Editor's note: This story has been changed from the printed version to include information about the company's role with Hurricane Katrina victims.
When Edwin Whitelaw moved back to the New River Valley in early 2003, he couldn't get broadband Internet access. So he did what any good engineer does: fixed the problem. He started his own company, which now provides that access to homes and businesses in the Christiansburg area.
Whitelaw owns, operates and is the sole employee of NRV Unwired, a wireless Internet access provider, or WISP, that operates 15 antennas in the Christiansburg and Riner area.
Anyone with a clear line of sight to one can get a broadband connection, and more than 170 homes and businesses already do, including houses, apartment complexes, a golf course and Montgomery County's Public Service Agency.
That Whitelaw can enter and be successful in this market is indicative not only of his own skills, but of the pace of innovation in the wireless market. "The technology has gotten to the point where it gives enough leverage to the individual to effectively compete," said Steve Stroh, a technology writer specializing in broadband wireless Internet access.
Whitelaw has been helped by the downward trend in the price of high-tech hardware. Specialized transmission equipment once costing thousands of dollars is now available off the shelf for a fraction of that price. Because of that, Whitelaw can offer service as good or better than cable-Internet providers, and to customers who don't have other options.
"It's fun to go to people in the boonies and say, 'We're offering high-speed Internet, and you won't pay any more because you're in the middle of nowhere'," he said. (Satellite provider Direcway charges a $600 setup fee and $60 per month for a connection that's much slower than cable or DSL.)
NRV Unwired charges $35 per month for a 3- to 4-megabit per second connection -- that's a better bang for the buck than what's offered locally by Verizon and Charter Communications.
Further, those companies don't serve the entire area; they don't connect many new homes and those far apart. That's because cable and phone companies hesitate to make the investment in laying the cables needed to serve a wide or new area.
"To compete with him [Whitelaw]," Stroh said, "they're going to have to invest very significant resources."
NRV Unwired, on the other hand, uses technology that's essentially a high-powered version of the WiFi Internet connections available at coffee shops and hotels. It's tried and true -- and cheap. It costs Whitelaw about $500 to put up a new antenna that can serve 70 to 90 people. Small directional antennas on his customers' buildings point to those, which have a range of about five miles. (Don't think about just putting up your own antenna. You need an NRV Unwired password to connect.)
The whole operation is centered on a hill by Whitelaw's home in the outskirts of Christiansburg. A larger antenna there gets a signal from Biznet, the backbone provider in Blacksburg.
From the small shack Whitelaw jokingly calls his "world headquarters," that signal is sent out to antennas that serve his customers.
While attaching antennas to towers and homes might seem simple, setting up a broadband network isn't something anyone can do. As Whitelaw put it, "Wireless networking is really half science and half magic."
He spent 18 years as a phone-company and computer engineer. That makes him well-qualified to implement the core of his business plan: "to get sticks in the air."
His biggest challenge is getting sites for those antennas. Once he has rights to a location, the rest is relatively easy.
In some cases, his customers' homes are in a prime spot for one of his hot spots. In that case, he offers them a deal: discounted service in exchange for letting him put up an antenna.
Whitelaw has built a dedicated customer base that appreciates the personal service. If someone has a question, it's Whitelaw's cellphone that rings.
Contrast that, he said, with his corporate competition. "If you ever have any problems, you're going to have 'beep, bop, boop' with all the big companies," he said, referring to the customer-service phone menus.
And that community connection works both ways. When the nearby Life Bible College East and Camp Christi housed refugees from Hurricane Katrina, NRV Unwired provided them free broadband for the duration.
Jim Politis, owner of Brush Creek Buffalo Store, has been a customer since last year. "We couldn't get DSL at the time, and cable won't come out here," he said.
And today, if cable came to his block, Politis said he'd stick with Whitelaw "because he's taken care of everything I've ever requested."
NRV Unwired's limited overhead also lets Whitelaw keep costs down for bigger customers. When Montgomery County's public service authority wanted to set up Internet connections at its water towers, larger companies wanted big bucks just to link a single one to the county administration building.
Whitelaw offered something better -- a wireless connection to every water tower in exchange for the antenna space.
"They get a free integrated network, and I get good real estate," he explained. And he's using that real estate to expand NRV Unwired's coverage.
He's being careful about expansion, though. Managed poorly, it could result in slow connections or other problems for customers. So he'll take it slowly. Besides, there's the customer-service angle.
"How do you maintain the personal touch as you grow?" he asked. "The answer is: Don't be greedy. And I sleep real well at night."
On the Net: nrvunwired.net