Member Spotlight: Intelliwave

Nearly 20 million Americans – the majority of whom live in rural America – lack adequate broadband.  Large incumbents haven’t solved this problem despite being aware of it for decades. Now with 5G, they claim they’re hot on the trail to fixing it.
Or, so says the glitzy marketing brochure.  5G is largely an urban play because it demands dense populations to become profitable.  Rural, well, not so much. 
Oddly, this presents a rich opportunity for Chris Cooper, CEO of Intelliwave, one of the largest wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) in Ohio.  Founded in 2002 in Athens, Ohio, Cooper notes “it was clear that the Southern Ohio region was largely left behind by the networks of the larger carriers.”  So, Intelliwave began constructing a wireless network throughout the region “to bring broadband to individual residents and businesses where it wasn’t.” 
Today, Intelliwave has over 5,000 customers – a mix of 80% residential, 20% business – served by over 160 sites, such as from cell towers, water tanks or grain legs, throughout the Southern and Central Ohio area.  This architecture, which distributes 2-way broadband via vertically placed antennas between Intelliwave and its customers, allows a WISP like Intelliwave to extend coverage over far-flung regions at about 15% of the cost of wiring fiber directly to each home and establishment.  Cooper can serve as few as 10 customers in a given area, something that 5G or fiber providers simply cannot do because of economics.  “This flexibility allows us to go where other carriers are not able to or are unwilling to go,” explains Cooper, adding “it means that more of our neighbors, friends and family can access our digital economy, which is so important today.”    
Not surprisingly, his 40-employee company is growing.  In 2017 it made the list for Inc. 5000’s fastest growing privately held companies. “Since we started in 2002, we’ve never dropped a quarter,” says Cooper.  That’s because the largest providers, if they’re in an area he’s serving, have legacy systems that are out of date.  His customers want more.  “We’re stepping into the void created by incumbent providers who have neglected or ignored the community.”  His most popular service is 25/5 mbps, but can go up to 100 mbps, “far faster than the legacy copper systems we compete with,” notes Cooper.   As technology evolves and access to spectrum increases, Intelliwave’s services will only become better for its customers.        
Though Cooper and his two partners have depended on private, at-risk capital to fund growth, Intelliwave has taken some support from the USDA through its Rural Utility Service program to bring broadband to un-served and underserved rural areas.  As Cooper sees it, there could be more of this in the pipeline.  With the FCC’s new proposal in place – like its $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – Cooper says companies like his “can’t not participate because there is a boatload of opportunity to bring up-to-date broadband to underserved communities,” which independent companies like Intelliwave can take advantage of with the government support.
At the end of the day Cooper is a dedicated community servant.  Intelliwave goes into communities that incumbents have left behind and defies the odds, providing high-speed Internet access at affordable rates that his customers want and rely on.   
“We’ll do just about anything to bring service to our neighbors – because we can.  Because it’s the right thing to do.”