Tristan Taylor ‘17 has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, with dreams of someday running his own business. It was an epiphany during the remote work era of COVID that caused it to come into focus.
He was living in Fitchburg, where the Alabama native who came of age in Hudson and Stow had remained after graduating with a degree in geographic information systems (GIS). He noticed a litany of complaints from friends, acquaintances, and community members about the cost and poor customer service of their internet service providers (ISPs).
“These conditions were created by the greed of the big corporations,” Taylor said. With his background in GIS and data analysis, he thought he could come up with a better alternative.
That vision became a reality in 2021 with the launch of Fitchburg Fiber, an ISP he co-founded with business partner Andrew DeChristopher, a software engineer with a background in and passion for network design and implementation.
“We’re trying to build a lasting component of community infrastructure,” Taylor said. “It’s a passion project as much as a business venture. I love this community and I want to invest in it.”
Based in the former General Electric plant off Boulder Drive in downtown Fitchburg, Taylor’s vision of a cheaper broadband internet provider is manifested through a series of wireless nodes installed on rooftops.
“Building a wireless backbone between buildings is common,” he said. “We are a bit unique in trying it in such a small and economically distressed city. We’re making a bet on the redevelopment of Fitchburg.”
Taylor’s affinity for Fitchburg is rooted in his college studies. After high school, he had ambitions to become an English teacher and earned a full scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he didn’t want to be that far from home. Instead, he stayed local and followed his then-girlfriend to Fitchburg State. On a whim, he enrolled in an urban geography class taught by Professor Jane Huang of the Environmental, Geographic and Public Health Sciences Department, and he found a love for geographic information systems.
“It was her genuine enthusiasm for the field and teaching it that pulled me in, and her willingness to work with me one on one that carried me through my university career,” Taylor said. “When as a second-semester sophomore I doubted my vocation, she was gracious in allowing me and helping me to take a semester of part time classes to facilitate working in an auto shop to learn hands-on skills and work through my uncertainties. She provided not only excellent classroom instruction, but genuine care and concern for me as her student.”
Taylor has kept in touch with Huang, and also counts her department colleagues Reid Parsons and Elizabeth Gordon as important figures in his development, along with many other professors across the campus.
After graduation, Taylor worked for five years as a GIS technician in a consulting role for utility companies. “Some projects were larger than others and lasted longer, and some were very quick, but over the five years I worked as a consultant I gained a tremendous amount of experience and perspective as a GIS-focused systems thinker, analyst, and developer in a utilities setting,” he said. “I became proficient in learning the ins and outs of new systems, quickly identifying common principles between systems, and identifying ways of improving systems. While the work was very GIS data- and process-centric in the day-to-day, it prepared me well for applying those skills to the myriad unfamiliar frontiers of starting a business, especially a utility business.”
Taylor said the technical skills he honed from his GIS training have helped him navigate regulatory compliance matters and the understanding of assets in the field and how they relate to one another.
“I would not be able to take on the everyday challenges of this particular business without the experience I’ve acquired through my Fitchburg State education and subsequent corporate career, and I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today without the care and attention of Dr. Huang and the other professors who touched my life in my time at Fitchburg State,” Taylor said. “For that I will be forever grateful. My family, my business partners, and I are committed to this community, and I look forward to finding ways to collaborate with Fitchburg State and give back as this business grows, and in whatever other ventures I find myself in going forward.”
Much of Fitchburg Fiber’s work to date has been building trust with community members, including the dozens of early adopters who have signed up for its low-cost ($40 a month), high-speed service. Their service area currently runs along Main Street from Moran Square to the Upper Common. To expand, he said, they will need to make investments in infrastructure, and are seeking backers and partners to that end.
“We have the skill set to do a lot of the work ourselves,” he said. “Our goal is to cover the whole city in five years.”