SHERIDAN — Each work day, Cathryn Kerns has a choice to make. Drive 45 minutes into town and work on her laptop with coffee and scone in hand, or work from home and risk draining her internet allowance that might otherwise be used for mapping out on the ranch or watching Netflix in the evening.
Each facet of the family business relies on internet. Web management, photo uploads and Google Maps quickly drain her monthly allowance.
A local school just switched to faster internet, even better than what Kerns finds in town, but her house is just outside its reach, she said.
Kerns, co-owner of Truly \ Beef, said it takes more than 24 hours at home to upload the typical 500-1,000 photos from a five-day cattle drive, while with faster internet, it takes about four hours.
Kerns lives in one of Sheridan County’s blind spots, where broadband access is minimal, according to Wyoming broadband survey results. Sheridan County is peppered with medium-speed areas and three high-speed hot spots along Interstate 90 — most immediately around the city of Sheridan — with one near Big Horn.
Dayton and Ranchester display low to very low coverage. Some areas are identified as having no broadband access at all. The results are based on feedback from about 40 respondents.
The most recent federally-funded effort to improve rural internet access is confined to the southwest part of the state. But more Wyoming communities will have the chance to apply for funding to develop broadband infrastructure in the future, program director Scott Sutherland said.
In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced nearly $4.8 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure to improve rural e-connectivity in Sweetwater County. The project is intended to improve speed and access over 136 square miles, covering 312 households and four educational facilities.
According to a USDA press release, the $600 million allocated for USDA’s ReConnect pilot program will boost economic opportunity and prosperity in rural America, including Wyoming. The USDA received nearly 150 applications, which requested more than double the amount of funding available.
Internet connection leads to high productivity in health care, education, agriculture, banking, entertainment and communication, according to the USDA. Mapping hot spots and under-served areas using real-time data represents an important step forward in broadband expansion, Sutherland said. The mapping system is managed by the Wyoming State Broadband Program.
Aaron Sopko, general manager of Advanced Communications Technology and WBC board member, said Wyoming’s rural nature makes broadband access difficult but state providers are doing well at recognizing challenges and providing customers with options.
Some rural communities and individuals are still lacking coverage but the majority of small communities are adequately connected, he said. The Broadband Advisory Council and broadband manager position were established in 2018 to identify Wyoming’s most critical areas of need, he said. Overall, Sheridan stacks up fairly well compared to other parts of the state.
“These communities that are maybe unserved or under-served now have a champion for them that’s helping them to address the challenges that they may face,” Sopko said.
Internet presence is an avenue to reach more customers nationwide and educate people about the ranching lifestyle, Kerns said. It is a means of counteracting misinformation about ranching and educating people about the food they consume. She sees value in reaching out to potential new customers by having a website that makes a strong first impression within the first three to five seconds.
Still, the Kerns family started cattle drives about 30 years ago and built a solid business base through recommendations, long before Cathryn Kerns became a part of the family and started managing websites for the family business and sharing photos on Instagram.
Their success relies on an established reputation combined with the willingness to adapt to new methods of interacting with consumers, Cathryn Kerns said.
For people in rural areas who struggle with slow or no internet, they find ways to make it work. Consumers will find quality products, even if they have to work a little harder.
“As a younger person, I see a lot of validity behind having a good website and good marketing but at the same time, if your product doesn’t back it up, then what’s the point of throwing all that money and time into a good website and good marketing?” Kerns asked.
Fifth-generation rancher Dana Kerns said in his opinion, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He relies heavily on internet access — about 90% of his business comes through the web — but he isn’t looking for more than what he currently works with.
Dana Kerns said he has grown accustomed to what’s available. With decently reliable internet access through his satellite, he doesn’t see a large issue. He’d be spoiled with more, he said.
Technology that is advertised as “new and improved” often means a more complex system that costs more money, Kerns said. His current provider just increased monthly prices for recent changes that haven’t changed or improved anything, he said.
Sopko said in the coming years, he expects costs to become more affordable because of fiber network expansion and emerging wireless technology. It is expensive to build the infrastructure to access the most rural parts of the state, and that cost can bleed through to consumers, he said.
Wyoming took a major step forward to monitor and identify areas of need in 2018 with $10 million directed to the Wyoming Business Council to establish broadband infrastructure, the advisory council and one broadband manager, who works with communities statewide to identify areas of greatest need and work with stakeholders to apply for grants and fill the gaps, Sopko said.
“The state of Wyoming has actually done a very, very nice job as far as focusing on broadband and the need for broadband beginning with the schools,” Sopko said.
Sopko described broadband expansion as a “great public-private partnership” with potential to grow through state partnerships with existing providers. Wyoming could ultimately become a leader in expanding broadband access in rural areas, he said.