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  • Guest: Jason Richards

  • Company: Alyrica Networks

  • On this edition of The Broadband Bunch, we visit with Jason Richards, Vice President of Sales with Alyrica Networks in Oregon, a wireless broadband provider built on the strength of family and friends. Jason shares what attracted him to Alyrica and how their customer-centric approach has helped the company experience consistent growth in a highly competitive market. We talk about their wide range of services, everything from high capacity microwave links and Wi-Fi wireless system design to the optical fiber networks that are a growing aspect of Alyrica.

     

    Craig:

    This is Craig Corbin, ETI Software Solutions Sales Director, alongside Brad Hine, Product Director for Analytics at ETI and our guest today is part of Alyrica, a broadband company serving the heart of Oregon in the beautiful Willamette Valley for the better part of two decades, with residential business and industrial services. And I love the Alyrica slogan, “Friendlier internet.”

    Craig:

    As we get started here, I had forgotten how fortunate you are being in that part of the country, the Willamette Valley, of course beautiful in its own right, but you’ve got national forests surrounding you. You got Mount Hood National Forest to the Northeast, the Willamette National Forest due East, and I think it’s the Siuslaw National Forest down to the Southwest. That’s some pretty country.

    Jason Richards:

    Gorgeous. And the hometown that we’re based out of is known for being a timber town. So we’ve got quite the logging industry all around us. It’s pretty great.

    Craig:

    You’ve been Alyrica now for a couple of years. What brought you to Alyrica?

    About Alyrica – Family and Community Broadband Provider

    Jason Richards:

    The two founders of the company are actually cousins of mine, and we were vacationing together in Hawaii a few years ago, talking about different things in businesses and stuff that we’ve been involved with and Kevin, who’s the CEO of Alyrica, said, “Hey, we’re looking for a sales manager or somebody who could come in and fill that role. What if you moved to Oregon and helped us out?” It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but a couple months later, wouldn’t you know it, we moved to Oregon and it’s been great.

    Brad:

    I was doing a little bit of research about your company. I noticed the area you’re in. Can you tell us a little bit more about your current service footprint and what makes that unique for Alyrica?

    Jason Richards:

    Our current service footprint goes up to a little past Salem, which is the capital of Oregon, so a little bit North of that and then down all the way to the Springfield, Eugene area and through the valley in between.  The way that the Willamette Valley is built is, you’ve got mountain ranges around you and it’s a pretty big wide-open expanse with a whole lot of farm land in between.

    Jason Richards:

    That’s the footprint that we decided on a couple years ago when we were kind of looking at projections for the next 10 years and we made a decision that we would rather stay in this area because everybody has families for the most part. And we’d much rather do a really good job in the area that we’re in rather than try to expand into other markets like the Eastern half of Oregon or going up into the Portland Metro area. We just wanted to get really good at doing what we do best in this section of the world that we’re in. And it’s been great.

    Brad:

    What would you say may be unique to that area?  Clearly you’ve had some great success there and you continue to grow as a service provider. What were some of the initial challenges that you may have had that’s unique to that area?

    Jason Richards:

    We’re primarily a wireless ISP, a WISP, a lot of those that we talked to at different trade shows and things that are in the Midwest for example, it’s really flat and there’s not a whole lot of hills and so they can put people up from super long distances. One of the really unique things is, like you said, all the mountains and the hills that are around us because you’ve got the main valley floor that we can get to. But a lot of the areas that we’re serving, especially right where even our home base is, is surrounded by trees and hills and trying to get through them is unique.

    Jason Richards:

    And so some of the things that we’ve been able to do are to be able to put dishes in trees for example, and we have arborists that will climb trees and find the best signal from peoples’ trees and then they’ll be able to connect to the tower from there. They’ll run the cable in the house and get people online in ways that people scratch their head, they hear how we do it because it is unique. But it’s been interesting seeing how that’s expanded as well and we’re becoming not famous, I wouldn’t say, but it’s definitely a pretty cool process that we have.

    Brad:

    You are not the only service provider in that territory either. So explain to our audience a little bit about how you differentiate yourself in terms of what you built and processes internally of what you built to remain competitive in that area too.

    Jason Richards:

    We’re in a town called Philomath. And right next door is Corvallis, Oregon, which is the home to Oregon State University. And Hewlett Packard has their main headquarters in the United States, based out of Corvallis as well. So there’s a lot of middle mile fiber that comes in and out of the HP campus, in and out of OSU. We also have some other big cable providers and then telcos that have been established for a long, long time, throughout our footprint.

