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The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

Welcome to another edition of the Broadband Bunch, alongside my colleague Brad Hine, the Product Director for Analytics Solutions at ETI Software, I’m Craig Corbin. Nathan Stooke, our guest today began his journey of connecting others while looking to help a friend who didn’t have internet service at his business, and since then founded Wisper, a fixed wireless service provider (WISP) which has grown under his 20 year guidance to provide service to portions of four different states. He’s a former member of the US national swim team and a founding member of the Dyslexic Advantage Board, which is an educational, scientific, and charitable organization working to improve the lives of those with dyslexia. He currently serves as Chairman of the Board for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association or WISPA and he’s been named to St. Louis Business Monthly’s “Top 30 under 30” and the “Top 100 St. Louisians To Know” by the St. Louis Small Business Monthly Magazine.  This is the second part of our interview with Nathan with this part focusing on solving the digital divide.

Nathan:

I’m glad I get to come back and talk some more about what we’re trying to do to solve that digital divide.

Starting a WISP and Long-Distance Swimming

Craig:

There is so much that we covered in that first visit. One thing that I wanted to get to before we jumped back into our topic of focus is that you’re a former member of the US national swim team. You swam collegiately at Southern Illinois, you competed in the 1997 Pan-Pacific Swimming Championships in Japan, you were on the national team from 1997 to 2000, and just four years ago, you competed in the Masters World Championships in Russia. I also found out what you had competed in the international championships down in Australia. You were in the open water for 25 Kilometers. That’s 15 and 1/2 miles! That’s pretty impressive.

Nathan:

I used to go around and talk to elementary schools and my coach would introduce me and he would say that it was a 15-mile race, and I’m like, “No, no, no, no. It’s 15 and 1/2 miles, because that last half a mile makes a big difference!”  It’s something that I love to do. It takes you five and a half hours to swim that. So five and a half hours in the water, and most people, when I tell them I used to swim for five and a half hours straight, they think for a little bit and then they’re like, “Huh, well, I don’t do anything but sleep for five and a half hours straight.” It’s definitely something I love to do. I did come out of retirement as I always wanted to go to Russia and they had the Masters World Championships there, and I was clearly the fastest, out-of-shape person there of my age group. A lot of people, they had never stopped training. I retired for 15 years and then came out of retirement, but we had a blast! We took our kids, all three of them swim. My wife’s a swimmer as well. So, it was a great trip.

Craig:

By the way, congratulations to you and your better half for a starting the local swim team back up there. I know you guys are headquartered east of St. Louis, and if I understand it correctly, your wife very instrumental in restarting the swim program there at your local aquatic center.

Nathan:

Yes. I’m the president of the board, but my wife does all the work. How’s that? She’s the one that’s putting it all together. She’s passionate about swimming just like I am about broadband. It helps that all three of our kids are all in the same sport.  It’s been amazing to see that while the team kind of went defunct for a little while, we were able to start it again. We have a beautiful new facility and it’s great to see these kids learn life skills, going through swimming and what it takes to work hard and everything. And I’m so excited that we were able to actually do that. It was many years in the making and it’s turned out to be very, very good for the community and for our kids especially as well.

Craig:

Wisper ISP has been good for the community as well. You mentioned in our first visit the 90 hour weeks at Wisper that probably compared to what you were doing to prepare for distance swimming – that was good training for Wisper?

Nathan:

I think it proves that we’re all crazy. Those of us that start WISPs are all crazy, and I was crazy for swimming that far and crazy for starting a WISP, but it definitely looks like it’s paying off in the long run.

CAF II Funding Award for Broadband Network Buildout

Brad:

And speaking about training for longer term events, I wanted to mention your CAF II approval and award. That’s massive over the next 10 years, you’re going to be pretty busy trying to grow your network and subscribership.

