For the state of Wyoming, high-speed broadband Internet access is more than a matter of convenience.
“This is part of the governor’s initiative to increase quality of life,” said the state’s CIO, Flint Waters. “We want to diversify our economy. In order to continue to expand the workforce and keep Wyoming students in the state, we have to increase broadband capacity.”
Last year, Gov. Matt Mead presented the Unified Network project as a way to leverage the state’s education and government broadband demands to promote capacity growth for the state. The project will boost capacity to 100 gigabits compared to the current 2.5 gigabit network.
With access points located in eight communities and anchored at schools or state offices, the network will create more redundancy and reliability. Gov. Mead’s proposal is intended to enhance private investment in broadband infrastructure without fear of the state as competition.
“Instead of drawing on our own fiber, we’re using public-private partnerships,” said Waters. “A lot of local government have taken the former approach, and it has the counter effect. Companies go somewhere else. We partnered with all of our broadband providers in the state, which rewards them for investing in the state. There are things that the state does well, and I don’t believe this is one that we’d do on our own. We leave it to the experts.”
The state signed master service agreements with all statewide Internet Service Providers (ISP) interested in being a part of the network. Advanced Communications Technology (ACT), a company based in the state, was awarded two of the 100-gigabit backbone links. CenturyLink, a national ISP, was awarded six of the 100-gigabit backbone lines.
Other providers are reaching various state agencies and school locations. Additionally, local businesses will make contributions to the Unified Network. GreenHouse Data, a Wyoming-based firm, said it is working with the Department of Enterprise Technology Services to review, analyze and recommend hardware selection, security and perimeter controls, staff training, log monitoring, remote access, encryption, firewall implementations and more, according to the Wyoming Business Report
“Researchers work across the globe,” said Jeremy Ferkin, CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager for Wyoming and Montana. “When they can collaborate in real time via a 100-gigabit network, it provides a level of collaboration than has never been executed. Geography is no longer a barrier for Wyoming.”
The $15.8 million initiative, projected to finish by Aug. 30, 2015, is mostly backed by the state’s general fund with some education funding where the network is linked to school traffic.
“The Unified Network will allow Wyoming students and teachers to take advantage of online resources from around the world,” said Gov. Mead in a press release. “It will benefit health care in Wyoming through resources such as tele-medicine, which is becoming more common. It will give businesses located here and those looking to move to Wyoming access to technology currently associated more with large population centers through the private providers’ infrastructure. The expansion of the Network is an exciting moment for Wyoming.”
The first phase of the project, which began last summer, was completed in February. The state upgraded its Wyoming Equality Network, which serves 48 school districts and many state offices. The next phase begins July 1, when work orders are released to the state’s partners and router installation begins.
The infrastructure is comprised of three loops — located in northern Wyoming, southern Wyoming and between Laramie and Cheyenne — that bring the Internet to hubs built by ACT and CenturyLink. Spokes from the hubs, built by local Internet providers, will connect schools and state agencies to the backbone. The complete network environment will include 27 locations.
“They challenged us to think and operate different,” Ferkin said. “100-gigabit networks didn’t exist 36 months ago. We’re executing on the plan in very short order.”
To fulfill the governor’s initiative, providers, such as CenturyLink, are upgrading equipment to bring connections to communities that would have been too small to otherwise warrant investment. Once the equipment is in place, ISPs can offer enhanced services at more affordable prices to businesses and residents.
“Wyoming has set the benchmark for public-private partnerships,” Ferkin said. “We see this as critical for driving economic growth and it's already attracting businesses.”
Since the Unified Network project was announced last year, Microsoft said that it is allocating $500 million toward expanding its data centers in Wyoming.
“This is a holistic approach to increase quality of life through technology,” Waters said. “We’re not solving for today. We’re solving for tomorrow.”
Once the infrastructure is in place, the state leaves it in the hands of the schools how to use the enhanced technology. One county may choose to adopt video conferencing for a foreign language class and another county may choose to offer online classes.
“This is unparalleled,” said Troy Babbitt, Wyoming’s broadband enterprise architect. “Other states are struggling with trying to reach out to their schools. We’re trying to leverage services. Once the kids become accustomed to this kind of service, it benefits the service providers in the future.”
Ultimately, the state’s broadband efforts are aimed at expanding the workforce and keeping Wyoming students in the state. As intangible as the Internet may be, Waters measures the return on investment by the downstream benefits: “How big can a kid dream when you give them all access to the world’s knowledge at the touch of a button?”