Visionary Broadband thinks its FWA roots will boost $100M fiber plan

To say Visionary Broadband is doing things backwards isn’t quite accurate. But unlike many fiber upstarts who build the network and then chase customers, the operator has used fixed wireless access technology (FWA) to build up a customer base first and is now looking to take its business to new heights in three states with fiber. And it’s got $100 million in backing to fuel its climb.

Founded in 1994, Wyoming-based Visionary Broadband has long targeted a mix of rural and underserved markets in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. CEO Brian Worthen told Fierce that the company simultaneously developed DSL and fixed wireless access (FWA) services when it got its start, but by the late 2010s noted FWA had surpassed DSL in terms of speed capability. So, Visionary moved all its customers to FWA. Now that the tide is turning in fiber’s favor, Visionary is looking to ride the wave.

In June of this year, Visionary secured a strategic investment from private equity firm GTCR. With that backing, the operator is working to implement a plan to spend $100 million to deploy fiber to 100,000 locations over the next five years.

Worthen said Visionary hasn’t really talked about its strategy until now. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been working behind the scenes. Already, the operator has finished fiber builds in the small towns of Dayton, LaGrange, Ranchester and Yoder, Wyoming. He noted it deliberately started with these municipalities because it wanted to cut its teeth and refine its deployment process in smaller markets. Two more towns are set to be complete in January and it expects to have work finished in a total of nine markets by mid-2023.

In a press release, Visionary listed Lusk and Torrington, Wyoming, as well as Gunnison, Kremmling and Walden, Colorado as “nearing completion.” It named Casper, Cheyenne, Gillette, Lander, Laramie and Wheatland, Wyoming; Hardin, Montana; Canon City, Lake City, Marble and Pagosa Springs, Colorado as future markets.

It plans to offer 1-gig and 2-gig service tiers. The former will run around $50 in more densely populated areas and $64.95 in smaller towns that require more capital to reach.

All told, Worthen said Visionary is aiming to build at a clip of 20,000 new locations per year over the course of five years. “There will be other communities we throw in the mix over that timeline,” he said of its targets, but noted it’s not ready to talk about those just yet.

Worthen said that while others are pursuing larger markets, Visionary is eyeing a range of options with populations from just 120 people to cities of 27,000. That, of course, means there’s some variability in its build costs. While it’s able to keep costs to around $1,200 to $1,500 per passing in more densely populated towns, he acknowledged that figure can be substantially higher in smaller communities. That’s especially true in areas where residents are spread out and have an acre or more apiece.

While this might seem a risky investment, Worthen said its experience with fixed wireless access has given Visionary a good idea of which markets are receptive to new services and which aren’t. Thus, it’s able to better target areas where it expects to achieve a higher take rate for fiber.

“That’s part of our scoring mechanism for pulling the trigger on fiber…These are the communities where we know we’ll have a good take rate,” he explained. “Our concern is less about cost per passing and more about continuing our take rate success.”

In terms of competition, Worthen said it expects some in more urban areas like Casper and Cheyenne. However, in many of the areas it’s targeting “it’s less likely and that’s why we’re ok with spreading our investments over different market types.” He concluded “the smaller the market, the less overbuild you’re going to see. That’s just simple economics.”