Twenty-five years into his internet service career, Forbes Mercy continues to innovate.
Ever since bringing dial-up internet to Yakima back in 1994, the owner of Washington Broadband has successfully stayed ahead of the curve the entire time, keeping pace with — and in many ways, surpassing — industry behemoths such as Charter and CenturyLink.
Over time, Mercy has established cable and fiber-optic networks that span 250 square miles in the Yakima Valley, fending off the large corporations that may have otherwise wanted to build their own networks in those areas.
Washington Broadband’s 34 strategically placed towers have allowed Mercy to deliver high-speed internet service to outlying communities such as Tieton, Cowiche, Gleed, Tampico and the Nile since 2001.
He also has a lot of customers in Selah, West Valley and the Lower Valley, and he will be bringing fiber-optic service to the Upper Valley later this year.
For Mercy, that’s something to celebrate as his company reflects on 25 years. After all, being able to provide better internet service to rural residents and businesses is all he has ever wanted to do with his second career.
“I was taught to provide service, not make as much money as possible,” said Mercy, a former fire chief in Mason County who also worked as a first aid training officer for the U.S. government. “I’m not trying to compete with Charter; I just want to focus on my rural customers. I haven’t raised my prices since day one, and I have no plans to, either.”
For $39 per month, Washington Broadband delivers wireless internet service to thousands of customers via line-of-sight signals from the company’s network of towers. (Fiberoptic cable is more advanced, using small, flexible strands of glass to transmit information as light. Cableinternet utilizes copper cable and transmits data via electricity.)
Because Washington Broadband’s service requires line-of-sight access to the towers, homes and businesses in the city of Yakima are unable to use the service.
“We do better where the trees are more sparse,” Mercy said. “Now, we are starting to be affected by interference from other networks, so the solution we came up with was a wired platform. It was a huge investment, but now, the people of Naches have high-speed internet for the first time.”
Naches residents now have the option of buying 25-megabit or 100-megabit wireless plans instead of the relatively slow DSL alternative, which also requires a phone line.
Mercy is also working on bringing fiber-optic service to Cowiche, Gleed and parts of West Valley by this summer. Businesses in Tieton and Naches are already using the new seven-mile network (soon to be 12 miles) and seeing results.
“We’ve got a few businesses that are waiting on us right now because our network is key for small business development in these towns,” Mercy said. “Charter won’t go out there, so we are doing our best to reach as many people as we can.”
How It All Began
Mercy’s internet journey began in 1994 when he developed his own bulletin board service (BBS), a computer server that was used to run software that allowed users to connect to the system using a terminal program.
Once logged in, the user could upload and download software and data, read news and exchange messages with other users through public message boards or chat rooms.
Mercy’s BBS became known as Northwest Infonet, which he operated out of his ex-wife’s balloon shop at first, selling floppy disks that allowed customers to access the internet through their home phone lines.
“We were the only game in town, so we would have a line around the corner on Saturdays,” said Mercy, 60, who grew up in Yakima and graduated from Eisenhower High School.
“It was a lot of work for $13.95 a month, but we were growing really fast. We had 16,000 dial-up accounts by 1998 and we were taking up all of the phone-line capacity in town. The phone company eventually had to give us our own lines.”
As time went on, a national internet service provider group that included Charter and Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink) spent $2 billion to build a new cable network around the region, including $240 million worth in the Yakima Valley.
Mercy was losing business left and right, so in 2001, he started selling DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service across his own Washington Telephone Co. phone lines. He eventually expanded into cable networking, and now he’s on to fiberoptic lines — just like the big boys who tried to crush him.
He’s also had to fight back against lobbyists who have tried to undercut his business through legislation that favors big corporations. Mercy isn’t going to be pushed around.
“I’ve never taken any government money, and believe me, it’s been offered,” he said. “I’ve built this whole thing myself and I’ve stuck with it for 25 years. We have built a very valuable infrastructure and we’re providing something vital to thousands of people who wouldn’t be able to get high-speed where they live. That’s what really drives me.”
Keeping with that service-first mindset, Mercy continues to be one of the more prominent certified first-aid trainers in Yakima, offering regular classes in the basement of his shop at 3201 W. Nob Hill Blvd. He also DJ’s at The Warehouse Sports Bar on weekends.
“I’m a workaholic, but it’s fun,” he said. “I’m going to do the internet thing for about five more years, and after that, who knows?”
Learn more about Washington Broadband at wabroadband.com.