Skyrunner offers wireless solutions for rural communities
Melanie Williams was fed up. She could no longer run her web design business from her Crabtree home with the slow DSL internet speed from a cable provider.
“I was working on an e-commerce website for a client and I needed to add 100 products with corresponding images but it was taking about an hour for each photo to upload,” she said. “It was becoming a huge expense because I’d have to go into town to be able to work, and I couldn’t haul all my equipment around with me.”
After struggling with slow internet speeds for about six years with AT&T as her only option, Williams started weighing the option of renting office space in town for her business, Pixels in My Pocket. Then a friend told her about Skyrunner, a wireless provider based in Asheville. A short phone call and one installation later, she had high-speed internet in rural Haywood County.
“The difference with Skyrunner is it has hugely simplified and improved my life and my productivity because now that same project going through Skyrunner, I can now add an image in matter of 60 seconds and I’m not screaming at my computer,” she said.
Williams isn’t the only person dealing with the struggle to get good service while also enjoying a rural family lifestyle. Many residents, whether they are working from home or just wanting to run multiple devices at one time, have discovered Skyrunner through word of mouth.
The company has been around since 1999, primarily serving Buncombe and Polk counties, but now the wireless provider has the ability to serve nine counties in Western North Carolina.
Wireless internet service from Skyrunner has definitely filled a niche in Haywood County where topography and a spread out population make it difficult for providers like Charter or AT&T to offer cable/fiber internet service. While AT&T and Charter Communications can only offer up to 3 megabytes in some of the more rural areas, Skyrunner customers can get more than 60 megabytes with a direct line of sight to a tower. Customers also experience less interruption in their service during inclement weather.
Here’s how it works — radio technology is able to transmit wireless service through the air from Skyrunner’s towers to small satellite dishes installed on the side of a house or business. There’s really only one requirement — the residence or business needs to have a direct line of sight to one of those towers. The main tower access point in Haywood is on Chambers Mountain.
Skyrunner Vice President Art Mandler said wireless is a good alternative in rural areas where it’s too expensive for cable providers to install fiber to every corner of the county.
“The downside of radio technology is that you have to have direct line of sight, which means there has to be a limited amount of trees,” he said. “So it doesn’t meet every need out there but it does solve the broadband problem for a lot of people.”
Although fiber connections don’t reach out to every corner, J.J. Boyd, Skyrunner’s senior network engineer, said fiber is still an important part of what they do. Skyrunner can leverage the fiber that is in place in the county to be able to fill in gaps with radio technology.
“Fiber is the backbone of what we do,” Boyd said. “Fiber is great and the combination of radio and fiber is ultimately one of the keys to broadband solutions.”
Cost is the biggest difference between wireless and hard-wired internet service. With the radio technology, Boyd said Skyrunner only needs two low-cost devices to cover 10 miles. However, if a cable provider wants to cover 10 miles, it would have to run fiber cables for 10 miles, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. With houses few and far between in places like Fines Creek or Bethel, the cost of the infrastructure just isn’t worth the return on the investment for those companies.
“Luckily, more efficient radio technology has come a long way for us to be able to transmit bandwidth that people were only able to get with cable or fiber before,” Boyd said.
Even if an individual home doesn’t have a direct line of sight to Chambers Mountain, Skyrunner could be able to help if someone else in the community has that line of sight. If a community or homeowners association is willing to organize together to pay for the equipment, Skyrunner can run direct service to that one house and relay it to the other homes in the neighborhood with a small satellite on each roof.
Community projects like that have been successful for Mystic Cove in the Newfound community, the Cliffs at Walnut Cove in Asheville and may be a future possibility for Smoky Mountain Retreat in Maggie Valley.
Jon Wood, Skyrunner’s marketing and outreach manager, said a similar community project through a cable provider could run $200,000 because of the cost of installing new cable infrastructure, but Skyrunner is able to offer high speeds for a fraction of the price.
“We’re interested in talking to more communities — there are so many underserved areas with DSL or satellite and many already have a line of sight,” he said.
Skyrunner isn’t the only game in town, but it is one of few. A similar company — Sky Tek Communications — started up a few years ago in Murphy to service Cherokee and Clay counties. The company, which Skyrunner helped get started, already has more than 2,000 customers in that part of the region.
Boyd was actually the founder of 3dB Wireless in Haywood County, which merged with Skyrunner in January 2015. The merger has helped Skyrunner move into serving more people in Haywood County.
“There are 24 other wireless companies in North Carolina — some are mom and pop operations and some are bigger companies,” Wood said. “But we don’t see others as competition — that’s just more people we can bounce ideas off of.”
With Sky Tek offering service in the far west of the region and Skyrunner serving nine counties to the east of the region, Boyd’s hope is that service expands into the middle in the future.
With Skyrunner’s pattern of 30 percent growth every year, that goal shouldn’t be too difficult to accomplish in the foreseeable future. So why aren’t there more of these companies moving in to take advantage of the available market? Mandler said it’s because the population is still spread out and the upstart technology is still costly. Skyrunner had a unique beginning that made the financial burden much lighter.
Don Davis founded Skyrunner in 1999 with the help of local investors, but he quickly sold the business for $1.5 million to another company during the dot-com boom. The company went belly-up when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and called Davis to see if he wanted to buy back the assets at a much cheaper cost.
“So really that bubble bursting funded the start-up costs, so it hasn’t been a difficult business to build,” Mandler said. “The enthusiasm for the service has been great and we’ve been able to build pretty much based on cash flow. We never had to leverage a lot to grow the business like others have.”
Skyrunner now has more than 3,500 customers with income pretty much split 50-50 between residential and commercial clients.
Wood encourages people in Haywood to contact Skyrunner if they are interested in faster broadband service. Skyrunner can help people figure out if they have a direct line of sight to one of their access points or help them figure out a way to organize their neighborhood in order to make the process more affordable.
For more information, call 828.258.8562 or visit www.skyrunner.net.