Our destination was Cody, Wyo., where we would kick off a 36-hour tour of the state’s rural broadband providers (all members of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association) for the Foundation for Rural Service’s (FRS) fourth, and largest by far, annual Congressional Broadband Tour.
This broadband tour is a unique opportunity for the rural broadband industry. FRS, as a 501(c)(3), gets to take congressional staffers out of their Washington offices and into rural America on an educational tour of NTCA member companies.
Day One: Universal Service, Cowboys and Feeding the World
A hop, skip and a jump across the country later, we arrived in Cody and were greeted by Tri-County Telecom (TCT) regulatory manager Don Jackson. With Don as our guide, we boarded our tour bus and headed to TCT’s Cody offices, spending the next few hours focusing on the history of Wyoming and the federal Universal Service Fund (USF). The Capitol Hill staffers, representing both Republicans and Democrats, as well as the House and Senate, asked engaging questions reflecting their own states’ challenges with broadband and on the general structure of the funding mechanism. Jason Hendricks of RT Communications joined us as well and, like Don, accompanied us for the entire trip.
That evening, Jason, Don and Richard Wardell (chief technical officer, TCT) joined us for dinner to continue the discussion of the role of broadband as it applies to ranching and farming in the state, as well as how it contributes to economic development and tourism in the Cody area. The night ended with a trip to the rodeo—the first rodeo for many in the group—to see the application of the discussions they’d had that day (and to witness some of the beauty and fun Wyoming offers)!
Day Two: Network Operations, Tribal Affairs and Pizza
Day two of the tour started bright and early with a bus ride through the Wyoming plains to TCT’s office in Basin, where the staffers got to see that long-distance broadband has to be buried in order to reach more remote areas. Along the drive, Josh Seidemann, vice president of policy at NTCA, presented the importance of USF for rural areas as well as some of the more current regulatory changes to the fund. Shortly after, the group arrived at TCT’s Basin headquarters for a visit with Richard, who gave additional engineering explanations of how broadband works and toured the staffers through the company’s network operations center. Lunch was a bus ride away in Worland with RT Communications. The RT team explained their own operations in the area as well as some of the specific challenges they face, before we toured their facilities.
The day ended with a drive to Riverton for a dinner meeting with tribal liaisons of the Wind River Reservation, representing both the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes. The drive to Riverton took us through the stunning Wind River Canyon, which offered vistas that had us all reaching for our cameras.
Dinner with the Wind River tribal liaisons took place in a local library. As we enjoyed pizza, the liaisons eloquently shared their unique challenges with broadband on the reservation as well as their plans to ensure their communities receive access. Having two different tribes on one reservation lends itself to unique challenges and hearing from the liaisons was an honor.
Day Three: Fires, Bears and Antlers
Day three, the last full day, started with an early morning ride through the Wind River Reservation land, guided by Mike Kenney of DTE, who works closely with both tribes. Mike addressed a number of questions on tribal relations, area geology and DTE’s public safety response to the numerous recent fires in Wyoming. Also guiding the staffers were Ron McCue and Jeff English of Silver Star Communications. When the bus reached Jackson, and over a barbecue lunch next to views of the Teton Mountains, Ron and Jeff gave the group an overview of what they would be talking about on their trek through the Grand Teton National Park. Wyoming has suffered from several significant forest fires this summer, and the rural telcos in the area have become the go-to entities to set up temporary, critical communications networks for first responders.
After some essential pointers on how to handle bear and other wild animal encounters, the group set off on a trek through the national park. The Wyoming telco representatives gave the staffers feedback on what they were seeing as they hiked, giving context to what they had talked about during the trip and emphasizing the importance of their companies’ work. Finishing up with a post-trek dinner with the folks at Silver Star, the group reflected on what they had learned and any final questions they had before heading home the next morning.
What more can I say? Except that our Congressional Broadband Tour to Wyoming this summer was spectacular. To all FRS donors, especially the Rural Telephone Finance Cooperative (RTFC), thank you for your help in making this trip possible. If you would like to get involved, encourage the congressional staffers who represent your districts and states, and who cover telecommunications, to keep an eye out for our invitation next spring!