To most people, life without internet seems inconceivable. How would you communicate? How would you work? How would you shop online?
But, for nearly 20 million Americans, life without high-speed internet is a reality. They live in rural communities that large phone and cable providers don't cover. They live on the wrong side of the "digital divide."
Until recently, David S. of Riner, Virginia. was one of those Americans. His family could go online on their phones, but their mobile data plans were pricey. Because their only option for television was satellite--also expensive--financial stress was mounting. The kicker? His 9-year-old daughter couldn't use her school-issued laptop, at least not at home. The curriculum was all online. She had to do her homework at school.
David had reached out to other internet companies to no avail. Finally, he came across All Points Broadband, a Leesburg-based company that provides utility grade broadband to underserved markets. "They did a test, and they said they could definitely do it," says David.
And they did.
Since December 2019, David and his family have access to reliable high-speed internet. His daughter can do her homework at home, and the family saved money by canceling satellite TV and streaming content, instead, and by downgrading their mobile data plan.
A wireless workaround
All Points Broadband CEO Jimmy Carr explains why major telecommunications companies (telcos) don't service rural areas. Delivering broadband is capital intensive, and these places don't have enough customers to justify the high infrastructure cost.
To solve this problem, All Points primarily uses fixed-wireless, which is still expensive, but more cost-efficient than other approaches. To create or access a wireless internet service provider (WISP) in a rural area, they scour the terrain for "vertical real estate"--silos, water towers, and other tall structures from which they can hang an antenna. Sometimes, they collaborate with local governments or farmers to get access to these structures--or they make their own. Next, they install antennas or dishes on customer homes. This approach, coupled with fiber technology, allows them to support more than 24,000 customers across Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky.
Carr recalls one customer's reaction to getting internet access at home for the first time: "He said it was like the lights had turned on."
This analogy makes sense to Carr. "Although it is not regulated this way, broadband access is really a utility. It is no longer a luxury; it is like electricity or water--you have to have it to participate in the global economy."
Growth by acquisition
In 2013, two years before launching All Points, Carr and his brother started a WISP so they could get internet access at their family vacation home in rural Northern Michigan. It started as a side project, but they were impressed with the technology. They saw a chance to grow a business--and to bridge the digital divide. They quickly learned the nation was sprinkled with companies like theirs.
"More than 2,000 wireless ISPs provide the only source of terrestrial broadband to 3-4 million Americans. For the most part, these are great businesses run by great entrepreneurs providing an essential service," he explains.
So, Carr focused on consolidation. In 2014, All Points acquired their first business. Within six months, they bought two more. Within a year, they proved they could improve margins on the acquired revenue streams by spreading fixed costs across a larger customer base. This helps them keep prices down and generate enough cash to invest in their networks and improve the customer experience.
Acquisitions allow the business to reach new geographic areas, and leverage new technology, namely fiber. Now, All Points deploys a hybrid of fiber-optic cables and fixed-wireless to deliver broadband to places other companies have been unable, or unwilling, to go.
Carr says the future looks bright. Continued technology advancements and new public-private relationships should allow companies like his to reach more and more communities. In doing so, they will ensure people in rural areas get access to the same opportunities as those in more populated areas--opportunities many American take for granted, like online job searches, remote work, and online learning. That is what drives Carr and his team--bridging the digital divide for people like David and his daughter. "We are doing well by doing good, and that makes it fun to go to work each day."