Liberty Communications is an example of a company that started out decades ago as a rural phone company but has transitioned to being a fiber broadband provider offering highly competitive multi-gigabit speeds and expanding beyond its traditional local service turf.
Telecompetitor talked to Liberty Communications’ CEO Justin Stinson about the company’s strategy, which includes investment in fixed wireless as well as fiber broadband buildouts. A recent example of the company’s fiber broadband buildouts is a recently announced $5 million expansion in rural southeastern Iowa.
When Liberty Communications acquired Natel Broadband in 2022, it committed to continued investment in the 12 counties formerly served by Natel. Now, it is delivering on that promise with a network expansion that will improve fiber connectivity for residents in the Iowa towns of Fairfield, Mt. Pleasant and Centerville, the company said. The project is funded privately through a $5 million investment approved by the Liberty board of directors.
“It was a way to invest in the acquisition, because we saw that these areas they were serving were still underserved,” said Stinson in our interview with him.
“We had a presence there as Natel, but it’s not fully built-out or at the level that we expect. We saw it as a great opportunity for more reliable, faster speeds to the residents and businesses in those communities.”
The company, which still operates as Natel in these areas, will offer multi-gigabit speeds in the communities, Stinson said.
“This investment represents our commitment to deliver the high-speed, reliable connections our neighbors need to thrive and achieve their dreams,” said Jon Kenney, Natel general manager. “In rural America, expanded access to broadband internet means so much more than faster downloads and better streaming. It has far-reaching impacts on health, economic development and education — and ensures these areas never fall behind.”
Fixed Wireless Expansion
On top of the sizeable fiber investment, Natel is also working on a fixed wireless expansion that will benefit up to eight counties in rural southeast Iowa, including Jefferson and Appanoose counties. Both the fiber and fixed wireless projects are expected to begin soon, with construction picking up significantly throughout 2024 — potentially adding up to 12,000 new homes and businesses to the network by spring 2025. The company has added employees to its network and installation teams, and will be adding more over time as these projects continue.
Liberty Communications has been family-owned since 1907.
The company has pursued and won several broadband build-out grants. In 2021, the company won approximately $250,000 through Iowa’s Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program, specifically through the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) #007 to expand fiber just outside of its territory and it currently is completing those builds. In addition, Natel won $2.5 million through the same grant to expand the company’s fixed wireless offering, as described above.
According to Stinson, Natel already had equipment up on about 17 towers when Liberty acquired them.
“With this grant,” Stinson said, “we’ll actually be expanding that, replacing a lot of that equipment with some next-gen technology to give us much faster speeds with less line-of-sight requirements. We’ll be able to broadcast a much further distance to a lot more houses than we normally would have in the past.”
Liberty Communications also is applying for the current Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program NOFA #008. This grant, if won, will help the company fill in some underserved gaps just outside of its current territory to the west. In addition, the company is expanding in the Liberty market to a housing development with just over 100 homes “that we’ll be lighting up in the next few weeks,” Stinson said.
More information about Iowa broadband, including links to previous Telecompetitor news coverage and to information about the state’s funding programs can be found on the Broadband Nation page for Iowa.