“It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Freedom, Wyoming (December 20, 2021) – 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 Paul Petersen, COO. “They named it Silver Star Telephone Co.”
Bell Telephone Co. would not expand service to the 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 and launched Silver Star Telephone.
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% fiber at some point,” Petersen said. “Our No. 1 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 the springtime,” Petersen explained. “When the ground thaws, we have to work as fast and as efficient as possible during an extremely limited time. That can be a challenge because in some areas you have a sensitive environment that you need to make sure you do not disturb, or it can be that the crew needs to navigate some very rocky and steep terrain. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
He’s not kidding. The company covers a huge territory that includes the 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. “You have some high-end homes in that area that want high-speed internet, but everybody loves their landscape — which is why they move to the area — so you have to be sensitive to that. Plus, the 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 last year, and we have been able to keep things moving and be fairly fluid,” he said. “Right now, anything that’s 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 of that.”
Petersen says the team at Silver Star always knew that connecting communities was important for area hospitals, schools, and businesses but adds that no one could have predicted just how critical that connection would become.
The pandemic comes to a small town
Violent 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; the youngest is just 7.
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 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 that 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 will give us the capabilities we needed that we didn’t have in the initial shutdown.”
Sanderson adds that 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 that limits Silver Star’s construction season can also make it difficult to travel — isolating more people.
“During the COVID shutdowns, there was a lot of information that 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 levelled 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 that 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 that a lot of people would like us to move faster, and understandably so. That’s 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 shut down. If you’re locked down and have two people that need to work, and four that need to go to school, then you need to have those speeds. The company has given us all a small sense of security that things are not going to come to a screeching halt.”
This is part 3 in a series of 3, produced by the Wyoming State Broadband Program, profiling internet service providers that are taking action to connect Wyoming.
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