EAST WENATCHEE — Just when all hope seems lost, Internet deliverance comes out of the sky.
“Folks who live in the middle of nowhere think for sure they’ll never have an Internet connection,” said Scott Waulters, the man who hooks them up. “Those days are over.”
SkyFi Wireless Internet brings a lightning-fast connection to many homes tucked into isolated canyons or perched atop hard-to-reach ridges, said Waulters, manager of the new and quickly expanding wireless service. More than 1,000 customers in Chelan and Douglas counties have signed up so far, he said, and crews are busy with about 25 new installations a week.
A division of LocalTel Communications, the area’s largest provider of Internet, telephone and cable TV services, SkyFi broadcasts a wireless Internet signal from 52 high points that include buildings, water tanks, utility poles and mountain-top homes. That signal — an alternative to fiber lines and broadband Internet delivered over phone lines — criss-crosses the region from Manson to Malaga to Leavenworth to Waterville.
It’s a technology, said LocalTel co-owner Dimitri Mandelis, that’s been in development for a decade and has finally evolved into a system that works — in cost and compactness — for the average home or business owner. And it’s fast enough, he said, to stream movies from Netflix or kick some butt in the gaming world.
“The SkyFi signal goes to places where not even a cell phone works reliably,” said Mandelis. Think Ingalls Creek or Valley Hi up Blewett Pass, Ruud Canyon on Badger Mountain or Union Valley hidden in the hills north of Chelan.
SkyFi has grown in the last seven or eight years as LocalTel bought smaller Internet delivery companies — EnVision in Leavenworth and Rabbit Meadows in Chelan — and last year the Internet division of its primary competitor, Genext. Waulters, former owner of EnVision, was hired by LocalTel to run SkyFi based on his military communications experience that included prototype wireless technology developed for special ops.
Operating from its own set of towers and transmission points, SkyFi is sort of like radio, sort of like cell phones and sort of like WiFi, said Mandelis. Transmitters installed at high vantage points beam a line-of-sight signal to 14-inch dishes (sizes vary) bolted under the eaves of homes or onto the rooftops of businesses. SkyFi has its own frequencies to keep from mingling with cell phone channels and in-home WiFi signals.
Internet users also have other options for online connections — through their cell phones or directly to satellites — but none provides a connection that’s as fast or economical as SkyFi, Waulters said.
Cost of SkyFi depends on the Internet speed required by the customer, he said. Speeds range from 10 megabytes per second (a tad faster than a home DSL connection) to 30 mbps (about the same as a basic cable connection). Prices range from about $40 to $80 per month, depending on the connection’s speed. In some cases, speedier connections are available and phone service via SkyFi is an option for many areas.
Last week, SkyFi technicians were on the roof of the 10-story Cascadian Apartments building in downtown Wenatchee to put the finishing touches on an antenna array that’ll provide a signal to downtown businesses and beyond.
Although downtown Wenatchee is laced with Internet fiber and cable systems, some businesses are installing SkyFi as a backup system to their fiber connections, said Waulters.
“Fiber is not an infallible system,” he said. “It occasionally has its problems. So businesses that run round-the-clock operations, particularly ones needing reliable credit card service or a data feed of some kind, see SkyFi as a good solution.”
And it just keeps growing, said Waulters. SkyFi currently plans new installations for Wenatchee Heights, Stine’s Hill in Cashmere and Hawk’s Meadow in Chelan.
“We’ve long reached the point where the Internet is where we turn for news, entertainment and staying connected to family and friends,” said Mandelis. “So people want their online experience to be fast and seamless.”
He added, “For folks who live in the country, away from city amenities, SkyFi can be their connection to the world.”