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Wisper ISP expands rural broadband in southwest Missouri

New towers are part of Illinois company’s $170M work in state

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An Illinois-based internet service provider is working in the Springfield area as part of its multimillion-dollar commitment to expand high-speed broadband access to rural areas in several Midwest states.

Wisper ISP Inc. is launching new wireless broadband towers in Greene County this quarter – an investment that is a portion of the $220.3 million in federal funding the company was authorized to receive last year from the Federal Communications Commission. Wisper CEO Nathan Stooke said the company won the funds in 2018 via the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction. The grant requires Wisper to provide broadband service to over 80,000 households in rural areas by December 2025.

Of the total, Stooke said $170 million is dedicated to broadband development in nearly 68,000 households in Missouri. Wisper also is working on projects in Arkansas, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana and Oklahoma with CAF funds.

Stooke said Wisper should finish roughly 20% of its work in all six states by the end of the year, noting a milestone would be to reach 30% by 2022’s finish.

“Our goal is to be closer to 40% to 45% by the end of next year,” he said.

The FCC auction allocated over $1.4 billion to businesses to be distributed over the next 10 years to expand rural broadband service in unserved areas in 45 states. The $220 million awarded to Wisper was the second-largest recipient in the auction behind $281 million won by Hudson Oaks, Texas-based AMG Technology Investment Group LLC, according to FCC data.

“We don’t look at it as an obligation; we look at it as an opportunity,” Stooke said, noting Wisper’s bid calls for the company to deliver service at speeds up to 100 megabits per second downstream and 20 Mbps upstream.

The FCC defines broadband internet as anything with a speed faster than 25 Mbps. It lists the minimum speed needed for general internet browsing at 1 Mbps, while streaming high-definition video requires 5-8 Mbps per device. Streaming ultra-HD 4K video needs 25 Mbps.

Wisper, which Stooke founded in 2003 out of his garage in O’Fallon, Illinois, provides service to about 20,000 subscribers in six states. He said the company has nearly 190 employees and is in hiring mode as it scales up its high-speed internet commitment to rural communities. It has Missouri offices in Joplin, Osage, Smithton and Washington.

“We hired 91 people during this year alone,” he said, adding the company’s annual revenue is about $14 million.

Local commitment
Stooke said Wisper’s CAF work doesn’t include areas inside of Springfield city limits where people already have numerous internet service options.

“We’re focused on the rural markets or the unserved and underserved markets,” he said. “We will basically cover that whole southwest corner of Missouri.”

Wisper’s investment in improving broadband in Greene County is over $2.7 million, according to company officials. That includes launching three new wireless broadband towers before year’s end, serving more than 13,300 households in Bois D’Arc, northeast Springfield and Willard.

Last month, the company launched towers nearby in Walnut Grove and Billings, with each able to serve 2,000 households, Stooke said.

Monthly internet rates for Wisper range $65-$105, depending on speed desired, according to officials.

Stooke said while the FCC already had broadband expansion to rural areas as a priority prior to 2020, the use of internet proved to be even more vital as the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders arrived last year.

“COVID has shown how important that is and how bad people need that service,” he said.

Wisper’s ongoing high-speed internet work is amid a $120 million fiber-optic network expansion by City Utilities of Springfield. CU officials say the project is on track for completion in late 2022. The project is a partnership with Lumen, an internet provider and parent company of CenturyLink. As part of a utility agreement between the companies, CU is handling installation of the fiber-optic lines, and Lumen is leasing the lines and providing internet services via Quantum Fiber, its platform for fiber-based connectivity, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

Governmental push
Federal funding also is coming to Missouri by way of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden Nov. 15. The act’s $65 billion for broadband access aims to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. Most money will be made available to states via grants, according to White House officials.

A White House fact sheet notes Missouri is expected to receive at least $100 million of the funds to provide access to approximately 330,000 Missourians who lack it. Roughly 1.6 million people, or 26% of residents, will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will help low-income families afford internet access.

An estimated 42 million Americans, nearly 13% of the population, lack home internet access, according to consumer advocacy group BroadbandNow.

WON Communications LLC co-owner Matthew Thomas said taking on CAF work wasn’t a consideration for his 10-employee company. The Springfield internet service provider, which started in 2014, has roughly 1,200 customers, with 800 of them residential in rural areas including Bolivar, Chadwick, Fair Play and Sparta.

“We’re just not big enough to justify bringing on the personnel to just deal with a government grant,” he said. “There’s only so much mental bandwidth to building and maintaining a network.”

Boosting business customers is the company’s short-term goal, Thomas said, adding WON eventually will move away from residential entirely except for larger developments such as apartment complexes. 

“We’re looking more into going full into business services and offering that good reputation and local support and expertise,” he said.

Wisper’s Stooke said all the federal dollars filtering through the states with current and upcoming investments are going to result in a “building frenzy” for internet service in rural communities.

“That’s a good thing. People need service and they need it quickly,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of companies out there chasing down the opportunity to provide service.”

Thomas said the governmental push to improve broadband internet won’t be accomplished this decade.

“I believe it will be done,” he said. “Within a period of 10-20 years, everyone in America will have some sort of fiber access directly to their home.”

He equates the expansion of internet service as similar to how utility providers have seemingly added poles everywhere.

“If you need power out in Timbuktu, they’ll bring it to you,” he said. “It’ll happen with the (internet) connectivity as well. It’s just that it’s got to be built.”

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