh, usually earns him a ribbing from the folks out on Wyoming ranches. He’s put at least 15,000 miles on it since June, crisscrossing from Saratoga to Sundance, Greybull to Guernsey, and everything in between on long, lonely stretches of single-lane highways.
Russ Elliott has traveled 15,000+ miles and visited more than three dozen towns since he was hired in June 2018.
The Colorado native introduces himself as “the broadband guy.” He has an energetic personality and an affinity for cowboy boots and paisley button-up shirts. His road trips are fueled by gigantic plastic cups of gas-station iced tea and whatever classic rock or country station comes through in the remote reaches of the state.
The Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, hired Elliott following passage of Senate File 100. The 2018 legislation set aside money for expanding broadband access to “unserved” areas of the state – those receiving under 10 megabits of download speed. It included money for hiring a state broadband manager and grant funds to help develop infrastructure. Before moving to Cheyenne, Elliott grew an internet service provider in Colorado and New Mexico from startup to 14,000 customers in 10 years, delivering service to many rural reaches through creative partnerships, technologies and a unique focus on customer service.
In addition to hiring Elliott, the Business Council established the Broadband Advisory Council, which created a Broadband Enhancement Plan. The ambitious plan sets a mission, vision and moonshot goal for the program that goes well beyond simply providing basic internet service around the state. The blueprint aims to position Wyoming as a leader in broadband accessibility and to set standards for other states to follow.
Elliott easily recites the lofty mission statement by heart: To enrich lives, enable economic diversification and move Wyoming to a position of leadership in the new digital world by ensuring every citizen and business has access to affordable, reliable, redundant and future-proof broadband.
Despite all his travels, few people in Laramie, Cheyenne, Casper, Jackson or Sheridan are likely to know his face. But he’s a regular for cornbread and chili at Deacons Restaurant in Torrington, and he frequently stops in for Moose Tracks ice cream from a convenience store in Farson.
“Especially in these tiny towns, you can’t be afraid to just walk up to strangers, shake their hands and start conversations,” he said.
The postmaster in Jay Em, (population: 15, on a good day) for example, looked at him like he was an alien when he first walked into the post office, he said with a laugh.
“People don’t just drive in to Jay Em on a regular basis,” he chuckled.
“Jay Em is a symbol of what we’re trying to do for the state,” Elliott said. “It’s an example of the state’s forgotten places.”
He’s met the mayor of Saratoga, who also owns the town’s hardware store.
He's met Kim Brown, a board member of the Eden Valley Improvement District, who also owns an oil and gas contracting business, and a handful of convenience stores in Farson.
He’s met Kate Farmer, who is responsible for everything from budgeting and payroll to city council meeting minutes and grant management for the town of Guernsey.
He’s met Pat Wade, Niobrara County Commissioner and retired rancher.
The people who keep these rural towns running work hard and wear many hats, he explained. And often, no one has taken on the challenge of becoming the town’s broadband champion. It's a complicated topic, and the technology seems to change every day.
Meanwhile, internet service providers are trying to run lucrative businesses and need to see a reasonable return on their investments, causing them to frequently overlook the sparse populations of rural areas.
“Small towns need a champion, and internet service providers need an incentive and a translator,” he said. “I understand the needs and challenges of both, and I happen to speak both languages.”
For Larsen, the CEO of Vistabeam, solving the service-area gaps and providing a much-needed service to rural residents – like he just did for Guernsey – isn’t just a good business plan. It’s personal.
“I grew up on a ranch near Lusk,” he said. “Our ranch didn’t have internet service. The dial-up barely even worked because the phone lines were so bad. I started this business to serve my neighbors and myself.”
He is currently working to bring service to that very area.
“It’s not going to be a huge money-maker,” he said. “But if the majority of it just breaks even up there, I'm going to feel like it was a job well done. It’s really critical... so people can participate in all of the things that are going on in society by having that connection.”
“Too often,” Elliott said, “people look at these hang-ups as ‘us against them'. But we’re all on the same team here. Residents want fast, reliable internet. Providers want to reach more customers and boost their bottom line doing so. It’s a matter of bringing the right people together to bridge some gaps.”
So far, Elliott says his biggest achievement has been getting the right people to the table to have the right conversations to solve those challenges.
His method is simple. After discovering the unique needs and challenges in each town, he starts conversations with service providers.
First, he tries to troubleshoot the problems they’ve had in bringing service to the area. And because he has been a service provider himself, he won’t settle for vague answers or being shrugged off. Instead, he shares experiences and ideas – like putting a wireless tower on the hill in Guernsey – that maybe hadn’t been considered before.
If he’s unable to troubleshoot with a provider, he’ll look for other competing companies that can do the work.
And if that still doesn’t work, he has access to the $10 million in grant funds that can solve a lot of problems. That money can support cities in building up their own infrastructure to create public-private partnerships and get the job done.
So far, he hasn’t had to go beyond step one, he said. In each town, there have been providers willing and able to do the work, with some mutual troubleshooting and incentive.
“I’ve been very impressed by the willingness of the Wyoming providers to come to the table, think outside the box and stretch outside of their comfort zones,” Elliott said.
And although Elliott hasn’t yet had to dip into the state’s grant funds, the fact that it exists at all is the incentive – the teeth; and usually, that’s all Elliott needs.
In the end, Elliott is just one man on a massive team of people working to improve broadband throughout the state, but his unique background in both the public and private sectors positions him to make solutions happen.
“Having somebody to really focus the conversation, set goals and take a personal level of responsibility is huge,” Larsen said. “I think so many government entities kind of hide behind the idea of committees and task forces ... but if you want to make real progress, you have to have a champion. That’s what I see Wyoming doing a really good job of. I think that process is going to pay off great dividends in the future.”