By Borys Krawczeniuk
Slow internet service speeded up Chris Hacken’s decision about what to do with his life.
The 26-year-old Fairview Township entrepreneur launched NEPA Fiber 18 months ago with the goal of revolutionizing local internet service by offering speeds at least 10 times, sometimes 100 times faster, than the best Verizon, Comcast and Service Electric Cable offer.
So far, Hacken’s revolution has unfolded slowly, but he contends he’s already profitable, even though the service remains available only in downtown Wilkes-Barre. He declined to provide further financial details, but said he has about 80 customers, 80 percent of them businesses. He hopes to expand slowly outward and plans to reach Scranton someday. He has a waiting list of about 500 business and residential customers who want the faster internet he offers, he said.
“I’ve done like $200 worth of advertising so far. It’s pretty much all word of mouth,” Hacken said.
His customers rave.
Jim Bell, an architect and senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said he tried other internet services, but no one offers upload speeds equal to download speeds the way NEPA Fiber does. Other companies’ speeds for uploads — sending information into the internet — are a fraction of downloads — receiving information.
“The download speed was OK, but the upload speed was terrible for doing anything with graphic files,” Bell said. “We’ve been really happy (with NEPA Fiber). And also who else can you call on the phone when you’re having a problem and have the owner pick up?”
Almost two years into the development of his company, Hacken remains owner, chief executive officer, financial officer, chief installer and its only employee.
After graduating from Crestwood High School in 2009, Hacken studied computer science at Temple University for two years, dropped out, worked at the now-defunct BurstNet in Scranton, then went back to Temple for a semester. He dropped out again to take a job as a software engineer with Vistar Media in Philadelphia. After four months, that didn’t work out so he returned home and earned a degree in computer information systems from King’s College.
He hoped to achieve a dream by entering the Marine Corps’ officer candidate school to become a pilot.
“There were dozens of reasons, but I just wanted to fly jets and do what very few others can do,” Hacken said.
He left after finishing eight weeks of the 10-week course. Though unable to complete the physically and mentally demanding course, he learned, he said, that he could endure more than he thought.
When he returned home, he remembered his days in Philadelphia where he noticed early on that Northeast Pennsylvania badly trails in developing fast internet service. He knew what he wanted to do and started reading online.
“It became fairly obvious that although NEPA was once one of the wealthiest areas in the country, we were now living in the Dark Ages and something needed to change,” he wrote on his website, chrishacken.com.
He began developing NEPA Fiber in the fall of 2015. He found the Luzerne Bank building on Public Square had access to fiber optic cable that leads to the internet beyond the city. The building also had a line-of-sight view to most of downtown and surrounding areas.
Line-of-sight especially matters. For now, he gets his service to customers wirelessly using licensed and unlicensed radio signals. He launched the service Feb. 22, 2016. After some early equipment malfunctions, he now provides reliable service, he said.
“When I started NEPA Fiber, I literally had nothing — no equipment, no tools and no truck,” he wrote. “I borrowed my friend’s truck to transport a ladder or put a foldable ladder in my car when installing our first seven or eight customers.”
In 2016 alone, he spent $40,000 using credit cards, personal loans and money he earned from working as a systems engineer for the U.S. Postal Service. He gave up that job in May to concentrate on his company full time.
“He’s a young guy and he found this hole that needed to be filled and he’s doing a great job,” Bell said.
Joseph Boylan, owner of Argent Eagle Development Co. in Wilkes-Barre, an economic development consulting firm and a downtown resident, said he signed up for business and residential internet. He got rid of cable and relies on internet TV services such as Hulu, Netflix and Sling TV for entertainment programming.
“You don’t even see a glitch, it’s like regular TV,” Boylan said. “Much faster ... The speeds are incredible.”
The next step in Hacken’s vision calls for laying fiber optic cable of his own in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. That will entail cutting narrow trenches into streets and/or sidewalks to drop cable, but without a lot of digging. The cuts should be no more than two feet deep and two inches wide.
“There’s a lot of companies out in the Midwest doing this,” Hacken said.
Officials in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston are considering his proposals, he said.
“I’d like to start digging yesterday,” he said.
He worries about competition, but not too much.
“It just comes down to whether they really want to make that investment or not,” Hacken said. “They would basically have to come in and run fiber themselves and so far no one has.”
Borys Krawczeniuk is a Times-Tribune staff writer.