Nathan:

Probably pretty busy is an understatement. It’s a huge, huge opportunity for us. If you asked me today, do I believe in government subsidies, I would still honestly say no. We were out building the network. We were doing really, really well. I would have preferred some kind of a low interest loan or something like that, or easy access to capital. However, with that being said, my personal beliefs didn’t stop the fact that it was available. So, we looked at it as a defensive role, that we wanted to win in areas that we already provided service or that we were going to grow to. And then we flipped it into an offensive role. That’s how we won as much as we did.

Nathan:

And the winning for us, we said, “You know what, we want to win this so we can go out and do more of what we’re already doing.” And it’s really been this catalyst. A lot of people have looked at CAF as being the end game. “Oh, well you have to build out to X number of customers. Therefore, once you’re done, you’re done.” And we’re looking at it, we have to build out to 80,000 locations across six states, and those 80,000 are just the catalyst for us to continue to grow and do what we’re able to do at economies of scale. We’re super excited. It’s been a long time coming. But I think it’s an awesome opportunity for everybody in our coverage area to be able to have options for broadband now.

Brad:

We initially talked about some goal setting for you. Tell me how you define that goal setting. You had a special term for it that I loved.

Nathan:

We call it a BHAG, a big, hairy, audacious goal. And this is from one of the books I read, and it was about just how it’s supposed to be a stretch goal. It’s supposed to be something that’s pretty ominous, but it allows you to focus on where you’re trying to go. And our BHAG is to get to 500,000 customers by the end of 10 years. And it isn’t to get the customers because I want to have the numbers. I mean, a lot of times companies, they say, “Well, I have 25% market share, 50% market share.” We want to get to that many customers because we know there are that many people out there that are desperate for internet, and that’s what we like to do. And that’s our BHAG – 500,000 customers. To put it in perspective for you, we have about 18,000 now, so we have a long way to go. But I think that the necessity of having internet [service], especially how important it is nowadays for people working from home, has just proven that the goal is important and ready to be tackled, and we’re excited to be able to get started on that.

Brad:

You made a great point about what was happening when you actually won the CAF II funding versus now – that there has always been a need to serve the underserved and the unserved, but now it’s an absolute utility for wireless broadband providers in the current COVID-19 world environment.

Nathan:

Oh, it is. It is absolutely. The US government put electric and water as Tier One critical infrastructure, they put broadband as Tier Two, and I would argue that we’re more important than water. And here’s why I would do that. As an individual US citizen, I can go buy water, I can transport water, and I can store water. That is great. That you can take it into your own hands as to what you need to do with your water supply. As an individual US citizen, I cannot transport the internet, I cannot store the internet, and I cannot actually get the internet without using someone else. I look at it and say, “Maybe you won’t die if you don’t have the internet, but I get the importance of it.” I think we’re right up there as a mission critical [service] – we have to stay connected and communicate.  If you’ve ever stayed at home with your kids with no internet, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You need the internet for sure.

Partnering with Microsoft Airband to Provide More Broadband

Brad:

Clearly this is not the job of just one company or one slice of one industry. You can’t do this alone. I know you have some significant partnerships.  Maybe first we could talk about Microsoft Airband and what that means to you currently?

Nathan:

The Microsoft Airband program, it’s a unique program out there, and I would say that looking in from the outside, I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to benefit Wisper and us bridging this digital divide. Early on they were very focused on a specific part of technology. They were very focused on TV white space, and that was where they were kind of going, and we saw TV white space as an awesome opportunity outside the US, but not that much of an opportunity inside the US. As I learned more and I got to meet with our contacts there, I have seen that they’ve transformed, and when they say that they really, really want to bridge this digital divide and they think it’s even larger than a lot of us think it is, that’s what they stuck behind. That is the right tool for the right job. If it’s TV white space, if it’s a different frequency, different band, they’re, they’re willing to do that.

