Solving Jackson’s last-mile internet challenge will take time and money

jacksonWhen Travis Lewis was hit with a $600 charge for going over his monthly cell phone data allotment two years ago, he was taken aback to say the least.

The huge bill was his daughter’s handiwork, but he wasn’t angry, at least not with her. Like thousands of other families in Jackson County, they didn’t have high-speed internet, so his daughter used her cell phone as a stop-gap connection for online college course work.

“I said ‘There has to be a better way,’” Lewis said.

Lewis eventually launched SkyFi, a wireless internet service provider that beams an internet signal from towers, reaching homes that can’t get high speed internet from traditional phone and cable companies.

Lewis hopes to conquer the digital divide with his start-up venture, but it’s been slow going, largely due to a lack of capital. 

Lewis has exhausted his personal savings, poring well over $100,000 into the start-up cost of three towers.

“I’ve spent everything I had,” Lewis said. His father has been a major investor as well.

He’s now paying as he goes to install signal receivers on customers’ houses.

“Right now I am doing what my pocketbook allows. I go out and install them and as money comes in, I install more,” Lewis said.

SkyFi only has about 100 customers so far, but that’s by design.

“If I advertised I would outrun my pocket book,” Lewis said.

Lewis has struck agreements with several customers to host a relay point on their property to bump the signal along to neighbors who don’t have their own line of sight with a tower.

What he really needs now is more towers to expand the signal’s reach. But banks won’t lend him the money due to the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

Until he puts up the towers, he can’t get the customers. But without customer accounts, he can’t prove to banks he has the means to pay off the loan.

“You don’t have the income coming in to show them, so it’s too much speculation for them,” Lewis said.

Lewis is hoping to land a federal grant for rural internet connectivity through the Appalachian Regional Commission to fund the expansion of his tower network.

The grant seeks funding for 11 additional towers, which would propel the availability of high-speed internet throughout Jackson County and solidify SkyFi’s business model.

In the meantime, Lewis’ other local enterprises — a payroll and accounting service and a family-owned and operated carpet business — have kept him afloat during the two-year start-up phase. Lewis could have lived out his years on the two businesses he already had rather than become a middle-aged entrepreneur.

“I could have lived a comfortable life without it,” Lewis said.

But he just couldn’t sit on the sidelines. He knew there was huge demand for high-speed internet in the county’s more remote reaches — from high-end mountainside developments to rural valleys — untapped by the big phone and cable companies, and someone had to step up.

Homes left behind by the so-called “last mile” in rural, mountain counties were like table scraps to the big guys, but are Lewis’ bread and butter.

“They don’t really care about getting that one little house out in the country, but that’s the person I am proud to help get internet service to,” Lewis said.

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