- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming is poised to expand the Internet system that serves public schools and state offices, the state’s chief information officer told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Gov. Matt Mead has asked lawmakers to approve $15.7 million to develop a unified Internet network around the state. Lawmakers are considering the request in the 20-day budget session that started Monday in Cheyenne.

“The unified network is the interstate highway of the 21st century,” Mead told lawmakers in his State of the State address on Monday. He said the system gives rural states such as Wyoming the same technological advantages as urban states.

Flint Waters, head of the Office of Enterprise Technology Services, briefed lawmakers Wednesday at a meeting of the state’s Joint Appropriations Committee. The committee has recommended approval of the funding.

Waters said Internet service for schools and state offices would go from the current 2-gigabit service up to a 100-gigabit system by July 2015 under the expansion. He said private industry would also benefit from the higher capacity.

Waters said the existing Internet system that serves schools around the state funnels through a single chokepoint at a state office building in Cheyenne. He said any power outages or other problems there would mean that all schools would lose their Internet service until the problem is fixed - a situation he said is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the demand for Internet service is growing fast at Wyoming schools, Waters said.

“When the original network was designed, computers were $6,000 or $7,000 and schools had 10 of them or 12 of them in a lab, and you could schedule when everyone used them, so you never had more than 10 or 12 people on that connection at one time,” Waters said.

“Now you have an environment where kids come to school carrying devices - often more than one. They’ve got a phone, they’ve got a tablet, they’ve got a laptop,” Waters said. “That’s a really common thing, and the connections that we have in place still, even with our efforts, are so slow.”

Going from the existing system to a 100-gigabit system, Waters said, will allow students to see dramatic increases in Internet speed.

“Giving them 100-gig access means that now, I don’t have to get 20 of them in one room,” Waters said. “Now, while they’re walking down the hall going to their locker, they can get world-class access to video, to debates, to sporting events, to all of the world’s wisdom that’s captured on the other end of the piece of glass, in real time.”

Expanding the Internet network to Wyoming schools eventually could lead to Wyoming students communicating with students in other countries or communicating directly with college professors, Waters said.

Waters said the state doesn’t intend to install its own cables or do the physical work to install the new Internet service. Rather, he said the state will contract with industry for the better service. He said that approach will ensure that private industry such as banks and hospitals and the general public also can benefit from the improved network.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and attended Waters‘ presentation. He said afterward that while he’s always conscious of costs, he believes that expanding the Internet network would be a good step.

“We talk about all the things we lead the country in, and this will be another one where we’re right up there at the top in having our state being progressive and move forward,” Bebout said.

Ken Decaria, lobbyist for the Wyoming Education Association, said Wednesday he also believes that the expansion would be a good thing for schools around the state.

“I think that would be a good thing anytime you can increase the bandwidth,” Decaria said. “I think everybody’s witnessed that things are more and more data intensive.”

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