A Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate’s company is expanding internet service into the rural parts of the region he fell in love with when he was a member of the university’s swim team.
Nathan Stooke started Mascoutah-based Wisper Internet 18 years ago with “three maxed-out credit cards.”
He now serves as company CEO. He said Wisper’s aim is to provide high-speed internet connectivity to homes and businesses in rural areas – places with few or in some cases, no options for internet service.
Using wireless line-of-sight transmissions, the company recently launched two new towers in Williamson County as well as another two in Jackson County.
He said the company is working to bridge the digital divide between urban centers and rural areas, explaining quality internet service is as important in less populous regions as it is in metropolitan areas.
“What COVID taught us, in my opinion, is that the internet is more important than even water,” Stooke explained. “You might say, ‘Wait, I have to have water to survive,’ and you do, but as an average citizen, I can buy water at the store, I can transport it and I can store water, so if the water line to your house is going to be broken for the next year, you could do all those things and survive. You cannot store the internet and you have to buy it where you are. We take internet for granted in the areas where there is connectivity, but as people move to rural areas, they realize they have to have internet to stay connected.”
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To bring that connectivity, Stooke’s company builds towers or leases space on existing cellular and broadcast antennas – or any other tall structure such as a grain elevator or water tower – and beams internet signal to an antenna and receiver at a customer’s home or business. The signal reaches six to eight miles from the tower, depending on topography and tree clutter.
“Trees are our worst enemy,” Stooke said. “It’s hard to get through trees and we all know how our cell phones don’t work in some of these rural areas, especially in Southern Illinois. It’s the same with internet.”
Newer equipment, however, allows signals to go through trees, allowing for better coverage using fewer towers.
“It’s really helping us get service where people need it most – where they live, surrounded by trees in Southern Illinois,” he said.
Stooke said some of the company’s current growth is due to Connect America Fund, a federal program designed to expand voice and broadband data service to areas where it was previously unavailable. Wisper’s Connect America Fund includes $1.4 million for broadband in Jackson County and $1.5 million for Williamson County for example.
“I think this is a big, big push,” he said. “It’s something that we’re trying to do ourselves — providing service to the rural market — even before we got the Connect America funding. Now, with it, our monthly budget is more than our annual budget was. We’re spending $2 million a month to build out these networks because it is so needed and we have the capital now to be able to do that.”
Stooke added that Wisper will be building infrastructure to reach 9,000 more locations over the next four years, with many of them in the most rural parts of Southern Illinois, an area he said he knows well.
“This is an area I remember, I used to go bike riding and swimming all over the region,” the former walk-on SIU swimmer said. “I think it is very cool that I’m able to provide internet to some of those places now. The region was good to me and SIU did a great job of preparing me for what I’m doing now.”
He said he attended SIU where he earned a degree in computer science and an MBA in 2000 because of the university’s Achieve Program, a supplemental academic support service for university students with learning disabilities, attention disorders and other challenges.
“I have dyslexia so I spell at a third grade level and read at a sixth,” he shared. “The program gave me such a good foundation, that people think I went to an Ivy League school. I didn’t even have a scholarship, but what I had was great teachers and an education I could make something of.”
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