Yesterday, I went on a trip to Alliance, Nebraska to help install our first customer on a new access point. This is not something that I do on a regular basis, but this one was pretty special to me and I think that the circumstances around this install, and the work that went into making it possible is a great illustration of the power of broadband and how important WISPs are to the people that they serve.
First, I’d like to introduce you to Brian and Mary Lafler. I have known Brian and Mary for a long time.
Brian was the long-time postmaster in Mitchell, Nebraska where I grew up. I went to school with their daughters and their family was an integral part of the community. Brian was also a musician, who played in a country/rock band called Wanted along with a few shows where he would play his own original music.
In December of 1996, I was working on a feedlot, driving a payloader and living in a trailer house. My first venture into running my own business, doing video production, had failed and I had moved back to Nebraska from Colorado with a fair amount of debt, no job and no idea what I was going to do with my life. While in Colorado, I had bought a bass guitar at a pawn shop and spent some of my free hours trying to learn how to play it. I was about ready to take it back to a pawn shop and get rid of it when I got a phone call from Brian. They needed a bass player for their band and he asked if I would like to come over and audition. I went to his house for the audition and even though it was pretty clear that I was very green, the guys in the band liked my attitude and we started getting together so they could show me how to play their songs. Brian was especially helpful to me, as he had started out on bass and even taped a little note on the neck of my guitar so I could figure out where the notes were.
A few months later, I joined the band on stage. Our first gig was awesome and flawed and fun at the same time. I only knew two sets worth of songs, but it was a four set show, and we got through the night. Brian was yelling notes at me across the stage in the middle of songs trying to help me out, and I was nervous and not always getting it right – but he had a big smile on his face the whole time and you could see that they were all having a good time. Most people learn how to play music through hours of practice and repetition. I learned up on stage while simultaneously trying to keep up with three other musicians and entertain the audience.
For the next year and a half, I was the bass player for the Wanted band. We played at county fairs, wedding dances, bars, American Legions, Eagles clubs and dance halls all over Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. It was a great learning experience to hang around with the “pros” and I developed a love for playing music that continues to this day. They money I made from playing music on the weekends was also a godsend as I was also struggling to get my first ISP business running at the same time. Brian Lafler was not involved in my business, but he was a great friend and mentor at the time, and the confidence that he gave me as a musician helped me become a better person on stage, in business and in life.
After I left the band, I still stayed in touch with Brian and we later put together another band that focused on Brian’s original music along with our favorite blues and rock covers and played intermittently whenever we could find a gig and a drummer at the same time. Brian and I have always had a great connection on the stage, and his soulful, beautifully crafted original songs always sound fresh and are a joy to play. When my father passed away, Brian was one of the first people I called. He played two of his original songs – “Feel Light Free” and “Take Up and Leave” - at the funeral and they perfectly conveyed the moment. I used to joke that Brian was “Bob Dylan in a postman’s uniform”, but as time went by, I think that turned out to be a lot truer than anyone would have imagined.
A few years ago, Brian and Mary moved to Alliance, 60 miles away. We still maintained contact through email and occasional visits back and forth, but they left a little bit of a hole in Mitchell that still hasn’t been filled in. Brian was able to focus on his new job as the postmaster in Alliance and they were able to spend more time with their grandsons who were a little further down the road in Hay Springs.
Three years ago, Brian was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I had lost my father at a fairly young age, and the thought of losing someone who is like a second father to me was too much to bear at times. I am in my forties now, and the spectre of death comes around more often than it used to.
After a few months of treatment at the Cancer Treatment Center of Chicago, Brian’s cancer appeared to be in remission. We got up on stage for his daughter Paqui’s wedding the next summer full of relief and celebration. It was a great feeling at the time and we even snuck in a few shows here and there over the next few months to relive some of the old times and make some new memories.
Unfortunately, the celebration was short lived and the cancer came back. The chemo and radiation treatments have been very hard on Brian and the prognosis has not gotten better. I was hoping that we might be able to make a trip to Memphis and record some of his songs in one of the old vintage studios down there, but it looks like that is probably not going to happen because the travel is too hard on him.
I had been feeling a little bit helpless and unable to do anything to make the situation better for Brian and Mary. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Mary said something about the problems they were having with their Internet provider. Brian and Mary live outside of the city limits in a rural housing development and had limited choices for broadband. Skype would not work and downloading videos from Youtube or Facebook was an exercise in futility. She was getting ready to sign up for WildBlue and have it installed. I told her to wait a couple of weeks and let me see what I could figure out.
Up to this point, I had not seriously considered expanding our service to the Alliance area. There are already two WISPs in the area, and people in the city limits already had seven broadband providers to choose from. But if Brian and Mary were having problems, then there must be other people up there who need more competitive options. There is a tower north of town that looked like it would work for us, so I made a phone call and lined it up. On Tuesday of this week, I went up with our tower climber and we put up three sectors and a backhaul radio on the tower. On Wednesday, we went to our nearest tower – 32 miles away – upgraded the main backhaul and put up a new one for the Alliance tower. And on Thursday, I went to Alliance and hooked up Alliance customer #1 – Brian and Mary Lafler!
It was a joy to watch them using Facebook and Youtube to look at music videos and knowing that Skype was going to be a viable option for people to call and not just do voice but also video. Brian and Mary have friends all over the country, and daughters & grandkids an hour’s drive away, so being able to use Skype is a pretty valuable thing to them.
I am very happy that we were able to get service to Brian and Mary. In addition to their neighborhood, the tower that we turned on can also see the towns of Alliance, Berea and Hemingford and a lot of the countryside around those towns – over 10,000 in population – and all of those people now have a competitive option that they didn’t have last week. I was able to do this with no government subsidies and despite the fact that we had to build 75 miles of backhaul to get into the area.
Billions of dollars of government subsidies and USF revenue couldn’t bring reliable broadband to Brian and Mary Lafler. But one WISP did. It is nowhere near enough payback for all of the wonderful things that Brian and Mary have done for me, but I feel good about being able to do this for them.
To all my readers, thank you for reading and I hope that you have a happy holiday season!