‘Our success is tied to the success of the community’: LaShawn Williamson on building a network to connect Enfield, NC
Wave 7 Founder and CEO has a mission to close the digital divide in rural North Carolina
Wave 7 CEO LaShawn Williamson (right) and Mamie Scott, Director of Community of Hope Center (left)
Dominette Hatchett, Director of Enfield Park and Rec center, is grinning ear to ear, standing with LaShawn Williamson, founder and CEO of local ISP Wave 7 Communications. Having spent the summer parked outside the library to connect to Wave 7’s WiFi hotspot, Dominette has just become the company’s latest customer. “Today I caught the wave and I am so excited”!
Dominette learned about the company when a storm blew through the North Carolina town, knocking out residents’ internet. Hearing that one man still had service up and running, Dominette asked how. He said that he was a customer with Wave 7. Through this word of mouth growth, LaShawn and her team have built up a loyal customer base, today reaching 75 homes.
To support Wave 7’s expansion to 400 homes across Enfield, Connect Humanity has provided the company a $350,000 financing package. I sat down to speak with LaShawn about how she started the company and what the investment will mean for her plans to provide affordable internet in the community.
LaShawn, tell us about how you got into the broadband world in the first place.
It started out with dissatisfaction with our internet service in Greensboro, North Carolina where I currently reside with my family. In 2018, a tornado tore through town and knocked out the power and the internet. Because my husband and I have always worked pretty much remote, being without internet access meant we weren’t able to work properly. As we tried to get back online, our provider gave us the runaround and even when the internet was back, it was so slow. And so we started researching what it would take to build an internet company.
Believe it or not, if you go on YouTube, you can find people telling you how to start an internet company. And that’s exactly what we did!
A great demonstration of the power of the internet!
Right! As we were researching, we came across a woman named Deborah Simpier with a company called Althea. We saw that their model was ideal for rural communities. Today our network is powered by Althea’s technology.
Tell us more about Enfield and why you’ve chosen to operate there.
My husband is from Enfield. It’s a small town in North Carolina where there’s a great need for better internet. When we started talking to folks in the community, we found a lot of people couldn’t get online because they had internet debt. Others were getting a little internet for a lot of money.
We felt like we had a solution so we reached out and the doors flung wide open. The town embraced us, giving us access to the library where we set up a hub for our internet. They also gave us access to two water towers to help get our internet service to more homes. It’s just been a great partnership and we are so glad we’ve made our roots in his hometown.
What makes Wave 7 different from any other ISP?
Our success as a business is tied to the success of the community. Back in 2020, we received a Truist Epic grant which helped us increase our customer base but also helped us partner with community organizations. We ran digital literacy classes for senior citizens so that they could get online and stay connected with their children and grandkids during the pandemic. This was so important for seniors who weren’t living with their families and didn’t have that face to face contact.
That work has continued to grow. We’re about to graduate our fourth class of senior citizens. We have also given 15 scholarships to families who could not otherwise afford service, offering Chromebooks and free internet service for one year. We’re getting in the trenches with the people and finding out what their needs are. It drives us to do more.
That commitment to digital equity is one thing that inspires us about your work. Is this approach also important to the success of the business?
It’s not the fast lane to financial riches — but it is worth the time it takes to get there. We’re not in this to charge as much as we can to as many people as we can. I think that’s where we’re different from the most common internet service providers. With us, you’re not just another number. You are a family or a business that should have fast, reliable, and affordable internet. At the same time, the more people who are able to come online, the better it is for Wave 7. So we’re always looking to increase our customer base.
On removing barriers for customers, you offer a unique pricing model. Can you talk about that?
I don’t think people fully understand how big a barrier internet debt is to people. Many people have outstanding bills with other providers and can’t get internet access until their bill is paid. That kind of debt is hard to clear, especially in pandemic times. We are able to go in and say, “We can give you access to internet and you will pay for what you use, just like with a prepaid phone”. That is empowering for people!
We also have an ‘always on’ tier for when people can’t pay, so that they never lose access completely. While that means they can still do the basics of browsing and email, we’ve found that most of our customers don’t like to stay on the free tier for very long. They rely on fast internet for a lot of things — no one likes the buffer wheel right?
We’ve also recently been able to start offering the ACP — the federal affordable connectivity subsidy — so our customers have $30 to use before they have to pay us out of pocket. We also let customers set caps, so they can stop their bills going above a certain limit. That way they’re in control.
What kind of impact are you seeing for families who have been blocked from access getting connected again?
I remember going into a home where a single mom has several children. When they saw us drive up, they were shouting, “The TV man is here”, because now they get to watch television. They couldn’t watch TV before because they didn’t have internet — and now they have our internet. There was another lady who needed to get a job and she wanted to work from home, but her internet was spotty. She got Wave 7 and was able to get a remote job.
We are really helping businesses too. There’s a furniture and design shop in town called Southern Secrets and they’ve been able to expand by setting up an online store since they came on with us. We’ve just hooked up the Parks and Rec center. There are several other businesses — new startups with low budgets — that need internet access for things like point-of-sale systems, who we’ve been able to connect affordably. I really believe this work is going to help revive the economy here.
We’ve talked about the economics for your customers. How have you made the economics stack up for Wave 7 — serving a low-income, rural community?
We started this business with money from our own pockets, but that could only take us so far. So, until now, we’ve been relying on grants to build and expand the network.
We were a little hesitant about taking loans at first, but as we became familiar with Connect Humanity, we felt more comfortable because they’re a different kind of funder. They come with a social impact mindset.
Connect Humanity understands our pain points, can speak our language, and understand that in rural areas the economics are different and that bringing costs down is key for sustainability. The team understands that every case will be different — broadband is not a cookie-cutter thing. They’ve made the financing work for our model. Brian Vo and team treated us as partners to develop a strategic plan for the growth of our business, and put together a sustainable package to finance it.
Whereas grant funding often comes with restrictions on how you can use funds, we can use this investment more flexibly to meet the various needs we have as we’re growing a small business. Neighboring towns are already asking, “will you come here”. This backing lets us start thinking about expanding beyond Enfield, which will make the network more sustainable in the long term.
We’re looking forward to seeing more people catch the wave. What’s your hope for Wave 7 in the next few years?
Right now, it’s all about connecting these 400 homes in Enfield and doing it really well. We need to build a strong foundation here that we can then replicate. That’s what this investment is going to allow us to do. With the great team we’re building, and with this financial backing, we’re going to be able to do it much more quickly than we originally thought. Then we’ll grow the wave, connecting more people town by town.
Thanks for telling us your story LaShawn. We’re thrilled to partner with you.
To find our more about Connect Humanity’s investment in Wave 7 Communications, read our announcement post.