Neighbor helping neighbor: Expanding broadband in the Cowboy State
Gillette – Have you ever referred to someone you don’t actually live near as your neighbor? If you grew up in a small, rural town, you probably have. In this kind of tight-knit community, the owner of the shop down the street, the local librarian or even residents in a town several hours away are your neighbors.
This is exactly how those living in the state of Wyoming feel. They have a genuine care and concern for each other and only want what’s best for their fellow Cowboy State residents.
This sentiment is shared by brothers Brian and Greg Worthen. They are the managing partners of Visionary Broadband, which focuses on providing quality internet service by customizing products for underserved and rural markets, with a recent emphasis on fiber technology.
The company was founded 27 years ago in a small blue house, by three friends who merely wanted internet of their own. Once they figured out how to get themselves connected, they began getting requests to grant others access as well. Friends and family began paying the group $20 a month – most of which was placed in a dresser drawer for a later date.
Back in 1994, the friends had no idea where their business would lead, they just wanted to get on the internet like everyone else. Today, 27 years later, Visionary Broadband employs around 160 people.
The idea that the internet could and should be available to anyone was the reason Visionary Broadband came to be. While individual success was a motivator, the group had a bigger purpose – to connect Wyoming.
The organization began with dial-up and quickly moved through wireless, DSL, T1 and is now providing fiber internet in a three-state-plus region. While the company has continued to grow – helping more than 20,000 customers get connected – their “vision” for Wyoming success doesn’t stop there.
Struggling to connect
Stasi Shippy is a wife and mother who lives on a ranch with her family. At the beginning of 2020, any sort of internet access was miles away.
“During the pandemic, my daughter needed access to her school, and without internet access we were stuck,” she said. “Our only option was to drive into town – 40 minutes away – each day so she could do her schoolwork.”
Shippy added, “It was never a financial issue – we could pay for internet, but there were no towers near us. My husband is an engineer and couldn’t even download a drawing he needed for work while at home. Working from home was not a reliable option for him.”
On Dec. 17, 2020, things changed for the Shippy family – this is the date they finally got connected. Thanks to funding through Wyoming Business Council’s ConnectWY Program and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act fund, Visionary Broadband was able to build a tower near their ranch.
Shippy says roughly 15 families in her area have benefited from the tower, noting, “The benefits of being able to work from home, access telehealth, complete schoolwork or even stream a show on Netflix have been wonderful.”
When Greg Worthen was asked how funding has helped expand broadband throughout the state, his answer was simple – it fills in the nooks and crannies.
“Up until now, it wasn’t a good business decision to install a tower that would only provide access to a few families,” said Worthen, who serves as managing partner, special project engineering and business development for Visionary Broadband. “The cost was great and return on investment was small.”
“The other issue was finding the staff needed to complete these projects,” he added. “It required a lot of manpower. The funding has given us the ability to reach areas of Wyoming we never could before and provide numerous jobs to our community.”
Serving their Wyoming neighbors
Wyoming is a large state, ranking ninth in square miles in the United States. However, it is also very widely dispersed – the entire state has only two Target stores, for example. Residents are also spread out – a tower may only grant access to a few families, making it difficult to select the best locations.
So, how does Visionary Broadband decide where the towers go? Experience.
“We know Wyoming. We have been providing broadband to this state long enough to know the areas that are currently unserved,” said Worthen. “We have friends and family in other communities that are asking for us to bring broadband to their area.”
The Wyoming State Broadband Program, Visionary Broadband and residents from the Cowboy State all have one thing in common: They want to help their Wyoming neighbors. They are proud of where they come from and want the best for the great state. The past few years have shown Wyoming still has some work to do to help its residents live their best lives.
Worthen said right at the beginning of the pandemic, when schools were shut down and everyone was learning from home, he got a call from a superintendent at a local school district. This particular district was not a client of Visionary Broadband, but they were caught in a tough situation.
The school’s internet stopped working, and the larger provider they were under contract with was no help. The superintendent called Worthen over a weekend asking what he could do: school was starting on Monday, and his staff needed to be able to teach remotely.
Though he was under no obligation to help, Worthen and his team stepped up anyway. Visionary Broadband fixed the problem, which allowed the school and its students to continue their education.
Why? They did it for their Wyoming neighbors.
Big goals, more resources
Getting a school connected during the pandemic is just one of the many success stories from a state that prides itself on moving its residents into the future. As more and more people relocate to the Cowboy State, and remote work becomes the norm, it is imperative Wyoming residents have the access they need.
The Wyoming State Broadband Program is urging residents to visit wyobbmap.org to take a Speed Test and Student Connectivity Survey. Data from these short surveys will help the Wyoming State Broadband Program identify underserved areas and allow providers like Visionary Broadband to address the areas that are lacking adequate internet.
Visionary Broadband’s hope is to “give the best possible experience to the end user, an experience which starts with having adequate access to broadband,” said Worthen.
Wyoming has set big goals, and for the first time ever, resources are available to achieve these goals. As a Wyoming based provider, Visionary Broadband provides the perfect glimpse into how the state is facing the challenges of connectivity for all. After all, it’s about being a good neighbor.
This is part two in a series of three, produced by the Wyoming State Broadband Program, profiling internet service providers who are taking action to connect Wyoming.