    WISP Success Story – Family Focus on Customer Experience

    Jason Richards:

    It’s unique because there’s a lot of times that a wireless ISP will go into a region and there’s literally nothing. It’s them and satellite internet and that’s it. Whereas we’re in a unique position that we are continuing to grow, and a fairly aggressive growth right now, in being able to basically provide service over the top of all these providers that have either cable or DSL lines.

    Jason Richards:

    The biggest differentiator is, in my opinion, is that we have probably the best value proposition, maybe in the industry. This is not only because of the service level that we provide, but also the fact that we’ve got the customer service and the net promoter scores and all the things that make a company great and that people want to work with. We focus very, very heavily on those areas. And so not only is the quality of service, the actual internet service you’re receiving, way up there, the customer service aspect and the ability to think through problems, like putting a dish in somebody’s tree for example. The ability to think through those types of problems and come up with solutions is second to none, in our area anyway. I’m sure there’s probably other companies like us in other parts of the world, but in the Mid-Willamette, that’s what we’re known for.

    Brad:

    As a family owned business, knowing the people that you work with so well and also being a part of that community, I’m sure it’s a job of yours to educate your community of the different types of services and how you achieve those high quality, high speed broadband services and connections. How do you actually go about educating people in your community about things like that?

    Jason Richards:

    A lot of the customer education piece usually comes in a one-on-one fashion when somebody will call us up and talk to our customer support people and they’ll generally start the question with, “How fast is it?” And so then we start asking, “Well, what is it that you actually want to do online?” And typically, the typical user, (probably before this COVID stuff started happening), but the typical user is looking to stream Netflix and be on Facebook at the same time. That’s a pretty typical thing.

    Jason Richards:

    And so we explain to people that, “Okay, well Netflix according to their own website is 4 to 5 megabits per second. Facebook is quite a bit less than that. And so you don’t need that much.” And it’s amazing how many times we’ve had conversations with somebody and they’ll say, “Well, we get 250 megabits per second with this other company and you’re saying that we can do everything we want on 12?” And we just explain, “Well, that’s probably because you’re not actually getting 250 and if you actually have the throughput and it’s doing what you want, then that’s really all you need.”

    Real Bandwidth Usage and Requirements – Educating Consumers, Communities and Government

    Jason Richards:

    It’s been interesting because we’ve been able to not only take that, and that’s how it started, kind of the one-on-one customer interaction. We do a lot of content marketing now, where we’re continually putting out information to people. It’s not just for our customers, as we’ve built some pretty good relationships with the county and local and regional and even federal government to where we’re able to help educate them on some of the things that we’re seeing. And it’s a neat situation when, for example, one of the counties that we served, Polk County, it’s a smaller county, very rural, just to the North of us and being able to help educate people that are in county government and in local city government, to be able to understand what it is that they’re asking, what they’re needing.

    Jason Richards:

    Specifically in those instances, a lot of times their constituents will come to them and say, “We just want better service.” But they don’t actually know what they’re asking for. They just know that what they’re doing right now isn’t working, Netflix is buffering and so they want better service. And so being able to educate the county commissioners and the city councils and the mayors, “Here’s what you’re actually meeting then. If people are asking for this and this is what they care about, then let’s provide a solution that will get them what they need, not necessarily what they think they need.”

    Jason Richards:

    I’ll be honest, I was guilty myself. I moved down from the Seattle area and my background wasn’t in telecommunications. And so I just was like, “Oh yeah, a gig plan that looks like bigger and better than I need, so okay, I’ll just do gig and it’ll be fine.” And was irritated when the gig wasn’t fast enough. Then when I realized what actually was going on, I was like, “Oh, I was being throttled.” And so I never actually got the gig.

    Jason Richards:

    And so as I learned and was educated for myself, it was kind of nice to be a lay person, if you will, being able to talk to people and say, “Oh, here’s what I learned and here’s what works and here’s what doesn’t work and here’s why we can create the solutions that we do because we want to base it on what people actually need.”

    Jason Richards:

    And it’s amazing, even talking to one of the county commissioners a little bit ago, he’s on our service and he was doing some great surveys throughout his county about what they were doing and how they were going to get access to these super, super rural parts of the county.

