After working almost a decade in the information technology industry, T.J. Steele said he was taken aback when he learned that some of his Silver Lake neighbors were “living in the dark ages” without at-home internet access.
“Where I’m at …. we have Comcast, so I didn’t think anything of it at first,” Steele said. “But I was blown away when people started reaching out to me to say, ‘I’m two or three blocks away from you and I have no internet at all,’” Steele said.
“I had people telling me they were thinking of selling their house because they couldn’t get internet for their kids to work (on homework),” Steele said. “As I started digging in, I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me. We have to start an internet company here.’”
And that’s exactly what Steele and his wife, Tiffany, did.
This fall, the Steeles launched FiberXstream, an internet service provider based in Castle Rock. The company serves customers in Castle Rock, Toutle, Silver Lake, Ryderwood, Vader and most of the neighboring areas, with plans to expand to Longview-Kelso in the spring.
Though the company has been in a “beta phase” since October, Steele said his team is now in full force to sign up new customers.
“We had one heck of an overwhelming response when we first launched. We had about 350 people reach out to us within two weeks,” Steele said. “At the time, we only had a staff of three, so now we’ve tripled to a staff of eight, and it’s taken us this time to catch up with most of those (initial) responses.”
FiberXstream offers customers internet access by way of virtual fiber, Steele said. Instead of using direct fiberlines to every home — which might require a company to uproot trees or dig up mile-long driveways — virtual fiber works by using wireless signals to connect customers to the internet.
“We have a number of service towers, and as long as they have line of sight to a tower, we can get them service,” Steele said.
Once line of sight has been established, the company can plant a signaling pole and run fiber up to the house, thus connecting the home to the FiberXstream network. Steele said it took about a year to get the fiber laid from Portland, but the company now has a direct connection to the fiberline in that city.
And the company also has a “spider web” strategy for connecting homes without a line of sight to their towers, Steele said.
“We will find a home with a house that has really good connectivity to our service, and we will bring (service) into that house. Then we use a different type of signal that can go through the trees from that home to all their neighbors,” Steele said. “So we light up little cells of our service as we go to push through the trees and get into areas of service that nobody else can.”
Steele said there are some clients in areas without line of sight to a tower, and where no other neighbors have signed up. But this doesn’t deter FiberXstream from connecting these customers, he said.
“We are fighting to try and find a way to get into that customer. … We will build, we will engineer and we will figure out how to get you internet,” Steele said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Though the technology FiberXstream uses is available to the mass market, most other service providers stick to traditional fiber optic lines because virtual fiber is “hard work and it takes time,” especially in rural areas like Castle Rock and Silver Lake, Steele said.
“A lot of providers won’t get out, knock on the door, get permission to walk the property, walk the entire property and find a corner of the lot that has line of sight,” Steele said. “I’ve got a crew of guys that will be out there for four or five days doing something like that, but that’s what we do; we are happy to invest in our community like that.”
The community investment mentality is what inspired the Steels to design and open FiberXstream in the first place, Steele said. In fact, the company’s philosophy is “You’re a neighbor, not a number,” he said.
That means Steele and his staff must provide quality service so they can “hold their heads proud” as locals at the grocery store, he said.
“It’s not about our profit. It’s about our community,” Steele said. “It’s about having a job with a purpose. … We want to use our talents to do something that’s improving people’s lives and making a difference.”