The Last Mile Solution

How two ranchers became the top internet providers of their small town

by Jessica Denson
Director of Communications, Connected Nation

Johnson City, TX (May 16, 2019) – Ginger and David McCullough are doing something they never expected—providing broadband services to their community.

David McCullough, owner of HC Wireless, climbs a tower to do maintenance on equipment

“We were living in the Texas panhandle and running a cattle ranch,” said Ginger McCullough. “It was around-the-clock work. I took care of the cattle while my husband went into Amarillo to do IT work. But, his company made a decision to outsource its tech, so suddenly, late in our careers, we had to start over. We decided to move closer to our son who was living in Austin.”

The pair sold the ranch, packed up, and moved to Johnson City—a small town of about 1,500 people that rests in the middle of Texas Hill Country. That was in 2016.

Fast forward to 2019 and the McCulloughs are running Hill Country (HC) Wireless. They developed their own network from the ground-up and are now providing high-speed internet services to 350 customers—and they’re starting a second company to meet the demand in other communities.

So, how did two ranchers become the top internet service providers (ISPs) of their small town? The answer could help provide some guidance—and relief—for the millions of families and businesses in rural America now on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.

“You could replicate what we’ve done in Johnson City in so many small communities,” Ginger said.

It’s About Community
“Even before they had the business, David would come to the library and volunteer to help with our IT needs,” said Maggie Goodman, director of the Johnson City Library. “He’d come in once a week and tackle the long list of problems we had. Ginger would also show up and work on some of the computers. From the beginning, they were always so kind-hearted and community-oriented and would follow through with what they said they’d do.”

Local students come to the Johnson City Library to access the internet and new educational programs thanks to the work of the McCulloughs

David McCullough provided all the tech help he could for the library—from updating computer software to working on its network. While there, he noticed just how many people were using the library’s computers simply because they could not get internet access where they lived.

“We do everything on the internet now,” Goodman said. “So many of the people we help now are doing job applications online, are doing training courses online, accessing health resources. They’re also socially interacting on Facebook with their family and friends, using email, or doing something to educate or better themselves. To not have access means you and your family, your children, your business, are cut off from opportunity and important resources.”

Like others living in the area, the McCulloughs chose Johnson City because they wanted to be in a small town. But, although they welcomed the slow-paced lifestyle, they didn’t think that would mean being disconnected from the world.

“We were shocked to find out our only choice for internet access was dial-up,” said Ginger. “But that problem turned out to be the first seed of an idea. Then, when we saw what was happening at the library and started being contacted more—that was the second seed.”

The McCulloughs volunteered their time to improve the internet access at the Johnson City Library when they first moved to the area

As word spread about what David was doing at the library, area businesses and churches started calling him to see if he could help improve their connections as well. So the couple started researching how they could help not just the library, but the entire community.

“A friend of ours ran Amarillo Wireless and was very successful in connecting people all over the panhandle,” said Ginger. “We talked with him about how it could be done and, at one point David had all these radios in our house and was testing them. Then he just said to me, ‘Ginger, you’ve got the customer service skills; I’ve got the technical skills. I think we can figure this out.’”

That’s exactly what they did. In January 2018, they officially opened HC Wireless. The business plan had a focus on community and made three promises to customers: 1) to buy the best technical equipment they could, 2) deliver exceptional customer service, and 3) be solution oriented—finding ways to deliver better internet service in even the hardest-to-reach areas.

“A lot of people had trust issues,” Ginger said. “They had been let down so many times before and told they’d get certain speeds and bandwidths only to find out they weren’t going to get what they were promised. These people wanted to come in and look us in the eye before they’d allow us to come into their home and install anything.”

A Three-Pronged Approach
As Ginger worked on building trust, David worked on problem-solving in the field. One of the challenges for connecting families in the area is the trees and hills. After all, it is Texas Hill Country. Most ISPs in the area were using only point-to-point technology, meaning the service was line of sight—a big problem if a tree or hill is in the way.

“That was a learning curve for us. We installed some point-to-point technology in the winter, and then the trees started blooming in the spring, and suddenly it didn’t work. That’s when we realized we needed other technology as well to cover all our customers,” Ginger said.

So now, in addition to point-to-point technology, the company offers three options: point-to-point, LTE technology, and an off-grid solution. Using Telrad LTE radios, the LTE technology covers an area kind of like a blanket. It can go over ridges and in between spaces. But even that won’t reach some customers. HC Wireless does plan to build more towers to reach more homes and businesses, but until then, the company provides its most remote customers with the off-grid solution. It’s basically a cellular signal that has a commercial grade hotspot. If bandwidth drops to more than 10 percent below the customer’s bandwidth plan, the McCulloughs get an alert—just to make sure they’re delivering on what they’ve promised.

“Every penny we made we put back into improving our equipment,” Ginger said. “Last weekend we finally bought a used work truck because we’d been using our personal vehicles for the business. We waited because we wanted to reinvest and improve things for our neighbors and community.”

