Silver Star Internet tackles some of the most challenging areas to connect in the country
Freedom – Silver Star Internet is no stranger to challenge – local residents had to build it from the ground up.
“The company was a rural telco started by farmers and ranchers in the area back in 1912,” said Chief Operating Officer Paul Petersen. “They named it Silver Star Telephone Company.”
Bell Telephone Company would not expand service to lower Star Valley in Wyoming because the population was too sparse. So, the local group got creative and used livestock fencing to carry telephone lines across the valley.
Fast forward to 2021 and Silver Star Internet, now owned by the Hoopes family, employs 125 people and provides internet service throughout eastern Idaho and western Wyoming – and is working to expand its fiber optic network.
“We want to be 100 percent fiber at some point,” Petersen said. “Our number one priority is making sure we can continue to provide the best-in-class service for our existing customers and get those still on canopy or copper transferred to fiber.”
But just like in those early days, it doesn’t come easy.
Work fast, work hard and don’t look down
One of the biggest challenges is the amount of time allowed or available for building new internet infrastructure. To put it simply, the window is short in Wyoming.
“Right now, we’re pretty much shut down for construction until springtime,” Petersen explained. “When the ground thaws, we have to work as fast and as efficiently as possible during an extremely limited time. This can be a challenge because in some areas – with sensitive environments, it is important to not disturb, and in many places, the crew needs to navigate very rocky and steep terrain. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
He’s not kidding. The company covers a huge territory, including Grand Teton National Park, which has both clear regulations for construction and a top elevation of 13,775 feet, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which starts at 6,311 feet and climbs to a whopping 10,450 feet.
“Jackson Hole is also a unique situation,” said Petersen. “There are high-end homes in the area wanting high-speed internet, but everybody loves their landscape – which is why they move to the area – so we have to be sensitive. Plus, the time window for Jackson is even more limited than other places because the city won’t allow construction at certain times.”
As if weather, steep terrain and local regulations aren’t challenging enough, there’s now a national supply chain issue. It’s taking every internet service provider longer to get what they need to expand and build new infrastructure.
“We saw this coming last year, so we started pre-buying materials and we have been able to keep things moving and be fairly fluid,” he said. “Right now, anything plastic is the hold up, which is weird, but handholds, conduit and those kinds of things are in short supply. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge for all providers – they’re going to have to effectively forecast the material they’ll need, order as much as 24 months in advance and stay ahead.”
Petersen says the team at Silver Star always knew connecting communities was important for area hospitals, schools and businesses but adds no one could have predicted just how critical this connection would become.
The pandemic comes
to a small town
Violet Sanderson is the town administrator for Afton, a town of about 2,000 residents. She’s also a mother of four children – the oldest is 19 years old and the youngest is seven years old.
When schools shut down and students were sent home to learn remotely due to COVID-19, “there was an uneven playing field for the kids,” explained Sanderson. “Many in our community did not have the internet access they needed to get to their online classrooms.”
Silver Star Internet did its best to respond quickly to help Afton and other areas. The company set up free mobile hotspots in Wyoming and Idaho for local families and businesses to use as needed. Then, when federal funding for expanding access was later made available, the company moved quickly to reach more homes.
“Even before the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding, Silver Star had laid most of the fiber through the main street,” said Sanderson. “The CARES Act helped them expand it to new locations more economically. As a result, most people were able to get it installed in their home for free and get better bandwidth and speeds at a reasonable price they could afford.”
Sanderson says her bill went from $47 to just under $60, and she’s quick to point out the increase is a small price to pay to have the access her family needs.
“We can work from home and have the kids at home,” she said. “It gave us the capabilities we needed which we didn’t have in the initial shutdown.”
Sanderson adds making sure everyone has high-speed internet access is critical for local businesses, government and public health. In fact, for many in Wyoming it can take up to two hours of travel, one way, to reach a health care clinic, and the weather which limits Silver Star’s construction season can also make it difficult to travel – isolating more people.
“During the COVID-19 shutdowns, there was a lot of information which needed to be handed out to the public,” she said. “We needed internet to reach everyone. Telemedicine was also crucial to limiting exposure and keeping people safe. In addition, I think our local businesses are just beginning to understand how fiber helps them with marketing strategies and surviving these kinds of challenging times.”
“Having fiber has really leveled the playing field for almost everybody and put us in the running to be a more marketable community,” Sanderson added. “Lots of people want to live in rural America and enjoy our natural resources, but they need to be able to work at home remotely.”
With connectivity comes
peace of mind
Petersen says Silver Star is also working in partnership with the Wyoming State Broadband Program and its Idaho counterpart to expand and improve internet access to other places like Afton. The Wyoming program is currently trying to find areas which 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.
Silver Star is also involved in state and federal policy development and is closely tracking funding opportunities to speed up deployment.
“We’re also not shy about putting in our own money to ensure our customers have the services they need for themselves, their businesses and their families,” added Petersen. “We’ve been very conscious a lot of people would like us to move faster, and understandably so. This is why we’re going to continue to work to expand and improve upon our services as soon as possible.”
It’s something Sanderson says she can’t thank Silver Star’s staff for enough.
“One of the biggest things is, if we didn’t have the fiber now, then the whole community would be anxious and stressed out about the idea of another shutdown. IIf you’re locked down and have two people needing to work and two people needing to go to school, then you have to have high-speed internet available. The company has given us all a small sense of security things are not going to come to a screeching halt.”
This article is courtesy of the Wyoming State Broadband Program. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.