“My tribe’s need for internet when Covid dropped is why RedFi exists to this day,” says Chief Se’khu Hadjo Gentle. Chief Se’khu, 48, founded RedFi Broadband in 2020 to ensure that his tribe, the Yamassee people in Allendale, South Carolina, could access telehealth services.
Chief of the Yamassee Indian Tribe
Chief Se’khu has held many titles, including director, writer, cinematographer, WISP Owner, historian, and even firefighter. In fact, he was on-call at his reservation’s fire station during his interview with the Vilo team.
“I’m always trying to give my time to the community as much as possible,” he said over Zoom. “So if the tones drop, which is them telling us there’s a 911 call, I may have to do the interview en route” he laughed.
Of all of his titles, it’s clear that “Chief” is the most important to him. After dispelling Hollywood’s portrayal of chiefs, Chief Se’khu explained, “Chiefs, true chiefs, are not leaders at all; they’re actually servants. So I’m the servant first of my people. I’m the voice of my people.”
His people, the Yamassee Indian Tribe, was thought to be extinct. According to the Chief, historians and genealogists recently investigated their ancestry and found that the Yamassee people had merely been renamed and reclassified as the “Seminole” people.
“My jurisdiction as Chief is wherever my people are,” he added. Most of the Yamassees reside in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
RedFi Broadband and reliable internet during Covid
RedFi Broadband was founded on Chief Se’khu’s devotion to his people. In 2020, when the Covid pandemic reached South Carolina and the elders of his tribe were unable to go to the doctors and the children couldn’t attend school, Chief Se’khu knew he had to take action.
“That put me in a position where my leadership skills had to kick in,” he recalls. “I can’t wait and depend on a government agency or someone else to do it for us. That’s never how we have been as native people.”
Before starting RedFi Broadband, Chief Se’khu ran a telecommunications store front for his tribe. Though he knew how to run cable and follow instructions to set up another company’s equipment, he knew very little about running his own internet services. And with the added internet demands during Covid, the service they had at the time “was not cutting it.”
Chief Se’khu recalls studying YouTube videos to learn how to set up his own WISP. With the help of his mother and wife, RedFi Broadband was successfully providing internet to eight customers by the end of their first year. Today, RedFi has nine part-time employees, most of whom are the Chief’s fellow firefighters, and provides internet access to over 300 customers covering roughly 10-square miles.
RedFi provides internet at no expense to a large portion of its customers, as Allendale is an impoverished area with nearly a 40% poverty rate according to the latest Census data. “So a lot of people here can’t necessarily afford internet, especially the elders,” Chief Se’khu explains.
RedFi and the WISP community
Chief Se’khu attributes a lot of RedFi’s growth to knowledge and confidence he gained from being in the WISP community. “I have seen the smartest people in the WISP industry that I have ever seen in my life. The WISP community and smaller ISPs do things that larger ISPs can’t even fathom—with all of the creative ideas to get the job done.”
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for RedFi Broadband, though. In April 2022, an EF-3 tornado tore through Allendale, damaging several properties and destroying a large portion of RedFi’s equipment in the process. Chief Se’khu remains grateful to the members of the WISP community who came to his peoples’ aid shortly thereafter.
“People in the WISP community started giving us equipment, and no one asked for any money.” he began. “And Vilo came in and donated as many [routers] as we needed. They donated whatever we asked for. That is important at the end of the day, because if you’re going to do business with a company, do business with a company that cares.”
Chief Se’khu’s experience with Vilo
Chief Se’khu first discovered Vilo when a friend introduced him to our affordable routers. “When you’re in an impoverished area like we are here, I can’t go to these people and say, ‘Hey, here’s a $400 mesh system that you need to have to make sure your house is covered,” he said.
When his first 3-pack of Vilos arrived, he was using a Linksys router at the time that was connected to RedFi’s fiber head-in near his office. “With the Linksys router, I was probably getting about 120 Mbps down, and I thought that was great at the time. When I installed the Vilo router, I instantly jumped to 400 Mbps. And I’m like, ‘Okay, hold-up, what is this?’ And so it sparked my interest.”
From that sparked interest, Chief Se’khu became one of Vilo’s earliest beta testers and loved how all the ideas he suggested to Vilo’s cofounders were not only welcomed, but often implemented. “No other company is working with the WISP community the way Vilo is,” he said. “I’ve watched Vilo actively shift and change based on the advice of their customers—people like me, and that says wonders. It says they’re in it for the long-game.”
In the early days of RedFi, the Chief ran into challenges such as a lack of visibility into his customers’ networks and the ability to remotely manage them. “We were installing routers that we had no control over, and had no insights on, so Vilo helped us with that hurdle because now we’re able to monitor our customers’ networks—we’re able to manage their experiences through the ISP portal.”
Chief Se’khu also noted how invaluable analytic insights are for an ISP. “Being able to go into the customer’s accounts, having the numbers and the information, which is what Vilo offers, plays such a large role in making business decisions,” he explained.
The future of RedFi and the Chief’s advice
RedFi also provides security cameras and alarm system services. Moving forward, Chief Se’khu plans on expanding RedFi’s reach into more rural areas and to be “a one-stop shop for anything that connects to the internet.”
His intention to expand, again, is motivated by his commitment to his people. As Allendale is an hour and a half away from the nearest large city, providing every internet-related service possible alleviates the high costs of having technicians commute all that way.
With gratitude for all he has learned from his fellow WISP owners, Chief Se’khu offered this piece of advice in return: “Don’t rush. Take your time and think outside the box.”
When he began researching what it took to start a WISP, Chief Se’khu believed that heighth was key; that he needed a 120 ft. tower. “That wasn’t the case,” he said, “I’m able to get to whatever location I need using micropops; I’m on the ground, I’m only 20 ft. in the air. So don’t rush, take your time, plan it out so you can do it right the first time and not have to do it over again.”
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