- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and other officials say the state has emerged as a national leader in providing improved Internet access to schools and communities.

Mead spoke Thursday at the state’s fourth annual Broadband Summit in Cheyenne. He lauded the recent installation of large-capacity Internet lines, called the unified network, around Wyoming.

The White House has called for the nation’s schools to provide Internet access at the rate of 100 kilobits per second per student by this year, increasing 10 times to reach 1 megabit per student by 2018, Mead said. A kilobit is a measure of data.

“Wyoming frankly is the leader in this effort,” Mead said, saying all schools around the state already offer 200 kilobits per second per student, twice the expected target for this year. “We are way ahead nationally. We are way ahead of most every other state.”

Mead said the unified network will be increasingly important in luring high-tech industries to the state and allowing rural residents to take advantage of advances in health care over computer systems. He said it will also allow young people to stay in Wyoming and run competitive businesses here.

Flint Waters, Wyoming’s chief information officer, said that in 2011, many schools in the state had only a five-kilobit-per-second capacity. He said Internet service for all schools and all state offices then was routed then through a single state office building in Cheyenne and was unreliable.

“We have come so far in just a few years,” Waters said.

Wyoming approached the construction of its unified network with the mindset of making sure the state didn’t damage the surrounding community as it set about enhancing connectivity for the schools and state offices, Waters said. The state entered multiyear contracts with private Internet companies, committing to purchase service rather than installing state-owned lines, Waters said.

In other parts of the country, Waters said, some states are putting in their own Internet lines for schools and offices. That approach makes it unlikely that companies will put in lines that would benefit other consumers because they won’t have the state as an anchor customer, he said.

“You can have a negative impact,” Waters said. “You can have students who go to school, have phenomenal access, and go home and have none.”

The Wyoming Legislature in 2014 approved Mead’s request for $15 million to develop the unified network. That money went for hardware to allow schools and offices to handle the increased capacity, Waters said.

“In terms of a mind set about creating an innovative culture, we need to lift all the boats,” he said. “We need to bring everyone up in terms of access to this technology. That’s been kind of a massive byproduct of the way Wyoming has designed their network.”

Waters says the unified network has helped Wyoming to attract businesses such as Microsoft to build facilities in the state. The company in recent years has built and expanded a data center in Cheyenne.

In an interview after his presentation to the forum, Waters said he sees Microsoft’s investment as a massive vote of confidence in the network the state has created.

“That data center is useless if they don’t have huge amounts of capacity to carry in each direction,” he said. “I think Wyoming’s going to be a hotbed of data-center development. I think you’re going to start to see a lot of it.”

Mead recently announced a state government hiring freeze in the face of revenue estimates that predict sharply lower tax collections from energy production, the state’s traditional economic mainstay.

“As we face these times where we’re challenged by revenue in this state, and we are, a lot of people are going to ask, ‘Which direction are we going to go?’ ” Mead said. “And in my mind, this time is a true reminder that we have to diversify our economy.”

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