The internet has affected the world in profound ways. Over the past few decades, nearly anyone in a first-world country has had access to massive amounts of information in a fraction of a second. It changed the way individuals and businesses operate, allowing for more freedom and flexibility because people didn’t have to be in the same physical location to accomplish tasks together.
However, the internet’s evolution is far from complete, especially in more remote, sparsely populated areas. Does that description ring a bell? Wyoming — and, to a lesser extent, Sheridan County — is still in the process of figuring out how to most effectively bring the internet’s massive power to more people as cost effectively as possible.
Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce CEO Dixie Johnson said better internet could tremendously impact the local economy.
“The more we all rely on being connected, the more important it is for us to have opportunity to attract businesses,” Johnson said. “It’s as important as water, sewer and electricity in conducting business and being competitive.”
Johnson said faster internet enables businesses to work with a larger, more diverse number of businesses, both nationally and internationally. It could also attract new employees to the area.
The new Morrison Ranch neighborhood is the most noticeable recent development for better internet locally. The subdivision off Big Horn Avenue on the south end of Sheridan aims to provide hyper-connectivity for its eventual residents.
Advanced Communications Technology general manager Aaron Sopko said fiber optic cable is installed in the ground throughout the Morrison Ranch and the final step will be bringing it into the finished homes when residents move in.
The Morrison Ranch was the company’s first foray into residential work on a wide scale. ACT mainly works with businesses on highly-trafficked streets in Sheridan, like East Brundage Lane, Coffeen Avenue, South Sheridan Avenue, South Main Street and North Main Street.
Sopko said high-speed internet allows companies in smaller towns like Sheridan to keep pace with the global economy.
“It basically allows us to bring the world to Sheridan,” Sopko said.
There is not a direct correlation between population and internet speed. For example, Sopko said Worland — with a population of about 5,500 — has better connectivity than Cheyenne, the state’s largest city. Sopko added that Sheridan is one of the best-connected towns in the state for businesses.
That connectivity also comes in handy for tourism. Sheridan Travel and Tourism director Shawn Parker said internet connection is an expectation for travelers, other than in a few remote areas.
Wi-Fi connectivity is especially paramount for international visitors from Europe and Asia, who may make travel decisions based on the quality of internet connection.
“It’s not like you’re getting a leg up if you have Wi-Fi because everybody does,” Parker said. “Having Wi-Fi is no different than having sheets on the bed these days. It’s just part of the accommodation experience.”
Johnson said Sheridan also has a decent percentage of adults who live in town but work elsewhere or from home, which is made easier through quality internet.
“More people choose where they want to live and then determine how they’re going to do the work,” Johnson said.
With demand for better internet connectivity almost assuredly increasing in the future, Johnson said one of the challenges for Sheridan County will be figuring out how to best serve those residents who live in more remote areas.
Right now, the return on investment to install fiber optic cable for a relatively small number of people isn’t worth it for businesses like ACT.
That reality affects citizens like Melissa Butcher. Butcher is a managing partner at Confluence Collaborative in Sheridan and co-owner of Lazy R Campground in Ranchester. Butcher has lived with her husband near the Tongue River Canyon about 4 miles outside of Dayton for about the past decade.
Butcher works from home for about a half-day total per week. Ideally, she would work from home two days out of the week, but the slow internet can be challenging in her field, which involves web development.
“I love the idea of working at home,” Butcher said. “It has not proved to be as practical an application as I had hoped.”
Butcher said the internet connection is usually fine, but slow speed is often an issue. If Butcher’s home internet lags, she either goes to the campground office in Ranchester or the Confluence Collaborative office in Sheridan. When Butcher and her husband want to relax and stream a movie or show on Netflix, they expect occasional buffering due to slow internet.
Internet access in rural areas is getting better, though. When Butcher and her husband bought the campground in the early 2000s, any sort of internet connection was challenging. Now, campers expect speedy, reliable Wi-Fi.
Lacie Schwend finds herself in a similar situation. Schwend works in insurance from her home near Dayton. She has lived there for about six months with her husband and two young kids.
Schwend’s home Wi-Fi is unreliable, so she often uses a hot spot through her cellphone. The slow speeds and spotty connection surprised her, especially in today’s seemingly interconnected modern society.
If the connection is particularly troublesome, Schwend goes to a local library or the Tongue River Valley Community Center. However, she often conducts phone interviews for work, which ideally occur in a quiet setting. That isn’t always the case at a library or the TRVCC.
Both Butcher and Schwend reiterated that the cost-benefit analysis of living in a peaceful, gorgeous setting is worth the technology troubles.
“It’s a challenge,” Butcher said. “Having said that, we choose to live where we live, and there are some limitations to that.”
“It’s a trade-off, but it’s OK,” Schwend said. “If I didn’t have a job at home, I probably wouldn’t care as much, but because I have to have an internet connection to do my job, it’s frustrating at times.”
For daily life and entertainment around the home, Schwend said the internet connection doesn’t affect her two young children much. They can usually stream movies and do online homework, but it takes longer than normal to download a video game, for example.
Schwend’s children are not the only students dealing with inconsistent internet in the Tongue River Valley. Sheridan County School District 1 superintendent Pete Kilbride said SCSD1 has loaned hot spots to rural middle-schoolers and high-schoolers for about the past six years.
The four schools loan out an average of five or six hot spots per day. Kilbride added that sports coaches sometimes check out hot spots before a road trip, either for themselves or students.
Kilbride also said the school district tries not to give out much online homework. If a student needs internet, it is likely for a longer research project.
“If we’re asking kids to do this, we have to be able to give them the access,” Kilbride said.
It will likely take some time, but with more developments like the Morrison Ranch, tourists and residents such as Butcher and Schwend may have dependable, high-speed internet to help with work and leisure in the near future.