Starved For Internet, Some Mountain Communities Are Now Being 'Hooked-Up' By Area Entrepreneurs

Jul 13, 2017

Local governments in the far reaches of Western North Carolina are working to lure more internet service providers to the region.  BPR’s Davin Eldridge spoke with a few homegrown providers about the growing demand for quality internet service, and why it's such a difficult area to do this kind of business in the first place.

With just a handful of high speed internet service providers available in a part of the state sparse in population, county governments are now banding together to figure out ways to attract more companies to their area. One company that is already there is SkyFi—a wireless internet service provider in Jackson County.

“I’m just filling a little niche,” that’s Sky Fi owner-operator Travis Lewis, who started his company, basically, after getting fed up with the lack of quality internet out where he lived.

“It all started when… My daughter was taking classes at school and downloading some stuff, and we had a Verizon hotspot. We got a bill from Verizon and it was $649 for the month.”

Lewis was livid. 

“I mean my daughter was a typical teenager, downloading movies, watching stuff on the internet, along with doing her schoolwork and stuff, and I thought there has to be a better way.”

Lewis began researching his options, but they were few and far in between.

“Too far out for Frontier. Morris-Broadband didn’t come up into our area. Houses were scattered out. We had an option of Hughes Net, but that wasn’t much better.”

In essence, what Sky-Fi does is strategically install small, ham radio-type towers in remote areas throughout the region where conventional broadband isn’t available. So far, Sky Fi has nearly 300 customers in Jackson County. It has just five employees. “With that said, I mean there are growing pains. We tend to outrun our pocket book. We can install them faster than we can get the money in to expand.”

Companies like Lewis’s face a mountain of an obstacle, literally. His biggest challenge is terrain, which slows down his ability to reach new customers. The market result? Customers without internet are constantly checking back in with him. 

“I probably get twenty thirty calls a week, looking for good internet service.” 

Outside of the local topography, Lewis says local governments could review their tower ordinances, so that it’s easier for companies like his to come into their more remote areas to provide internet. 

Another option for many mountain residents is satellite internet, which hasn’t developed the best reputation in recent years, often decried for its slow speeds and high rates. But according to Alberto Berrio, owner of America’s Satellites in Hendersonville, the technology has jumped leaps and bounds in recent years, and he is now filling at least twice as many orders today as he was just five years ago.

“I think this has been a paradigm that has been partially conquered. It did have a bad reputation. It was compared to dial up. It was last resort. It was absurd. But now you have DSL speeds.”

To date, Berrio’s company has installed satellite service to more than 20,000 homes across Western North Carolina, and Upstate South Carolina. He says more and more of those orders are for internet access in remote areas.

While companies like Berrio’s and Lewis’s inch their way to more customers, local governments are inching their way to more ISPs. According to Macon County Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins, it’s companies like theirs that are making all the difference in the meantime.

“What’s interesting is we’re starting to see some smaller companies come into the picture. I would call them disruptors. They’re doing business a different way. They’re finding niches where they can be successful, because it’s just not profitable for the bigger providers to play that game. What you could see in the future is these smaller providers disrupt the market, and competition will take over the market to provide better services for everyone.”

Macon County recently sent out an internet demand survey to 4,700 residents. It had a response rate of 58 percent, and found that approximately 61 percent of respondents felt they were underserved or had no service at all. Swain County’s newly-formed broadband committee just voted to do the same.