Cowboy Towers: How the need to connect Wyoming is leading to new innovations
Van Tassell – When recently tracked down, Matt Larsen CEO of Vistabeam Internet, was working in the field.
“I’m looking at a tower south of Van Tassell, which is near the Nebraska border,” he said over a call that was cutting in and out. “Let me see if I can move somewhere closer to a cell tower so you can hear me better.”
It’s not unusual for Larsen to be hands-on with the company he and his wife, Monique, founded in 2004. The two started with just three towers. Since then, Vistabeam Internet has placed about 400 internet infrastructure points in Wyoming and Nebraska – using everything from towers to grain elevators to water tanks – covering 40,000 square miles of towns, residential areas, farms, ranches and businesses.
Right now, he says that about 80 percent to 95 percent of Vistabeam Internet’s service area gets 100Mbps, which is four times faster than the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of high-speed internet. This means customers can stream video, run multiple devices at home and use the internet for telework or remote learning without any slowdowns in service.
“It has always been very important to us to get really good internet out to people who didn’t have a choice before,” explained Larsen. “I grew up isolated living on a ranch, and I didn’t have access to the resources the internet now provides. We had a set of 1950s encyclopedias my mom bought at a garage sale. That was my only window to the world.”
Larsen believes learning should be a lifelong practice. He wants both adults and children living and growing up in places like he did to have the same opportunities as those in urban areas. There was only one problem in the early days – Vistabeam’s networks were often dependent on things out of its control.
“We did dial-up and DSL for my first Internet Service Provider (ISP),” he explained. “We were very dependent on the phone company and telephone lines. So, I felt it was important to run our own network – one that we could fix and really be accountable for the service we offer.”
Over the past 17 years, this has meant getting creative to reach some of the most remote areas.
Larsen understands the unique challenges associated with trying to reach rural Wyoming and Nebraska, and Vistabeam staff is hyper-focused on the importance of doing what it takes to meet those challenges. This includes coming up with their own designs and ideas.
“We’ve had to get innovative about using solar power and wind power,” Larsen said. “Whatever we can do to come up with a solution for connecting more people, we’re on it, but we really have to work for it.”
Those innovative designs include what Vistabeam calls “Cowboy Towers” and “fence-post repeaters.” Cowboy Towers are essentially portable towers the company uses in locations where it’s hard to place a traditional internet tower. The fence-post repeaters can, as the name indicates, be placed on fence posts along with a small solar panel and repeater to help extend and internet signal.
But, it’s not just about having the right kind of equipment when it comes to expanding internet coverage to rural areas.
“The cost can be a challenge,” Larsen explained. “You’re trying to find pockets of customers to get enough density to come up with something that’s economically sustainable. That’s why it’s critical to work with other organizations that care about bringing access to more people, such as the Wyoming State Broadband Program. They’ve done great work.”
Expanding internet service
In fact, Larsen says leadership at the Wyoming State Broadband Program asked Vistabeam Internet several years ago about expanding into Guernsey.
“I told them we need a good spot to get into town,” he said. “They quickly facilitated a contract for us to use a water tank, and within about 40 days the town had service. It really helps to have the right person talking to the right people.”
Another example is the work the Wyoming State Broadband Program did to secure money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act project. Using those funds, Vistabeam extended a middle-mile fiber line into Torrington and put up 17 towers across the state.
“A lot of these places had terrible phone service or non-existent broadband, so that was a big game changer,” Larsen said. “We had demand for these areas and a three-year plan for upgrading and expanding the network. But, it can be hard for a small provider to do that quickly due to cash flow. The project fast-forwarded our network into the future by three years, improved our ability to get additional financing going forward and we translated the grant money into results really efficiently.”
Larsen says the Wyoming State Broadband Program is a great example of an organization that works well in partnership with ISPs. The program is currently trying to identify areas that need better connectivity across the state and is asking residents as well as K-12 parents to complete a speed test and survey at wyobbmap.org.
Goals moving forward
In mid-November, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill was passed, which included $65 billion for projects that support, at least in part, expanding broadband access, adoption and usage. It’s only part of a larger pot of money that includes the ReConnect Program, the 2021 Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund and the 2021 Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds on top of the CARES Act Funding which was approved in 2020.
In total, there’s an estimated $430 billion available for broadband-related projects. Larsen has some concerns about the money that’s available and how it’s used.
“There’s a very strong focus on fiber, and I worry that could lead to a huge increase in the cost of fiber deployment,” he explained. “The cost is about double what it was two years ago. Also, there are fiber supply issues. The number one priority should be to get as many people as possible online, then building fiber out to everyone.”
Larsen suggests tackling the issue in stages – setting up wireless towers first, then building out fiber, unless it’s an area where the density of customers makes getting immediate fiber a better solution.
“This is not something we solve in the next two to three years,” he adds. “It’s going to take 10 to 15 years to get fiber to everyone. We need a little patience because trying to rush it is going to make it more expensive, and put pressure on supply chains and the labor force. But, if we can spread it out so there’s good connectivity for as many people as possible and then look at expanding to fiber, then we’re going to see real, long-lasting change.”
More information on Vistabeam Internet can be found at vistabeam.com. Head to wyobbmap.org to learn more about the Wyoming State Broadband Program.
This is part one in a series of three, produced by the Wyoming State Broadband Program, which is profiling internet service providers that are taking action to connect Wyoming.