Nathan:

They’re even okay with fiber. The downside with fiber is there’s a lot more zeros behind it. You can provide service to a lot more people if you do a fixed wireless solution as opposed to a fiber solution for everyone. It’s been really refreshing working with them when we were working through our contract with them. We knew what their goals were. We knew what our goals were. And there were a couple of things that were in the contract, we were like, “Well, that’s not what we talked about.” And they’re like, “Oh, you’re right. We’ll cross those out. That’s not what we talked about.” There is no real pressure other than to provide broadband to people. And it’s been so refreshing that they really have held true to that. And every time we talk, it’s how do we help you? What do we get to do? We need to provide more broadband.

Nathan:

And now with the COVID, it’s even more, just more prevalent as to how do you connect the school kids? I know my kids are still getting grades. I know some states, they’re not doing grades. My kids go to our church school and they have real grades and it’s going to really affect their GPA. So it’s vitally important we get everybody connected, and I think we’re all now seeing that what people in the rural markets have to put up with, drive into the local fast food place to get connected to the internet or having to stay at school longer to do work because they don’t have it at home. We’re all kind of seeing that now and how important that is. And it’s only making their drum beat louder and louder. They’ve been an amazing partner for us. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I wish I would have done it earlier.

Brad:

You’re really feeling the impact of a partnership that’s not just trying to push product on you, that’s actually trying to help the consumers and keep everybody connected while keeping them safe too?

Nathan:

I would say that some of the other partnerships that we’ve looked at, they say one thing, and then when you go sign the contract you’re like, “Oh, clearly this is what you want us to do because in the contract, in the written side of it, it’s one thing.” Microsoft is not that way at all. They have held true all the way through the whole process. Even when we’ve had some different areas where we’re struggling, they they’ve been very understanding and really, really willing to help. It’s a great thing, and if you’re an ISP or a WISP, I would highly recommend that you get involved with that program for sure.

Local Broadband Partnership with Sho-Me Electric Coop

Brad:

The other partnership we’d like to talk about is with Sho-Me Electric Coop. What does that mean to you? What is the benefit of them to you currently?

Nathan:

Sho-Me is an amazing opportunity for us.  The opportunity is speed and the opportunity is another local partner to work with. So, if we take the internet and we say, “Okay, internet, the way it is normally companies, you have to build the entire network to provide people service.” And let’s take the internet and look at it as far as roads. Sho-Me has all of the federal highways already built. Across our coverage area that we have to provide service, they have all the federal highways, and I would even say that they have a lot of the state highways as well. And then all we have to do is connect to where those state highways and federal highways are and connect to what’s called the last mile to the customer.

Nathan:

Now the vast majority of our dollars are going to actually connecting customers, as opposed to the vast majority of our dollars going to build the highways, just to get into where we need to go. Partnering with them on a pure business side is an amazing opportunity for us to say, “Okay, we’re going to leverage the resources that they already have, the infrastructure they already have, to be able to build out faster because I’m not building what’s called the middle mile. I’m only going to have to really build the last mile.” On the technical side of things that’s great, but on the personal side of things, they’re a great partner as well. They are local. They have over 200,000 members that are desperate for broadband. We’re coming in and saying, “We’re going to do this.” And they have been willing to help us at any turn they possibly can.

Providing Broadband Services to the Unserved First

Nathan:

They have some of those local relationships that we don’t have yet because we haven’t built out in those areas and they’ve been able to help us get into communities to find out where the biggest demand is. I’m very, very cognizant of the fact that a lot of times people want, “Well, I needed my 4G upgraded to 5G and I need my 5G upgraded to 6G or whatever it is. My 100 Mb upgraded to 1 Gb.” I’m very cognizant of the fact that people have zero G. They have no service whatsoever. Those are where we need to get to first, to at least connect them to the world. And then we can go back and the people who have okay service, but need better service, we can look at those.

Nathan:

They’ve been a great partner for us on that local side of knowing where we have the most demand and the most need first. I’m so excited and I’m so glad we were able to work with them. I think it’s a relationship that as other power co-ops see how well it’s working, that hopefully we’ll be able to set up some more with other power co-ops or even other WISPs set up in their area, because I think it’s a great symbiotic relationship.

