DIY wireless internet

8 years 10 months ago #35614 by Short Plank
If broadband won't come to you, can you go get it?

There are two possibilities:

1. A collection of folk in the same locality who have - or can get via an intervening spot - an unbroken line-of-sight to each other club together to share the costs of a satellite connection based at a central or convenient property, and share the connection. I haven't looked at satellite for a while and latency, which is a real downer for real-time applications like Skype, is always unavoidable. However sharing the cost of the connection can make it a whole lot cheaper to install while sharing a plan brings the cost per GB down while making the faster speeds usually attached to the bigger and more expensive plans available.

2. You can set up a backhaul - that's a single link that carries all the traffic - to somewhere with an ISP offering decent broadband and tap into that.

In our case we began with a 17-km backhaul from a local mountaintop to a private house in our nearest town which we could see from there, and arranged a deal with the homeowner to give them free internet via ADSL in exchange for hosting the other end of the wireless link and the server that handled the traffic. However if there is a wireless ISP in the locality it's quite likely that it will utilising hilltops in the vicinity to 'light-up' the town and areas for its own customers and if your hilltop can see their hilltop you'll likely be able to connect to them there directly - that's the situation we now have - and the ISP feeds us into their local fibre loop at 10MBps both ways.

How far away can that hilltop be? Well, the horizon is the theoretical limit with wireless, tho' distances over 20 -25km will start to drag down your speeds noticeably. That's cureable using doubled-up links - one each way - but can be problematic.

Locally anyone who can see your hilltop can have a connection, or anyone who can see someone who can see that hilltop - it's a condition of membership of our trust that you'll act as a relay for a neighbour if it's necessary even if you can't stand the sight of each other - or even anyone who can see a hilltop which can see the first hilltop as long as they're willing to bear the cost of putting a relay up there, or whip up their local community to share the cost of doing it.

Hilltop relays needn't be flash and expensive. Permission is required from the land-owner and access for a quad at least helps, but a working party of volunteers can usually do what's required - we had to hack a path through 100m of bush to establish one site - and one of our members has a 'dozer which helps, but a stayed 4m x 50cm steel pipe will easily carry the necessary wireless gear and antennas while an 80W solar panel plus 125 a/hr deep-cycle battery will provide all the power a reasonably powerful relay needs.

Considerations? The big headache is accounting. Members have to subscribe for a set monthly data limit and the trust buys a monthly plan from the ISP big enough to cover it, with the cost of the ISP plan split on a pro-rata basis. However we obviously need an internal accounting system so that a) members can keep tabs on their own use and b) admin knows if anyone exceeds their cap. Normally several do, but as others don't use all theirs it all comes out in the wash and admin usually takes action only if someone goes grossly over their limit or does so regularly. Standard network protocols such as PPPoE and L2TP for individualised log-ons have accounting built in, but the admin needs to have an accounting/spreadsheet application running to receive the accounting packets and collate it.

Emails: If you're only paying for one plan from the ISP you'll only get the use of a couple of email addresses on their server so if you get more than a few subscribers you'll likely need either to buy more addresses from the ISP or - a better way to go - either run your own email server internally or through an on-line host.

Cost: Each subscriber needs their own wireless set in order to connect and the trust specifies what they need (and gets it) as we don't use the cheapest yet consistency across the network makes life much easer for the tech guy. $400 covers it. In addition we take a contribution from every new member towards the costs of establishing the hilltop relays which was met by the founding fathers. With wireless gear and solar power these can be done for around $3,000 tho' you can spend more if you like. These contributions - currently $500 - go into a repair and maintenance fund, although that has on a couple of times grown so big that the trust had a capital distribution to get rid of the excess. If someone wants to join the network but doesn't have line of sight to any existing member or an existing hilltop relay it's up to them to arrange something. If they can get their neighbours to join in and share the cost of establishing a relay so much the better. We'll support them with an appeal for labour and will take the relay over as part of the infrastucture once it's built.

In the seven years of the trust's operation it has grown in size and complexity but has had very few technical problems and has become a true community project. While there might be thirty of so of us sharing one internet outlet and plan there will rarely be more than three or four hammering it at the same time and a 10 MBps connection can cope with that easily. I have no problems with YouTube or streaming video and can regularly download at >4MBps for long periods. Obviously some capital outlay is involved, but the other side of that is that we pay a lot less per GB than commercial outfits charge.

In fact, taken all in all, I think it's pretty cheap internet.

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