U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is questioning the progress of an Internet company in expanding rural broadband in his state, noting the company has yet to receive a cent of federal funding for the projects.
(TNS) — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is questioning the progress of an Internet company in expanding rural broadband in the state, while the company has yet to receive a cent of federal funding for the projects.
Hawley on Wednesday asked about Wisper ISP, which received the lion's share of funding announced in 2018 for Missouri broadband infrastructure, in a news release and letter to the Federal Communication Commission chairman
The CEO of the company on Wednesday, however, said the FCC has yet to release any federal funds to it for the projects.
"We have been working hand in hand with the FCC to make sure we're a qualified company," said Wisper ISP CEO Nathan Stooke by phone. "We're very close to being funded."
In 2018, the FCC announced Wisper won a federal auction to provide broadband service to more than 60,000 locations in Missouri and would receive $176 million in federal funds. It was one of 11 winning bidders in Missouri, which is to receive nearly $255 million in federal support for rural broadband under what is being called the Connect America Fund.
In central Missouri, Wisper ISP was awarded $443,556 to build service to 483 customers in Boone County, according to the Springfield News-Leader. In Cooper County, there are 26 customers and Wisper will be paid $25,463.
In Cole County, Wisper will hook up 2,315 customers and receive $2.36 million. There are 83 customers in Callaway County who will receive broadband service and Wisper will receive $129,834.
Other companies were awarded the bids in Howard, Moniteau and Randolph counties.
The "ISP" in Wisper ISP stands for Internet service provider. The company is based in Mascoutah, Illinois.
Hawley submitted a series of questions to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the status of the Wisper projects.
"The need for access to reliable broadband Internet in rural areas of Missouri is critical," Hawley wrote in the letter, which he released to reporters.
Missouri ranks 41st in the nation for limited Internet connectivity, Hawley wrote.
"I hear regularly from Missourians who are concerned that their communities are being left behind," Hawley wrote in the letter.
He asked Pai to provide him with an update on the status of Wisper's projects, how many locations the company has added service to, and if it is on track to meet its timeline. Hawley requested answers from Pai by next Wednesday.
Stooke said he would be happy to visit with Hawley about the plans.
"I think for us, we want to be as transparent with everyone as we can be," Stooke said. "I'd love to set up a meeting with the senator to discuss our plans in Missouri."
Because of the funding situation, Stooke said nothing specific to the federal projects has been done.
"We've added service with our own money," Stooke said, including 1,900 customers last year. "We've been able to partner with Show-Me Technologies in mid-Missouri. They already have a fiber infrastructure that we can use to help extend our network."
Wisper will meet its commitment to the FCC to provide customers with the 100 megabits per second download speed and 120 megabits per second upload speed, Stooke said.
The company is adding technology jobs in the rural locations where it will be operating, Stooke said. The company will hire 30 or more near Washington. It has offices at Lake of the Ozarks and Joplin.
"We will hire people and provide them with technical training," Stooke said.
He founded Wisper in 2003 when his neighbor a few miles away needed high-speed Internet, he said. He started the company in his 1986 Honda Accord with $36,000 on three credit cards, he said.
Wisper will change the ranking of 41st in the nation for Internet speed in Missouri, Stooke said.
"Wisper will help the state of Missouri," he said. "Hopefully we're going to move the needle quite substantially."
Told the company hadn't received federal funding, Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford said that was the kind of information Hawley was seeking in his letter to the FCC chairman
"I would anticipate more updates" from the FCC, Ford said.
The plan isn't as far along as he wanted it to be at this point, Stooke said.
"I just think it' a long process," Stooke said. "If it were easy, everyone would have broadband access. Are we behind where we want to be? Sure. We've done our due diligence with the FCC."
Asked how soon Wisper might receive its federal funding, Stooke said he always has a response for his kids when they're on a trip and ask "are we there yet?"
"I tell them we're the closest we've ever been," Stooke said.
©2020 Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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