Written by The Business Journal Staff
The nearly 5.5 million-plus people who visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks each year expect more than just breathtaking scenery — travelers today also want access to their Facebook and Snapchat accounts.
Fresno native James Sayre makes sure those connections happen. Sayre, the owner of Fresno-based BJ’s Communications, has installed ViaSat’s Exede satellite-based internet at lodges in all three California national parks.
“This is a testament to what we can do with satellite internet,” Sayre said.
Bob Genet, manager of the Montecito Sequoia Lodge, said being able to offer internet service is an important feature at the secluded family resort, especially since cell service isn’t available in the area.
“At national parks, we’re 7,400 feet up in the middle of nowhere, but it’s mandatory to have Wi-Fi now. People expect it,” Genet said. “It’s a selling point on our website.”
Reservations at Montecito, a 51-room year-round retreat, have been rising steadily. Genet said he isn’t certain why but anecdotal evidence suggests having internet service is likely one of the factors.
“You look around the dining room after breakfast and dinner, and all the devices are out,” he said. “People are loading photos onto Facebook, looking up trails, checking email. They’re thankful we have the service.”
Four miles down the national parks, Generals Highway at Stony Creek Lodge, two Exede satellite dishes serve the 11-room seasonal campground that also has a public gas station and general store.
“We added a second [dish] near the fuel pumps because people would come in and stand with their back against my refrigerator, lined up and clogging the aisles just to use the internet,” said manager Kim Castillo. “It definitely brings them in. I’m just flabbergasted that so many people come up here to see Mother Nature but still can’t put their devices away.”
ViaSat 1 launched in 2011 and since the company’s Exede service debuted in 2012, Sayre has installed more than 6,000 systems throughout the San Joaquin Valley. His business has grown and he anticipates a much bigger business boom after the new ViaSat-2 satellite goes into orbit later this year or in early 2017.
“This is still a fairly untapped market. There’s still a lot of rural areas around the Valley that are underserved,” said Sayre, 36, who’s spent his career working in satellite communications. “Out of all the stuff we’ve done in terms of satellite internet, Exede is the best product I’ve ever dealt with. I have a hard time selling a product I don’t believe in.”
Sayre comes by his passion for technology naturally. His father worked as an electronics technician. By 12, Sayre already knew how to hook up cable television.
“I started as a subcontractor for Comcast,” he said. “Then I started thinking, ‘Why do I keep working for these guys? I can do what they do’.”
He also saw a future that didn’t involve the cable industry. “I knew internet was going to be it,” he said.
Sayre operates his growing business from his home on West McKinley Avenue as well as a nearby storage unit. “Most of what we do, there’s no foot traffic, so there’s hasn’t been a need, at least up to this point, to set up a formal office,” added Sayre, who makes contact with most of his customers through the Exede website and via signs he posts in rural communities.
Sayre employs five installers and is training a fifth. “I still go out sometimes and do installs myself too,” he said.
One of his first customers, Brooke Prewitt, lives with her husband and two teenaged children on a ranch outside Sanger. Before Sayre installed Exede in 2012, the family was using dial-up — and the connection proved to be problematic. The local wireless internet service provider required a clear line-of-sight to a tower — which the Prewitts’ property doesn’t have.
“They said, ‘We can’t help you until your mountain comes down’,” Prewitt said. So she called Sayre, who needed only a clear view of the southern sky to install Exede. The Prewitt children now rely on satellite internet to do homework on their iPads.
“I really enjoy what I do; that’s the kicker,” Sayre said. “I love the product, but I also like driving, and going to all these places I never would have seen before — places I never would have known about that are right out my back door.”
ViaSat, which is headquartered in Carlsbad, provides internet service for a wide variety of both conventional and unconventional clients, including more than 670,000 residential subscribers nationwide — and Air Force One.
Sayre said he’s eager for the launch of the company’s series of three next-generation ViaSat-3 satellites, which are scheduled to blast off some time in 2019. Each of those satellites is expected to have 1 terabyte-per-second network capacity — 12 times the capacity of the ViaSat 2 satellites, according to Sayre.
“When the ViaSat 3 goes up, it’s going to be huge,” Sayre said. “At that point, we should be able to compete with companies like Comcast and AT&T in urban markets. There will be no limit to what we can do.”