Is Wyoming The Next Silicon Valley?

Dec 5, 2014

Credit Wikimedia Commons

If you work in Wyoming, chances are you’re in energy, agriculture, or tourism. For decades those three industries have been the backbone of Wyoming’s economy. But more recently Governor Mead’s administration has been working to add a new industry to that list: tech. A big part of that effort is the state’s multimillion-dollar project to upgrade Internet infrastructure.

Handel Technologies runs out an old office building in Laramie, but it could fit in perfectly in Silicon Valley. Owner Even Brande says here Wyoming business norms usually win out--the office is quiet and most people have their shirts tucked in. But the place does have some tech company flair, like it’s in-house bar.

“Actually the bar is in the basement. Friday afternoons, it is not uncommon to break out the beer and have a work beer.”

Then there’s a large gong in the middle of the room, which Brande rings when Handel makes a big sale.

That’s a sound Wyoming officials have been investing in. Last July governor Matt Mead launched a 15 million dollar project to upgrade Wyoming’s internet infrastructure with the goal of growing the tech industry all across the state. The project has two parts: the first is wiring every one of the state’s public buildings and schools for super high speed broadband. Flint Waters’ is Wyoming’s chief technologist.

“Remember when you had a 56 k modem? And you sat and waited for a JPEG to draw, and you saw the first third and then the next third. Well, that was 56 k. We were at 5K per student when Governor Mead came into office three years ago.”

Waters says that, when his team finishes laying fiber optic cable across the state in a few months, the average school’s Internet connection will be almost 40 times faster than it was five years ago. The biggest gains will be in rural areas like Lusk or Newcastle, but Waters says it makes the whole state competitive.

“It is huge to know that when the next great idea comes along, the next innovation, our students are not handicapped, because they’re not sitting on one of the coasts.”

It is huge to know that when the next great idea comes along, the next innovation, our students are not handicapped, because they're not sitting on one of the coasts.

That upgrade should have a sort trickle down effect for business--now that the government has brought high speed internet fiber to say, Lusk, local businesses there can buy into it more easily.

The second part of the project is designed specifically to lure tech businesses to Wyoming, and it’s a little more complicated: its the state’s upgrade from Internet protocol 4 to Internet protocol 6. Internet protocol, or IP, is the web’s addressing system: all of your computers and smartphones need their own virtual address for sending and receiving information. Almost everyone uses IP version 4, but that system is old and now its almost out of address numbers for new devices. Waters says its using IP version 4 is sort of like flying in a biplane.

“You know, you could get away with taping it up, and you could keep it in the air. But there is a point where…do you really want to fly in that?”

Wyoming is the first state to upgrade all of its system to IP version 6, the new addressing system. IP6 has enough address numbers to cover every Internet device for the billion years or so. At the recent Wyoming Business Forum Governor Mead said IP6 was worth spending money on.

“IP version 6 gives so many more addresses. So much more speed. It is a great magnet for tech companies and businesses that need tech.”

But some experts aren’t so sure IP6 will be much of a draw for tech companies.

Dan Campbell is an Internet Protocol Consultant with Millenia Systems. He was surprised to find out Wyoming was spending money  on IP version 6 because, right now at least, there isn’t much of a business incentive to do so. Almost all of the world’s tech companies have patched up IP version 4 and kept it running: there hasn’t yet been a “killer application” or feature to convince those companies to pay to make the switch.

“Think of pipes in a house. Suppose somebody came out with a set of pipes that did something differently or better. The payback would have to be strong enough for you to want to tear out your walls and go through the capital expense to do it.”

Campbell says moving to IP version 6 will help make Wyoming competitive in the long run. But the state has bigger challenges in attracting tech talent. Jason Kintzler runs Pitch Engine, a 12 person social media marketing company based in Lander.

“When I tell people where we are from the first thing they say is Miami. Because they think I said Miami instead of Wyoming.”

Kinzler says his broadband is fine and he doesn’t really think about Internet addressing much.  His biggest challenge is convincing potential employees to move out to Lander, and their questions are usually pretty basic.

“Are we going to get snowed in for the winter? Can we get to a good hospital if something happens to one of our children, or one of us?”

Transportation is a big issue--Pitch Engine had to turn down a Silicon Valley company’s buy offer because they demanded the company move somewhere with a direct flight to San Francisco. Now Pitch Engine is doing well, but Kinzler says those are the issues that he worries about. Issues also aren’t easily fixed. In the meantime, Wyoming’s internet infrastructure upgrades should be done in the next few months.