    Jason Richards:

    And we had a conversation, he said, “Well, we just need better.” And I asked, I said, “Well, commissioner, with all due respect. What service do you want with Alyrica right now?” He said, “Well, I get 8 megabits per second.” I said, “Fantastic. And what problems are you having with that service?” He said, “Well, I’m not having any problems with that service.” “So, okay, so why do you think that you need 25?” And he just kind of looked at me and said, “Oh, I guess I don’t.” I said, “I think that’s the issue, you don’t, some people do, but not everybody does and in fact the vast majority of people, and in my experience now, don’t.”

    Jason Richards:

    And so if you’re able to provide a service to people based on what they actually need and you can educate them on what they’re using and how and why, it’s pretty amazing how many people are understanding that now in the local governments around us. And it’s been a really cool conversation piece.

    Craig:

    Regarding the continuing education of your customer base, what Alyrica does goes far beyond the standard residential business into commercial and industrial services from the standpoint of being able to help organizations design wireless systems with high capacity microwave links. So if you have organizations that have multiple locations within a town or a city, you can come up with a solution that answers that need. Talk a little bit about those services.

    Jason Richards:

    One area that is fairly recent was, we were working with a city government, the City of Albany, which has a population of about 60,000 people. The City of Albany needed some specific microwave links to be able to monitor, I think it was some water systems of a dam that was quite a bit a ways away. Alyrica created a solution for them that was able to monitor their systems.  It was coming over our towers and then over more direct microwave links so that we could connect a lot of their main city government buildings…City Hall, the police department, there’s a couple of others, and the fire station, I believe. And then they’re all connecting to each other because we built this network over the top of the city using frequencies that are assigned to city government.

    Jason Richards:

    So it was kind of neat, even in the space that we use the 5 gigahertz spectrum and then being able to use the spectrum that they have available to them as city governments and being able to partner with them to do that was kind of neat.

    Fiber Broadband for MDUs and Small Communities

    Craig:

    One follow up to that, in addition to what you just described, I know that Alyrica has also been involved in providing service to the MDU market, multi-dwelling complexes and also even though the wireless approach is primary, you do have the capability with your staff, of designing optical fiber networks as well?

    Jason Richards:

    It was about three and a half years ago, I guess, Kevin, our CEO, was looking at the landscape of things and where things are at and knew that moving to fiber optics ourselves would be something that would be beneficial. And so did a couple projects of just learning kind of the ins and outs and actually cut our teeth, if you will, on a fiber project within an MDU. And it was a fairly large MDU, it’s about 400, I think it’s close to 450 rooms or units and creating the topology and putting it all together for that. And we still service that MDU to this day.

    Jason Richards:

    But then being able to take that knowledge and wanting to tackle a bigger fiber project and went down to a little town called Halsey and it’s about, I think 330 houses, if my memory serves me, and being able to figure out what exactly we’re going to need to make that happen. It’s one thing when it’s new construction and you can dump some conduit in the ground and all the underground contractors are doing that work for you. It’s different when you got to get a directional drill and a crew and do it yourself and learn all the ins and outs of right of ways and permitting and engineering. But we did and we just wrapped that project up December of last year. And so, the little town of Halsey came online.

    Jason Richards:

    It was really neat because there was an incumbent telephone provider that was already there. And interestingly is they were a small town incumbent provider and they didn’t do much in terms of upgrades for their system and so the majority of the people in the town already were on our wireless service. We knew that it was a community, obviously that had a need, and we already had a good reputation in the community through our wireless service. It became almost a no brainer to be able to go and do that.

    Jason Richards:

    Two interesting things that came as a result. One, is that there was lots of other smaller towns like Halsey that have contacted Alyrica and said, “Would you come do that here?” And so we’ve got two other fiber projects that are going on, currently in two larger towns than Halsey, but not major metropolitan areas by any means. It’s kind of neat to be able to provide fiber to the home and make these small towns in the middle of Oregon, hotspots, if you will, for broadband.

    Jason Richards:

    The other thing that happened with that is, a lot of people don’t understand wireless very well and people that don’t understand it typically will say things like, “Oh well you can’t do VoIP over that because it’s not stable enough.” Or, “We can’t use that for remote work.” Again, it’s just a misunderstanding.

    Jason Richards:

    In Halsey, after we got the fiber plant done and we had taken fiber drop lines to people’s houses – we were our own worst enemy in being able to get these customers convert over. They were on a wireless connection that they’ve used for five years and they didn’t want to change. even though they had fiber to the home.  They had a fiber optic cable sitting at their house and all they had to do is give us a call and one of our guys would come over for free and install this fiber optic internet into their house.  They rather would just leave things the way they are because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I guess.

