When Jimmy Carr visited his parents' vacation home in northern Michigan back in 2012, he couldn't teleconference with the partners at his Washington, D.C., law firm: The internet was just too slow. So he bought some antennas and set up a business beaming broadband to a few dozen houses nearby. Realizing he was on to something, he quit his job, recruited fellow former Eagle Scout Tom Innes, and set out to bring speedier internet service to rural stretches of their native Virginia. Doing so requires installing large antennas atop existing towers, like the one in the photo above, off Route 666 in Waterford--or in some cases, corn silos--and smaller ones on customers' roofs. Customers get broadband that's sometimes 50 times faster than what they had. That's brought local businesses, like the breweries and wineries that dot the Blue Ridge Mountains, into the modern technological world. "The major phone and cable companies have decided they're not going to get a good return [on these markets], so they've pretty much let them rot on the vine," Carr says. "They need high-speed internet just like everyone else." Here, Carr explains how the startup (No. 330 on this year's Inc. 5000) went from side project to full-on pursuit of the 24 million Americans who still lack access to high-speed broadband. --As told to Kevin J. Ryan
After my parents got divorced, my brother and I bought the family vacation home in rural northern Michigan from my dad. I was an attorney and my brother was a consultant, and our jobs required us to be very connected. The only internet option at this location was a satellite connection that was very data-limited, unreliable, and had a super high degree of latency. I couldn't talk to the partners at my firm on a video chat. So my brother and I had a large part of our balance sheets tied up in this asset that we couldn't enjoy because we couldn't be there and work.
Necessity being the mother of invention, we looked around and learned about this type of access technology called fixed wireless. That's where the radios making up the last-mile connection are both fixed in a stationary position, as opposed to a mobile phone where one of two radios is moving around. We did some research and found out lots of companies were doing this around the country. The technology had come a very long way in the past few years: The equipment was now cheap, reliable, and fairly easy to deploy. That made it much easier to build a company in this space. But there wasn't one of those companies near us.
We went to about 20 friends and neighbors in Michigan and said, "The Carr brothers and Tom Innes have cooked up a scheme to get you all the internet, and we need you to contribute some capital to help us get off the ground." And people were like, where do I sign?
We ran that network remotely for about a year as a test. I think we got to about 30 customers. And it worked. We realized that people must have this problem all over the country. You have a house or an office that's in a beautiful place, but one of the reasons it's beautiful is that it's off the grid.
That was about the time Tom was finishing business school. I called him one morning while I was walking to work and said, "If you'll jump and work on this business with me, I'll quit my job and meet you in Virginia in early July." And he said, "Great."
We now serve about 20,000 end users and counting. There's a large addressable market for this: Two-thirds of the world's population has never received telecom service from a wire and probably never will. Wireless is leapfrogging those technologies. We're really benefiting from that trend.