- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Shoshoni School recently went dark for a day and half when an old transformer croaked.

A year ago, that would have left parents, teachers, students and staff without access to grades, attendance or student behavior records. But now the information is stored on off-site servers, meaning a power outage didn’t bring the school to its knees, said Principal Bruce Thoren.

In the past, students had to take online tests in turns. It took two weeks to cycle everybody through last year. This year, it was done in three days and teachers could get back to educating.

The change came as part of what is called the unified network. It’s a maze of cables and complicated equipment running from Cheyenne throughout the state giving state agencies and schools access to the Internet.

And until recently, it had been woefully small, officials say.

The infrastructure that allows Wyoming schools and government buildings to access to the rest of the world via the Internet has about two gigabits of capacity, or enough bandwidth to download about 400 songs. If something happens to the connections in the capitol city, all of those buildings lose access.

The state is investing $15.8 million to increase Wyoming’s capacity to 100 gigabits, or the bandwidth it takes to download a library floor worth of thick, heavy academic journals.

“Kids can gain all the world’s knowledge through this connection,” Flint Waters, chief information officer for Wyoming’s Department of Enterprise Technology Services told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/RjwTHh). “The Internet now has color and video and sound.”

It is a move some small communities say is saving their ability to educate students and do business. Some of the larger towns wish they had even more.

The basic infrastructure, or backbone, is three loops - one in northern Wyoming, one in southern Wyoming and one between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Those loops bring the Internet to hubs built by CenturyLink and Sheridan-based Advanced Communications Technology.

Spokes from the hubs will be built by local Internet providers like Silver Star, Range Family and TCT, and will connect nearly every school and state agency to the backbone by December 2015.

The idea is the state will act as the anchor tenant for Internet providers. In order to meet Wyoming’s demands, those providers will have to upgrade their equipment and bring connections into communities that would have been too small to warrant providers’ investment on their own. Once they are there, with their upgraded equipment, they will be able to offer better services at more affordable prices to private businesses and, eventually residents.

Tangible benefits are still a little ways down the road for most residents, but students in some districts are already seeing the benefits.

“If everybody is on their own, some people would have a real good connection because they live in a big city where the infrastructure is already developed, and some people, like Greybull, for instance, would struggle,” said Bob Leach, technology coordinator for Big Horn County School District No. 3. “The state evens the playing field by doing negotiation . that way you start with a basket of goods for all students that is more or less equal.”

In Leach’s district, that means struggling and excelling students alike can supplement in-class instruction with online tools meant to catch them up or push them harder.

High-speed Internet and online classes allow schools to make choices locally about what they can and want to offer, Leach added.

“The biggest advantage is having (the state) take care of the technology side, and let us focus on teaching,” Leach said.

The state chose to help some of the schools with the lowest bandwidth capacity per student capita, which has left some larger districts concerned they aren’t going to see the kind of speed and improvements the state is promising and big schools need.

“Our core equipment is put in by the state, and it’s 10 to 12 years old, which in technology years, that’s a dinosaur. This stuff is so old, they don’t even want it on eBay” said Drew Walker, information technology manager for Natrona County School District No. 1.

Walker said the district has 13,000 devices that hook up to the Internet. Within the next two years, they are going to need about one gigabyte at each school, or enough bandwidth to download a broadcast-quality movie.

“That’s a tremendous amount of bandwidth we need,”

He said he has not heard from anybody at the state level that the district is going to be upgraded to a fast enough connection for their needs.

The increases are coming, said Troy Babbitt, Wyoming’s Broadband Enterprise Architect.

“We took the approach we’re trying to help those hurting the worst . that’s why smaller districts have seen those increases first,” he said. “There was a perception that Laramie and Natrona County were higher bandwidth, but now, kilobytes per student, they are more toward the bottom.”

Once the infrastructure is in place, the state will monitor the network and how it is being used, Babbitt said. As heavy data users approach their thresholds, the state will be able to dial up the capacity available to that user.

“We’re trying to build it as fast as we possibly can, we’re trying to float all boats as fast as we possibly can,” Babbitt said.

Providers may start to expand their customer base once schools and state agencies are afloat, Babbitt said.

Aaron Sopko, general manager for Advanced Communications Technologies, said providers have invested millions in the state and this latest project is going to make it easier to bring services to the private sector. That means people like Even Brande can create and keep companies in Wyoming.

“If you have smart people and broadband, you can run a company anywhere in the world,” said Brande, president and CEO of Handel Information Technologies.

Norway-born Brande earned his master’s degree in business administration at University of Wyoming. He fell in love with the city, and a girl, but the only way he was able to stay in Laramie was because he landed at a software company. Without Laramie’s existing high-speed capacity, that job wouldn’t have been there. This network upgrade will let people choose to live in remote, rugged and beautiful small towns throughout Wyoming and still work in the technology sector, Brande said.

“Companies don’t want to be in Silicon Valley if they can be in Wyoming,” Brande said. “There . you are competing with Google for talent, you have to pay twice as much for a developer there, but even paying half as much here, it’s the best paying job in Laramie.”

High paying jobs means more opportunities for Wyoming graduates to stay in state. Brande said about 80 percent of his employees are UW graduates.

And that’s the end goal of the state’s investment. Three loops will connect Wyoming students to the rest of the world from kindergarten through college, and when they graduate those same loops will let them stay connected right from home.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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