Broadband Funding, Broadband Partners, Next Steps

Brad:

Now that you have funding, you have strategic partners in place to grow Wisper ISP, where do you see yourself in the next few years? Maybe three to five years, and then the next 10 years? And what kind of challenges do you think may be different in those time periods also, for you moving forward?

Nathan:

Our biggest challenge that we’re faced with now is hiring people. It’s hard to find good, solid people to come work for you. We hire based on our work ethic and attitude, and then you have to fit our core values.  We have a pretty stringent screening process that we go through. It’s something that we’ve always been kind of concerned about. But what’s interesting is that we are bringing high tech businesses and high-tech salaries into the rural markets.  It’s been a pleasant surprise for us, that those jobs aren’t there now and we’re introducing them. There’s a lot of people who want to come work for us. They see what we’re doing. They see that we’re goal driven, but our goals are different. Our goals aren’t just the bottom line. Our goals are getting customers [broadband] service and how do we do it right?

Nathan:

So that’s one of our biggest challenges as we grow that we still have to make sure we bring in the right people.  Because we’re going to go from a hundred plus employees now to, in three to five years, maybe 300 to 400 employees. And that means that we’ll have a much greater number of people who didn’t know the original Wisper, who didn’t that the culture that we have, and we have to figure out how to maintain our culture, our culture of understanding, our culture of family, our culture of we do what’s right even when no one’s looking, and those types of things are super important to us as we grow and become larger. Because the last thing I want to do is become larger for the sake of becoming larger, and then I’ll get ranked in there with the cable companies and the phone companies, and we want to definitely not have that. We have to treat our customers as if we were a thousand customer WISP, the way we did when we were that size, even though we might have 500,000 customers. But that shouldn’t matter how we treat our customers. In fact, with 500,000 customers, we should be able to do even more for the customer because we have more resources and larger opportunity to provide service.

Rural Broadband Service with Microsoft Airband for Precision Agriculture

Craig:

You mentioned earlier about the relationship with Microsoft Airband and their goal to add access to broadband to up to three million people in the next couple of years.  A big swath of the unserved and underserved areas of the country are heavily dependent upon agriculture as a primary form of commerce and that probably correlates to much of the service footprint for Wisper ISP.  What impact have you seen on those customers that are associated with agriculture once they have access to the broadband connectivity?

Nathan:

That’s a real interesting question because we all have heard of precision ag [agriculture] and what does that mean? In fact, I was just on a call two weeks ago with a group out of St. Louis that help farmers adopt precision ag, e.g. technical advantages and advances. They said that part of their job is to find out where their struggles are. And it really wasn’t around the precision ag. It was around the fact that they didn’t have internet at their farm, or they didn’t have internet at their house or their office, and that crippled their ability to even do precision ag. That’s interesting because the symptom is that you can’t deploy precision ag, but the root cause is because you don’t have access to that internet connection that you really need.

Nathan:

So, we’re working on partnering with them to try to solve that problem. We love working with farmers and using grain elevators – we’re on tons and tons of grain elevators. We provide service wherever we possibly can, we use whatever structure we can, and grain elevators are great. The other thing I love about farmers is that they do business with a handshake and I’m a handshake person. I know we do contracts and we have a one-page contract to get on the grain elevators, but I’m a handshake person and if I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do what’s right. And so are farmers. And it’s great to be able to work with people that can still go by the handshake and just say, “Yes, we’ll get it done and we’ll help you and you’ll help us by letting us up on your grain elevator.”

Nathan:

I can see the shift in the precision ag and their ability to stay connected. There’s so much more they can learn. We haven’t even been able to get to fiber to everyone’s house in the suburban market. There’s no way you’re going to get fiber to every sensor, to every COW, to everything that you need out at a high tech farm, so wireless becomes the logical choice to be able to do that quickly and to be able to do it economically.  I’m glad we’re solving that problem and being able to provide that service.

Extending Broadband Services with CBRS Spectrum

Brad:

You’re also growing with new technologies and becoming more innovative with more funding – how are you undertaking the new CBRS and how will you be rolling that out with your subscribers?

