A telecom firm grows from supplying 300 to 30,000 devices

When lockdowns hit, providing widespread internet access became a civic priority. Here’s how one member did it

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Apex Wireless, an Austin, Texas–based telecom consulting firm, enjoyed steady business providing complete telecom services to both small and enterprise businesses and government accounts. In February and early March this year, William Brunton, the president of Apex Wireless, had no idea that his company was about to smash previous sales records beyond his wildest imagination. Along the way, Apex found an indispensable ally in WeWork and a unique opportunity to help hundreds of at-risk Central Texas students get the tools they needed to succeed in school.  

The floodgates open for Apex

Before the pandemic, Apex Wireless had partnered with local school districts and other organizations to provide Wi-Fi hotspots to Texans in need. As of April this year, these projects were in various stages and largely dependent on grant funding. “That was our challenge before [the pandemic],” Brunton says. “Sometimes the schools would qualify for grants, sometimes they wouldn’t.” Sometimes, he says, the grant money would be gone before a project could start. 

But then March arrived, and with it, shutdowns. As Central Texas began working and learning virtually, widespread internet access became a major civic priority. Suddenly, grants came pouring in, and funding got approved. “When COVID happened, everyone kind of got an, ‘OK, let’s move,’ ” says Brunton—and they had to move fast. “Literally, overnight, our focus and our business structure had changed in a massive, massive way.” 

Before COVID-19, Apex Wireless typically sold and managed 300 to 500 new devices—largely phones, tablets, routers, and hotspots—each month. “In March [2020] alone,” says Brunton, “that number went to 3,000. Then in April, same thing. And then we thought that we’d made it through this.” He shakes his head in hindsight. “Little did I know that a few months later, that 6,000 would turn into 30,000.” 

On July 17, anticipating widespread school closures in the fall, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allocated $200 million in CARES Act funding to the Texas Education Agency for the purchase of eLearning devices and home internet solutions. One minute, it was (more or less) business as usual for Apex Wireless. The next, thanks to the new funding, Apex had a contract with the public school system to piece together a staggering 30,000 hotspots in the community. Apex was given a four-week time frame to work within.

Since WeWork 600 Congress Ave in downtown Austin, where Apex is located, remained open without anyone using the spacious hot desk area, the centrally located building became the hotspot staging area. At times, up to 30 people assembled hotspots from scratch there. This was made possible through enhanced safety measures. “WeWork was on it immediately—they had their CDC [Centers for Disease Control] protocol in place before the building did,” Brunton says, describing elevator limits, mask requirements in common areas, hand sanitizing stations, and directional arrows in the hallways

“I can sit here and tell you today, without a shadow of a doubt, that it would not have happened without the support of WeWork and the staff and the facilities that we were able to put together overnight,” says Brunton. “We didn’t have time to plan, and the managers and staff here made sure that everything went well. I just can’t say enough about them.” 

Working nights, days, and on the weekends, the Apex team finished the project with several days to spare. “Think about it—30,000 families in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas have internet access today because of WeWork and because of Apex Wireless,” says Brunton.

Making an even bigger difference  

WeWork community lead Maddie Rish was on-site while the Apex team was staging hotspots early on during the pandemic. One day, she casually asked Brunton what the team was working on. Brunton explained that the team was staging hotspots, and Rish told him that a friend of hers, who works at a local education organization, said that the staff there was looking for hotspots.

Communities in Schools (CIS) is a local organization focused on decreasing the school dropout rate in 14 Central Texas districts through whatever means they can. That can involve replacing brakes on a parent’s car so a child can get to school, connecting families to essential services, or providing the clothing, school supplies, and technology all students need to succeed in school. 

The Apex Wireless team pieced together 30,000 hotspots for people in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

Rish put Brunton in touch with her friend, who introduced him to CIS. On that phone call, Apex Wireless and CIS devised a plan to use CIS’s available funding to provide 650 connected devices to at-risk students. Using WeWork as a safe staging area, Apex and CIS staff and volunteers loaded 350 tablets into cute animal backpacks that were donated for elementary school kids. Three hundred Chromebooks were distributed to older students, along with a hotspot with 12 months of free Wi-Fi. 

Apex and CIS distributed the devices from drive-through sites at seven high schools across the region. “The second car that came up, the parents got out of that car in tears, because they finally had the access—they finally had the tools,” says Brunton. “Now, the kids? It was Christmas time. Smiles from ear to ear. But to see the look in those parents’ eyes…,” Brunton’s voice trails off. “I told Maddie, ‘I hope you realize what you’ve done, because it’s amazing.’”

Apex Wireless continues to manage each and every student account, replacing hotspots when necessary and providing full customer support. And since the initial distribution, they’ve provided families with 300 more Chromebooks and 300 more hotspots.

An exciting—but uncertain—road ahead

Apex Wireless is planning for the future by focusing on its core business, says Brunton. “We’re still in our office, trying to gauge the post-COVID environment,” he says. “Our challenge is getting back into the daily routine. We work with seven to 10 enterprise accounts—service, phones, hotspots—so we’re just kind of getting back into that groove.”

The company is also revisiting some projects that were put on hold when the pandemic first hit, such as installing Wi-Fi on school buses. Apex has a big, non-COVID-19 project in the works, which may eventually require upgrading to a larger office space down the road. But Brunton hopes to stay in his current WeWork building (“I’ve been here for four years, and it’s been great—I love it”). 

Does Brunton expect another sudden COVID-19-related boom in business? He’s not counting it out. “Right now we’re in a holding pattern, because it could pop again anytime.” 

Kristen Bailey is a veteran writer and editor based in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska. She has a penchant for helping large and small brands create stories that tell the why.

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