    Jason Richards:

    It took quite a bit of time and a marketing campaign to help people understand why they want to move away from wireless and get on to fiber because it’s going to be a much better, much more stable connection for them in the long run.

    Brad:

    In the city of Halsey, you are your own competition, wireless against fixed line fiber?

    Jason Richards:

    Isn’t that wild?

    Importance for WISPs to Maintain Relationships with Local Governments

    Brad:

    You talked about your relationships in the community and educating in the community. Can you tell our WISP audience how important it is to maintain good relationships within the local city governments, to know what they’re trying to accomplish and be in lockstep with them in your area of service?

    Jason Richards:

    Again, we’re in a little bit of an interesting area because there’s plenty of other big telcos that are around us in the larger communities and in those places, we do have some relationships too. But in rural parts of our footprint, one of the big things that they [government] are hearing from constituents all the time is, “We don’t have adequate service” – whether they’re just on a mobile-only hotspot that works some of the time or if they only have satellite internet.

    Jason Richards:

    People that are actually having a difficult time with connectivity, it’s one of their top priorities. People that are in the, whether it’s the local city government or the county government, they’re hearing about it a lot from people and they don’t really have a solution. They’re not in the internet business, they’re taking care of all the different aspects of the county and this just happens to be one. And in areas where there are not good options for people, it becomes a hot button.

    Jason Richards:

    Even to the point of helping educate those people in government on things that they don’t understand in a small level, like I was speaking about, but also in a bigger sense as well.

    Jason Richards:

    An example of that is one of the counties we were working with, had several constituents hear about the USDA [Broadband] ReConnect Program. And so, these residents were saying, “We’ll just go get that money. The federal government has billions and millions of dollars they want to give to people and we’re those people that are underserved. So how come you’re not going out and getting that money?” I’m getting calls from a commissioner on that and he says, “Yeah, why aren’t we getting that money?” I said, “Well let me explain it to you. Here’s what that means and here’s why.” And helping bring it full circle and say, “What you actually need is you need something like this.” And being able to empower them to be able to go to their constituents and say, “Here’s what I know now because I’ve educated myself.” And it’s amazing how many times it has come full circle and those constituents realize that, “Oh, you actually are giving me information that we need and you are doing everything you can to help us.”

    Jason Richards:

    And a lot of times in those situations, we’ve been able to help educate to a point that, Polk County, again for example, they went out and they did their own survey throughout the County. They had about 35% response rate on the survey. And they did it by tax lot and census block and they did a really great job and 35% of people got back to that survey, which is pretty amazing.

    Jason Richards:

    They basically were just asking, what internet service do you currently have? What service do you know that’s available? What service are you on? Not just the provider, but what is your speed. And then, would you like better? What they found from that is, getting down to the tax lot level, they were able to find areas within Polk County that have essentially nothing and that they’ve got a couple of areas that there’s literally nothing. So they went and verified that and said, “No, really, you’re too far into the trees. You can’t really get a good satellite link. And the phone can kind of get out there, but it’s so far past wherever it is, you’re talking kilobits per second, is the max download speed.”

    WISPs Delivering Broadband Solutions to People Who Need it

    Jason Richards:

    Then they were able to take all of that data and then come back to, it wasn’t just Alyrica, there were other providers that were in the room, and be able to present that to us (the providers) and say, “Here’s where the holes are, how can you help us?” And to Alyrica anyway, it was music to our ears! We said, “Fantastic. Now that we see these holes and we know where the need is and you’ve got X number of people that live here and they want this, we’ve got a tower right over here and we can send a signal here, we can create a tower at this site and we can effectively reach 50 people that nobody else can.” Which is amazing, especially for WISPS, to get into areas where there’s low hanging fruit, if you will. You’re not competing against anybody; you’re just getting in there and doing what you do best and delivering a product to people that actually need it.

    Delivering Broadband Continuity in the New Normal

    Brad:

    I like to hear that you’re working closely with the government. As we all know, there’s so much data that lives within our municipalities and government entities that can help us in our businesses too, and so it’s important to work together. Speaking of communities and things that impact us, as everybody knows in the world, we’ve had some global impact with COVID-19, clearly they are changes that you have to make. How have you been impacted by this? And what kind of changes has Alyrica made to move forward with our new environment here?

