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Jackson entrepreneur takes on the last-mile challenge of high-speed Internet in the mountains

fr jaxbroadbandThe gap between the haves and have nots in the world of high-speed Internet will get a little smaller this spring thanks to a start-up Internet company that will soon be beaming Internet service from towers in Jackson County.

Travis Lewis, a well-known businessman and entrepreneur with a long family history in Jackson County, has rolled up his sleeves to solve the formidable last-mile challenge in the mountains. Since the dawn of high-speed Internet, actually getting it to the doorsteps of people in remote reaches of Appalachia has been a problem.

“We are doing what they call the last mile. We are getting out where cable doesn’t go, where DSL doesn’t go,” Lewis said.

Lewis will be erecting two wireless Internet towers in Jackson County in the coming weeks — one on Kings Mountain and one at the Jackson County Airport in Cullowhee — and hopes to go live with his first customers within a couple of months

But it’s not been easy. 

Wireless Internet has been heralded as a magic bullet to solve the “last mile” high-speed Internet woes in the mountains. The traditional high-speed networks — namely fiber, cable and DSL — are too costly to run into rural areas. There’s not enough customers per mile for companies to recoup their costs.

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But wireless Internet towers theoretically have lower upfront costs, allowing them to reach places the bigger providers won’t go with their lines.

Still, there are only a couple of wireless Internet providers operating in the mountains. One is Sky Tek based in Murphy, which is run by Lewis’ cousin. It has about 1,500 customers, Lewis said.

Asheville is home to the longest-running wireless Internet provider, Sky Runner. A wireless Internet company called 3DB is in the start-up phase in Haywood County.

With so few in the game, it shows there’s still sizeable risk to make the business model work.

“So far right now, we haven’t got a first customer and I have $100,000 invested of my personal money,” Lewis said.

Lewis’ start-up company, called SkyFi, is a trailblazer in the world of wireless high-speed Internet providers. 

As Lewis recoups the capital cost of his initial towers and infrastructure, he plans to expand to new areas — from the Balsams to Little Canada.

“I can’t afford to put all the towers up that I need right now,” Lewis said. “We will need 20 to 30 towers all over the county to create a spider web effect. I am going to try my best, but now it may take me a while. It will be a build out.”

If SkyFi works, it will ultimately tell the story of a local entrepreneur stepping up to the plate to do what the major Internet providers have been unwilling to do so far.

Lewis is an established and well-known businessman in Jackson County. He manages his father’s family business Lewis Carpets and also has a payroll and accounting services company, which will handle the billing side of his SkyFi venture.

Lewis’ partner in the venture is Mark Zoran, who runs a local security systems business called Imperial Security.

“My specialty is customer relations and sales, Mark is the more technical guy, so we make a good team,” he said.

Zoran sees the unmet demand for high-speed first-hand when installing home security systems.

“The first thing that people ask when they build a house is ‘who is the Internet service provider?’ and my answer is ‘I don’t know. You will have to call around and find out who thinks they can provide it,’” Zoran said.


A capital-intensive business model

Two years ago, it seemed the new age of wireless Internet was almost here. Providers in both Haywood and Jackson had announced plans to begin offering high-speed Internet through the air, reaching people who didn’t have it at the time.

But neither came to fruition.

Andrea Robel, who wanted to start a wireless Internet service company in Haywood County called Vistanet, said the start-up costs were too high to recoup given the limited rural customer base.

“It is a very capital-intensive business. You can’t make it feasible,” Robel said.

The cost of the towers is only part of the picture. There’s the cost of leasing land for the tower to go on, the cost of running electricity to the towers and the power company’s fee to hook onto the electrical grid.

Plus, the wireless towers ultimately need to tie into a fiber backbone. If fiber doesn’t run near the tower site already, you have to run the fiber yourself.

“You have to bring fiber backhaul to those towers to connect to the outside,” Robel said.

Not every tower needs a hard connection to fiber. Wireless signal can be beamed from one tower to the next in a relay fashion. But service can only leapfrog from one tower to the next three times before signal strength is compromised, requiring hard line connections with fiber every few towers.

There’s also the cost of leasing bandwidth from whoever owns the fiber backbone — essentially buying bandwidth at wholesale rates from another Internet provider and then reselling it to your own customers at a retail upcharge.

Finally, there’s the added cost of building permits and tower permits with the county.

Lewis was able to avoid some of those start-up costs, however.

His primary tower will be installed along U.S. Business 23, where he can tap into an existing fiber backbone. From there, he will beam service up to his two mountaintop towers, and then back out to customers.

Electricity already runs to the Kings Mountain and airport sites.

As for leasing the tower sites, his primary tower is on commercial land he already owns. The two mountaintop towers are on property owned by the county, which cut him a deal. Instead of a flat fee, the county will charge him according to his customer base — $3 a month per customer, per tower.

And he also convinced Jackson County to waive the $4,000 tower permit fee. The steep tower permit fees on the books were designed with cell towers in mind. The fee isn’t out of reach for deep-pocketed cell companies with a much larger customer base to tap. But for start-up entrepreneurs in the wireless Internet arena, it wasn’t feasible, Lewis said.

“We aren’t Frontier or AT&T,” Lewis said. “That is money that could be going toward more tower spots if we didn’t have to pay those fees.”

Jackson County Planner Gerald Green said the county was already contemplating a vastly reduced fee for wireless Internet towers and had already drafted amendments to the county cell tower ordinance along those lines. So it wasn’t a stretch to go ahead and grant Lewis a fee waiver, since that is coming down the pike in an updated cell tower ordinance anyway.

County commissioners also recognized the desperately needed public service Lewis would be offering.

“I would love to see your business grow and flourish and get off to a good start. I am a potential customer like a lot of other folks out here,” Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan told Lewis at a county meeting in February.


Viewshed debate

While Lewis got a waiver on his tower permit fee, his towers must still meet the letter of Jackson’s cell tower ordinance — which namely governs how tall they can be.

Cell towers often come under fire for marring mountain views. But they’ve gradually been accepted as a necessary evil. The public values the viewshed but likewise wants cell service.

If wireless Internet service becomes the way of the future, a new wave of towers could bring renewed clashes over tower clutter on mountaintops.

Right now, there’s only a couple being proposed by Lewis. But he envisions a network of two dozen towers throughout the county. If more companies get in the game, each with their own suite of towers, they could proliferate on the landscape.

A requirement in the cell tower ordinance forces cell companies to share towers where feasible, instead of each one building their own towers. But wireless Internet providers can’t share space with each other, Lewis said.

For starters, their towers are far thinner and don’t have room for extra antennas on them.

The narrower profile — only about a foot wide at the top — makes them less visible, Lewis said.

“You are not as likely to see them. They are very narrow at the top so we won’t get complaints about the viewshed. I don’t want to do something that makes my neighbors mad,” Lewis said.

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