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A Gillette-based internet service provider is connecting rural communities in Wyoming and beyond

Visionary Broadband is a Gillette-based internet service provider that is connecting rural communities in a three-state region. Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the company has grown to approximately 200 employees in several major offices in the Cowboy State and beyond.

Currently, about a quarter of Wyomingitesstill lack access to high-speed internet.

“Visionary has always taken pride in expanding to smaller communities, we were the first to offer broadband in places like Wright and Ranchester, Newcastle,” said Brian Worthen, CEO of Visionary Broadband. “We would often in the early days of broadband go to those communities, when someone from the community said, ‘Hey, I want better service here, I want an option, I want an alternative, or I want broadband.’ I can list off people that called us or made the case or pleaded or however you want to put that for us to come and develop in their area.”

Their operation has grown significantly since Visionary was first launched by three Gillette locals in a basement in December 1994. They now cover over 100 communities in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana and are aggressively hiring as they continue their mission to connect even more communities with high-speed internet access.

“A lot of our fiber expansion right now is based in places like Gillette, Casper, Cheyenne and those are what I would call network core locations,” Worthen said. “We're just completing a 100 gig ring through Sheridan, Gillette, down to Cheyenne and ultimately to Denver to expand our capacity. We just got done expanding in 2018. Luckily, it wound up just being the case that COVID traffic went up and we were actually prepared, and so we're always keen on staying ahead of it. In order to do that, we have to make sure we have fiber resources through these larger communities.”

Fiber optic cable is one of the major ways that service is brought to communities, which Worthen said is sometimes leased from another company, while at other times, Visionary constructs it themselves.

“For instance, Lusk, we have a fiber out to end and we have a microwave or a wireless router in for reliability,” he explained. “Ranchester and Dayton, we feed those with fiber. LaGrange, Wyoming, we feed with fiber [as well as] Yoder. So, it's not necessarily the smaller the town the less of the technology. We're fiber feeding these really small communities down to 300 homes then we will use if there's not a second fiber route or an alternative out of town, we will use just for that reliability reason a microwave link licensed that goes to another direction.”

Very rural areas, such as those with only a few dozen people or so, may be served purely by a wireless connection due to the costs being prohibitive to install fiber optic cable. But grants can help with this process, which was the case with the CARES Act COVID relief funds, allowing them to expand service to areas that otherwise would not have been possible financially. Additional help came from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which allowed for cable to be laid to Lusk, as well as for projects in Sublette and Sheridan counties.

“That's a $42.5 billion total [and in] Wyoming alone, through ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] $109 million for broadband throughBEAD [Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment], it could be upwards of $200 million [and] the companies have to be ready for that,” Worthen said. “And we've taken that responsibility on our shoulders and said, ‘We will be the local guys that try to move the needle with these funds.’”

Offering a personal touch is an integral part of the success and expansion efforts, a fact that Worthen and the company’s employees take a lot of pride in. It has even led to some customers turning away from larger corporate providers.

“Visionary has always taken pride in doing everything in-house, we do tech support in-house, email in-house, customer service in-house,” he explained. “When someone's making a call to Visionary, it rings to one of our employees.”

Expansion efforts are continuing throughout their tri-state service region in connecting communities that range from a few hundred people to those that have several thousand or more. Currently, Wyoming ranks as one of the worst states in the nation for internet speed and accessibility.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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