No telephone or cable? No cellphone signal? No problem.
Skycasters provides an Internet connection under circumstances where it isn’t practical or possible to use telephone and cable lines.
The Akron company offers portable, go-almost-anywhere satellite Internet technology. Customers include governments and first responders such as fire and disaster response crews who need reliable communications where there often isn’t electricity or a working cellphone connection, never mind typical wire- or fiber-based Internet.
And while it uses satellites high above Earth, Skycasters, off South Arlington Street, is increasingly capitalizing on business opportunities bubbling up from deep underground — the companies tapping oil and natural gas from the Utica shale in Ohio and elsewhere.
It’s one way the shale energy revolution is spinning off local dividends and creating and sustaining high-tech jobs.
“It’s a hugely growing part of the business,” said Mike Kister, Skycasters president, who joined the company in 2008. “I’d say [oil and gas] is probably our largest growing sector. It makes up about 40 percent of our business. So it’s very significant for us.”
The annual oil and gas market for satellite Internet services is about $150 million to $170 million, said Brad Grady, analyst with Cambridge, Mass., satellite industry market and consulting firm Northern Sky Research.
Grady estimates the market will continue to grow, with total revenue of $2.7 billion from 2012 to 2022.
“It’s nothing to sneeze at,” he said.
Oil and gas companies require extremely high bandwidth at locations that only two-way satellite communication can provide, Grady said. The companies need the connections for such things as high-definition video conferencing to troubleshoot problems at remote sites to providing “hotel experience” Internet service for employees at offshore rigs so they can use their smartphones, tablets and computers for personal use during off hours.
Another energy industry source with operations in Ohio said satellite Internet connections typically are needed for video surveillance and to send telemetry data from sensors at remote, unmanned production sites to people at company operations centers.
“In terms of revenue, the oil and gas market is really lucrative,” Grady said.
The two dominant players in satellite Internet are Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla., and RigNet Inc. in Houston, he said.
Skycasters competes in part by offering more personal service than larger companies, said Kister, 43. Skycasters tries to differentiate itself from those other providers by learning better how its own customers work and what their requirements are, he said.
His job involves traveling to customers and potential customers to see firsthand how they operate and where Skycasters can fit in, he said. Those travels have included going to oil and gas well sites.
Skycasters’ typical customers are largely organizations that “operate on the [geographical] fringes,” he said.
“You talk about oil and gas exploration. That’s done on the fringes,” Kister said. The cost for Skycasters’ services isn’t cheap and is intended for business, not typical individual, use, he said.
The telecommunications company was founded in 2001 as a reseller of satellite Internet service. In 2005, a sister company, VSAT Systems, was created that wholesales satellite Internet service. (VSAT last fall won a years-long battle to get a license to do business in Costa Rica.)
Skycasters does not own Earth-orbiting satellites. Instead, it leases capacity from three satellites and anticipates adding capacity from a fourth satellite later this year.
Skycasters provides coverage in North America, Central America and the Caribbean and the northern tip of South America. The fourth satellite, expected to be launched this summer, will allow Skycasters to provide coverage in all of South America, Kister said.
“There’s a lot of oil fields, oil development going on in South America,” he said. “There’s a lot of U.S. companies involved in that. They want to work with a U.S. company to provide secure data transmissions. So we want to be part of that.”
Skycasters has spent about $4 million over the last three years upgrading its facilities as business has grown.
As it turns out, Akron is a good place geographically, geologically and “politically uninteresting” to have a safe, secure teleport, or satellite ground station, Kister said. “We’re not on anybody’s bomb list,” he said.
The Akron area’s push to reinvent itself as a technology hub is benefiting Skycasters by enabling it to hire highly qualified people from the local universities and colleges, he said.
The company has about 30 employees; a bit over half are what Kister called technologists — engineers, network operations staff and technical support people who monitor the data flows, technology and fix any problems that arise.
“We literally have guys with slide rules and pocket protectors,” he joked. “Now they carry iPhones.”
All of Skycasters’ employees need to make sure that the sensitive data they are entrusted with gets to where it needs to be safely and securely, Kister said.
As it turns out, shale exploration and site preparation — hydraulic fracturing or fracking — is a very data intensive operation, Kister said.
Companies need to analyze such things as soil, drill speeds, the direction drills need to go in, the kind of material being removed from a drilling site and more, he said.
“There are geologists that help guide this process,” he said. “Twenty years ago, you had to send a geologist on site. ... Very inefficient, and you had to have one geologist for every well. Now we can take that data, use satellite and beam it back to headquarters and the geologists then are able to analyze that data from Well A ... and then move on and analyze Well B.”
The highly expensive — up to $1 million — fracking trucks that travel from drilling site to drilling site universally carry satellite dishes, Kister said.
Those dishes connect back to places such as Skycasters and feed data from well sites back to the well owners, he said. The Skycasters satellite system is very easy to set up and use in the field, he said.
“No muss, no fuss,” Kister said. “It just works. Simple to use, high quality data. They don’t think about it. It’s just there.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org