    Jason Richards:

    There were a couple of the changes that we saw initially. First we actually saw people calling and canceling the installation that they had on the schedule. They had an install on schedule and then they realized that this was going to be a bad thing and so they called us back and said, “Hey, I want to move that out a month or two.” Or something like that. That was what we saw initially. And then we started communicating with people that, “Listen, of all the services out there, we’re one you’re going to need, because if you’re going to have to work from home, if you’re going to have to do school from home, you’re going to need an adequate connection to the world via the internet.” And so we did a lot of that type of campaign and then sure enough it turned itself around, I think because people realized that that was going to happen.

    Jason Richards:

    Another interesting thing that happened is being able to communicate that telecommunications is an essential service. And so our people aren’t going anywhere, we’re not getting laid off for a month, if anything, we’re going to be working harder and faster and more furious than ever. And that’s exactly what happened. And so being able to get our installers up to date on procedures and stuff like that, making sure that they’ve got gloves and masks on. They have that on before they’re going into a property in order to make sure that the customer is safe and they’re keeping themselves safe. And so the residential reuses is on the rise.

    Jason Richards:

    And at the same time, we’ve also seen a lot of the businesses that are not essential businesses that have called us and said, “Hey, can we put our internet connection on hold for a couple months because we don’t have anybody coming in the door and we’ve got to work from home.” And of course, we want to be able to help them do that as well. So we’ve seen both those things happen simultaneously.

    Jason Richards:

    And in other parts of the world, we’ve also seen how their networks were built to handle maybe an additional 10% and they were kind of on the edge all the time. We were in a little bit different position that we were using about 20% of our total capacity. And so when this uptick happened, our network was ready for it. And so we’ve been able to absorb the load quite a bit, which I think has also been a great testament to the monitoring and the tools that we have to be able to project and forecast where we want to go. And there’s a lot of people that may have been okay before on their current provider, but now with this uptick in traffic that’s now saturated, that we’re getting a lot of people that have moved over to us from that as well.

    WISP Startup Mode – Doing Whatever It Takes

    Brad:

    You mentioned how important it is to be focused on customer service and make sure that uptime is maximized within our new COVID-19 world for at-home workers. When you and I first met, you shared a story with me about your cousin Kevin, and the story about him answering a customer service call while he was on the job actually installing. Can you share that story again with our audience?

    Jason Richards:

    Yeah, you bet. It was started by two brothers Joseph and Kevin. Joseph has gone on and he’s built up several other successful companies and he’s not involved in the day to day operations of the business anymore, but Kevin is our CEO. And when it was essentially just the two of them, you were the customer support person, you were the tower climber, you were the installer, you were the network engineer, you were everything. And so Kevin was telling me they were having some trouble in their server room where there was, I think it was a specific switch that every hour just decided to die. So they woke themselves up every hour and were pushing reset on this switch, every hour, all through the night for weeks. And so that was where they were at, basically sleeping in the server room through the night. And then during the day time they also had to be installers and do customer support calls.

    Jason Richards:

    So it was in the middle of that, that was going on, that Kevin went out and he was doing an install on a roof and it had snowed just a little bit, it doesn’t snow a lot here in Oregon, but when it did it’s a little slippery. And so Kevin gets to the roof and he’s starting to do an install and his phone starts ringing because it was just calling a cell phone, which was the Alyrica support line.

    Jason Richards:

    And so he takes the phone out of his pocket and puts it to his ear and it starts sliding down the roof and, “Alyrica, this is Kevin.” And then he’s sliding down the roof, sliding down the roof, he falls off the roof and grabs onto the gutter with the other hand. And while he’s hanging over the edge of the roof, he’s still got the customer on the phone, he said, “Yeah, can I put you on hold real quick?” And so he puts the customer on hold and brings himself back up over the edge of the roof, sits down, collects himself, then answers the call and helps trouble shoot the customer and finished the install and went back. Lots of fun stories like that.

    Jason Richards:

    And I know that there’s WISPS to this day that are just starting out and there’s so many fun stories like that that they have themselves. It’s pretty amazing.

    Brad:

    I think you did tell me on our first meeting that your cousins were initially firefighters. So it sounds like they had almost trained to take calls in that exact manner.

    Jason Richards:

    They both were volunteer firefighters and when they started the company, they were living at the fire station as well so they could save on rent. I think they were paying themselves, $50 a month or something like that. They would just to do whatever they could just to make it happen.

    Craig:

    Such a great collection of stories and the history from the last couple of decades serving your area is phenomenal. It’s been great to learn more about Alyrica and what you guys are doing. Thank you so much for being with us today on The Broadband Bunch.


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