David and Ginger McCullough now provide internet service to 350 customers in their community

As more customers came online and got the access they were promised, they began to refer other people and businesses to the company, and HC Wireless quickly grew. Just 15 months after they opened their doors, the McCulloughs have 350 residential customers and are delivering internet to 10 of the local wineries—a big business for the region.

“Many of the wineries were stuck with hotspots,” Ginger said. “They were close to fiber but the buildout from the highway to them was $20,000 plus. So we were contacted to help cover that last mile. We’re really the last mile solution for our area.”

Even as the company grows, the McCulloughs are maintaining their laser-focus on community. HC Wireless provides the basic internet plan to nonprofits for free. If they want extra bandwidth, the nonprofit just pays the difference. And the pair is still helping out at the library.

“Of course, when their business started and was first growing, we didn’t see them as much—but if I needed David’s help, he’d be here in 15 minutes,” Goodman said. “Before we had a local internet company, it would be two hours on the phone and even then, they didn’t really have a great product or connection for us. Now, we’re able to do so much for local residents, and it’s all because the McCulloughs helped and continue to help improve our connection.”

Johnson City Library is opening a Community Education Center to provide access to resources, classes, and more to everyone from school-aged children to senior citizens. The library also operates a Discovery Academy two afternoons a week for kids in third through fifth grades.

“The kids are using the internet for a free coding program. A lot of coding and computer science jobs are left unfilled and this program makes it fun, so hopefully the children will get excited about this,” Goodman said. “David and Ginger actually came over and put in a WiFi booster in our meeting room because all the kids on computers were sucking the signal out of the building. They’re just great patrons of our community.”

And They’re Not Done Yet…
Connected Nation learned about HC Wireless when Ginger McCullough contacted the nonprofit after attending a listening session in Austin. During the session, Chris Pedersen, CN’s VP of Planning and Development, discussed the importance of access, adoption, and use of broadband—presenting data recently gathered in Texas through the Connected Community Engagement Program and sharing details on funding opportunities, such as the ReConnect Program.

The HC Wireless Team work to dial in the signal through the trees

The USDA program offers $600 million in loans and grants specifically to expand rural broadband access. The McColloughs were looking at leveraging the ReConnect Program to help move their businesses into other communities but needed to identify an area where 90 percent of the population doesn’t have access to 10 mbps download.

“The demand is so great in rural central Texas that we have now formed a second company – Hill Country Towers,” Ginger said. “We’ve brought in investors and have a plan to add one radio tower a quarter for the next two years. We feel we can replicate our process in other communities, but having more capital advances the growth. So, I looked at census information, and while I’ve gained insight, I couldn’t find the specific information requirements that actually state bandwidth usage. I need that to help our company qualify for the funding.”

“It’s a problem Connected Nation has seen across the U.S.,” Pedersen said. “The lack of granular data that truly reflects where the unserved or underserved populations are makes it difficult for providers and even communities to identify the problem and access funding. Currently, broadband access is tracked by the Federal Communications Commission at the census block level—meaning if one or two homes have coverage then the entire census block is counted as having access. This is particularly problematic in rural areas where census blocks can be hundreds of square miles.”

It’s why Connected Nation has been advocating for better, more granular data and broadband mapping. Without it, rural America will continue to struggle because the scope of the problem won’t be clear. With it, federal and state funders can invest intelligently, where the need is greatest, and truly work to close the Digital Divide. That includes investing in rural infrastructure and in companies like HC Wireless.

“I think it really does take a village to make it work. Our biggest surprise was how much capital it takes to get the equipment and the licenses. There’s a lot to start this up,” Ginger said. “There’s no more space for radios on our existing tower structures. We have to build towers to put radios on to reach more people. Each tower costs about $60,000. We’re going to do it, but with a little funding and help we can reach more people faster.”

“Big companies spend all their money in metropolitan areas. They have 5G or fiber, but they don’t step foot out of those areas,” Goodman pointed out. “I’ve asked my cell phone provider, ‘When are we going to have a good internet signal or even a good phone signal?’ They pretty much just laugh at me. So, it’s so important to have people who understand our rural communities. That includes at the federal level, where many of these grant opportunities are so cumbersome to fill out that a rural community can’t even begin to tackle it.”

Under their new Hill Country Towers company, the McCulloughs plan to build towers along U.S. 281 from Marble Falls to Blanco, Texas. It’s an area that’s wide open and doesn’t have much access, but without more funding it will take more time.

“I have more than 300 people in my software system right now, just waiting for us,” Ginger said. “When they have to wait too long, they stop believing in you. We don’t want that to happen. These families and businesses need our help—not next month or next year, but now.”

Related Links:
Learn more about Hill Country Wireless here: https://www.hcwireless.com/why-choose-hc

About Connected Nation: Our mission is to improve lives by providing innovative solutions that expand access to and increase the adoption and use of broadband (high-speed internet) and its related technologies for all people. Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation. For more information, please visit: connectednation.org and follow Connected Nation on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

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