Cablefax The Magazine - September 2021 - 25

Independent Advocate Award
Faced with a government-backed
overbuild of its systems, Tongue
River fought back.
If you've never been to Wyoming, you
likely haven't heard of Tongue River
Communications. More than 40 years
ago, the Jacobson family built a cable
television system serving the small
town of Ranchester. They dug trenches,
climbed poles and set up an office.
Since then, Tongue River has added
broadband to its product offerings,
steadily increasing its speeds to
100Mbps download/5 Mbps upload in
order to compete with the best providers in the state. The family-run
company was operating as usual last year when it caught word of a
huge threat to its business.
The state of Wyoming was meant to award funding from the CARES
Act to broadband companies that would extend service to unserved
households. Yet Tongue River discovered the Wyoming Business
Council had awarded $1.1 million in ConnectWyoming funding to
one of its competitors, Visionary Communications, to construct a
fiber system in two of the three communities Tongue River already
serves. Additionally, Visionary already served both communities,
Ranchester and Dayton, with fixed wireless.
Tongue River general manager Rob Hium reached out to ACA Connects
to get advice on next steps, and the association knew it had to
spread the small operator's story. A blog post from founder Robert
Jacobson was quickly posted by the association on Medium chronicling
Tongue River's struggle and its efforts to submit challenges to
the Wyoming Business Council. It laid out what it knew, including
that Visionary's CEO was a board member on the Wyoming Business
Council's Broadband Advisory Council.
" The process by which Visionary obtained funding was a blackbox
and an inside deal... the process ran afoul of ConnectWyoming
guidelines, which stipulate that unserved and underserved areas
were first in line and no money was to go to overbuilders like Visionary, "
Jacobson wrote in the blog. " The board chose to ignore the
reality of the speeds already being offered and the fact the towns
of Ranchester and Dayton were already being served by three
providers all having speeds well in excess of the desired 25Mbps
downstream and 3Mbps upstream. "
The Wyoming Business Council did not offer comment on Tongue
River's claims. In previous statements to other outlets, the agency
said it relied on Form 477 data from the FCC to make its determinations
on which areas were eligible for funding.
Cablefax: The Magazine
The blog caught the attention of one of the nation's highest-ranking
communications officials, one who continues to be passionate
about the threat of subsidized overbuilding. Then-FCC commissioner
Michael O'Rielly apologized to
the operator in a tweet after reading
the post. " If accurate, it's shameful
given many Americans have NO
broadband access, " his tweet said. " All
fed broadband funding must strongly
& clearly prohibit such waste & target
UNSERVED. "
Tongue River co-founders Robert Jacobson (L)
and Lynda Jacobson (R) have largely passed on
the business to son Rob Hium (M).
O'Rielly continued to dive into the
issue, contacting Wyoming governor
Mark Gordon and demanding that all
grant applications be published. He
also asked for information on the unserved
areas that would be supposedly
covered after the funds were distributed.
Unfortunately, things ground to a halt when O'Rielly's nomination
for a third term as commissioner was suddenly withdrawn by
President Trump. Those documents still have not been published,
and Tongue River's attempts to get the attention of other state and
federal officials have gone unnoticed or been rejected completely.
Tongue River may not have been able to prevent the overbuilding
occurring in its communities, but Hium is still doing what he can
to shed light on the issue while keeping his business going. He believes
that if the FCC had broadband maps that were more accurate,
it would have made a difference in Wyoming.
" It is very important to stress that they keep saying they're going to
update the map, but they need the map updated to the latest... not
six months before, but the latest data that just got sent in, " Hium says.
His advocacy work can help others that might find themselves in a
similar situation. Hium emphasized the need for a challenge process
that would allow the public to quickly report faults with the FCC's
maps. " The more background work that you can give to [officials],
the better off it is, the more of a chance that has to go through, but
it's still a daunting process, " he says. - Sara Winegardner
FAST FACTS
„ Tongue River began in 1979. It now offers
more than 70 video channels along with highspeed
internet and telephone service.
„ Robert Jacobson and his wife Lynda built Tongue River
from the ground up, and their son Rob Hium currently
handles the day-to-day management of the business.
His team consists of five part-time employees.
„ The Wyoming Business Council's
Broadband Advisory Council consists of 11 members
from sectors including food manufacturing,
computer services and internet provision.
September 2021
cablefaxmag.com
25
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Cablefax The Magazine - September 2021

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