After poor broadband access, a man started his own fiber internet service provider

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

About 42 million Americans do not have reliable internet service. One man in Michigan is building his own high-speed service to help neighbors who still rely on dial-up. NPR’s Emma Bowman reports.

EMMA BOWMAN, BYLINE: Before the pandemic forced many of us to work from home, Jared Mauch had been at it for almost 20 years. But his hunt for good internet was unending. When he first moved to rural Michigan in a town not far from Ann Arbor, his job set him up with a great internet connection, while many of his neighbors were still stuck in the slow days of dial-up.

JARED MAUCH: My company provided a T1 line, which was really great. It’s 1.5 megabit up and down.

BOWMAN: But that was 2002.

MAUCH: And eventually, over time, as the number of children we had grew and as the business activities that I did for my employers, this really was no longer meeting my needs.

BOWMAN: But when he started shopping around, he wasn’t happy with his options. The internet speeds from AT&T were painfully slow. Comcast wanted to charge him an upfront fee of $50,000. He opted for a third route. Rather than shell out money, only to have to depend on the whims of an internet service provider, he started his own fiber ISP.

MAUCH: It ended up being a 10-year project. I ended up creating the company eventually in 2017, getting permits in 2019, sent out letters to everyone, let them know that, you know, construction was going to be starting.

BOWMAN: In August of 2020, he was officially in business, just in time for his kids to start virtual school during the pandemic.

MAUCH: And it was great. I have this fiber at my home that I controlled and could deliver the type of service that I really wanted to have.

BOWMAN: Along the way, he also hooked up neighbors to his fiber line, and those neighbors told their neighbors. Now he’s got 70 customers. The federal government, meanwhile, has been pouring billions into fiber infrastructure in recent years, especially in unserved rural areas, where experts say the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world often aren’t expanding because they don’t see a return on investment. But Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, says people like Mauch aren’t waiting around for governments to get the money needed to get decent internet.

GARY BOLTON: You have these rugged individuals we could call mavericks that have gone out to see how they can solve an issue with their community and set up broadband connection to their home and then to their neighbors. You know, some of them have been able to build it without government assistance.

BOWMAN: In all, Mauch says he spent about $300,000 out of his own pocket building his service.

MAUCH: I managed to sign up enough customers along the way that I’ve been breaking even. My goal wasn’t necessarily to make a lot of money doing this but be able to connect to people that really needed it.

BOWMAN: But now those federal funds are flowing. Mauch is getting $2.6 million to continue his work, thanks to a COVID-19 relief package that allocated $15 million to the county of Washtenaw, where Mauch lives. With that money, Mauch plans to get 600 more homes connected, about a quarter of the work that needs to be done to get his county to 100% reliable internet. He usually charges about $200 for installation, with monthly rates starting at $65. He tries to keep his prices fair.

MAUCH: Some people have the means to support the projects, and some people don’t. And I’ve adapted my approach for every person in how I market to the homes and when I interact with them.

BOWMAN: And at least for now, he seems to be keeping his neighbors happy.

MAUCH: So far, I’ve lost zero customers. Everybody that’s gotten connected has stayed connected.

BOWMAN: Emma Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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