Nathan:

The new CBRS opportunity is a really, really good spectrum. It’s kind of the first time it’s been offered this way. We have to use a SAS, which is a spectrum management platform. We’ve never really had something quite like this. And I really applaud the FCC for coming up with this model and doing it where part of it’s unlicensed (or licensed light, because you use the SAS) and then part of it is licensed where you can buy the PALs, the licenses for it. It’s interesting because one of the biggest complaints that I see about the spectrum auctions that we’ve had in the past is that the large guys will buy all the spectrum, because they have all the dollars. They will build out to the cities, maybe some of the towns, and along the highways and then most of that spectrum lays fallow in the rural markets. But there’s no way for anybody else to legally use it because they own it and they won’t lease it to you or you’re too small.

Nathan:

The CBRS spectrum with the SAS kind of solves that problem. It says, “Listen, you can buy the spectrum, but if you’re not actively deployed on it, someone else can use it.” And I think that’s an interesting way for the FCC to solve the problem of the big guys want the larger markets and need those and they need more spectrum in those areas, but they don’t necessarily need them in the rural markets. But how do you break that all up? We’re excited, the auction is getting ready to start and we’re excited to be part of that and see where we can go with that. That spectrum is one more tool in the toolbox. I don’t think it’s the silver bullet that everybody wants, but I think it’s the right tool and in the right places it’ll extend our broadband reach considerably compared to what we have now.

Advice to WISP Startups

Brad:

We’ve talked about all the phases of your business – starting, growing, getting funding approved and we’ve talked about future innovation. With two decades worth of experience, what would you impart to a new WISP or a group of people starting their own WISPs? What kind of sage advice would you give them?

Nathan:

The first thing I would say is it is not too late. I’ve talked to a couple new WISPs or people who were evaluating to become a WISP and they feel as though they may have missed the boat. They weren’t here early enough, and now maybe it’s too late to start a WISP. If there is demand in your area and people need better service, now’s the best time as any. I actually think now is probably even an better time because our industry has grown, and while I can’t say we’re completely plug and play, I would say that we’re way better off. You can buy a radio off the shelf and it’ll kind of work as opposed to having to manufacture it.  I would say that it’s not too late.

Nathan:

The other thing I would say is learn from other’s mistakes. A lot of people who are entrepreneurial like to do it their way and say, “I’m going to start this and I’m going to do this.” But really learn from other’s mistakes because we have all been down the road of hard knocks.  Every time you say almost two decades, it makes me feel old. I’m still only 43. It has been a long time, we have learned a lot, and I wish I would’ve known what I know now starting my business so long ago. You need to find other WISPs that are doing it. I’ll have a shameless plug for WISPA. Join WISPA. There’s a ton of information there, a ton of learning and knowledge. Listen to these podcasts, because what you guys bring to light, the stories are just reconfirming to people who maybe think, “Oh, this is going great, but it’s not going so well, what’s happening?” Just know that you’re in for a good fight and it’s not easy, because if it was easy, everyone would do it. But learn from other’s mistakes for sure.

Craig:

We appreciate the opportunity to learn so much more about what’s going on at Wisper ISP.  A great example of your approach to doing business and how you have built Wisper ISP is your answer a few years ago to the question of how do you celebrate your successes?  Your answer was that you focus on the next goal, that you’re not going to spend time celebrating, that you’re refocusing on the next goal.  Thank you so much for being with us on the Broadband Bunch.

Nathan:

Thanks for having me. I love what you guys are doing and hopefully you’ll have me on for another podcast and we can have lots more fun doing this, sharing stories about our industry and helping everybody grow our industry into something that we’ll look back from another 20 years from now and say, “Wow, we were part of that. That’s something awesome that got created.”

Learn More

Wisper ISP:       https://www.wisperisp.com/

Microsoft Airband:        https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/corporate-responsibility/airband

Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative:      https://shomepower.com/

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