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Life in a Digital Ghetto

 …In Which I Bitch and Moan about Living on the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide in an Isolated Pocket of Digital Poverty

(Updated 2015-08-03)
When I purchased my current residence in 1987, the Internet had not yet exploded into a dominating presence in social discourse and commerce. I used an analog modem for E-mail and such web content as was available at the time. What little television our family watched was over-the-air broadcast content. We didn’t have any cell phones.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and the situation is quite different. Polite society assumes every respectable person has a cell phone and some sort of broadband access. My inability to reliably receive text messages at this address has been a bit of a hassle1. Digital TV signals are marginal even with dual high gain antennas 70 feet (21m) up on a rotating antenna tower2 mast.

My family and I live in a relatively rural location (for being only 45 miles/74km from the “capitol of the free world”) that lies in the radio shadow of a nearby mountain3. Standing out in the front yard we can sometimes get a one bar 2G cell signal, but inside the house a cell phone is useless4. Cable service is not available and probably never will be, as the cable lines would need to be run over a mile (1.6km) to reach only a small handful of houses and the local cable monopoly has made clear its lack of interest in doing so. Ditto DSL telephone service, which would require upgrading the “SLIC” (Subscriber Line Interface Concentrator) cabinet a little over a mile away5.

Thirty years ago the absence of cell, cable, DSL, or comparable communication services didn’t matter; analog dial-up modems were sufficient. But, as the Internet grew in size and importance and the typical web site or data download ballooned in size, analog dialup was no longer adequate. I tried ISDN, which was roughly twice as fast (128kbps) as the 56K modem on a good day. That sufficed for several years, but even basic web surfing and data transfers (such as routine Linux updates) became increasingly painful. I would burn routine software updates to a CD or USB drive at a higher bandwidth location (which is to say anywhere else) and bring them home for updating the SOHO (Small Office Home Office) computers.

Next we tried a local WISP (Wireless ISP) which creatively bounced wifi signals through a hodgepodge of nodes to a wired PoP (Point of Presence) many miles away. Nominal bandwidth was good, a couple of MBps, but even with our access point on the top of a sixty foot (18m) antenna tower, performance and reliability were still marginal. Also, congestion was a recurring issue: even when the signal was strong and clear performance would nosedive in the evenings as other subscribers returned home from work and started surfing porn or watching cat videos or whatever.

Since I work full time in a home office this erratic Internet access was beginning to severely impact my bottom line, so at that point I took the only remaining option available: I signed up for a dedicated T-1 line which provides 1.544mbps (182KBps) for $600 a month. That’s one megabyte in about five seconds, or one gigabyte in 100 minutes … all for the bargain price of only $7,200 a year. Ouch. At least that bandwidth is dedicated, up and down, and is relatively reliable (it’s often several months between major outages)6. I use QoS routing for the VoIP traffic which allows voice calls even when the bandwidth is completely saturated. I try to extract the maximum utility from that narrow little pipe by loading it for hours or days at a time with bulk data uploads or downloads.

Needless to say streaming media isn’t an option, and I have to ask clients to FedEx really large files like virtual images.

Unfortunately, I’m starting to see the same bandwidth bloat issues now that drove me from dialup modem to ISDN to guerrilla wifi to the T-1 line. Routine data downloads are getting larger and slower. Websites I need to view for my professional activities, never mind recreation, are getting ever more bloated and slower. I have no bandwidth upgrade options, at any price7.

Periodically I check with WISPs that specialize in commercial broadband services. A technician for one of them climbed my tower just a few months ago and spent a long time with binoculars looking for any water towers or other structures they could use for point-to-point service; no joy8.

I’m of retirement age (sixty) and fortunate enough to have enough savings to be able to retire, in theory at least. This bandwidth problem may well drive me to retire sooner rather than later, as neither moving nor renting an office are viable options. Selling this property and moving to another just to extend my working career by a few years makes no sense considering the size of the current property that my family and I have spent years improving (a largish house and multiple outbuildings, including heavy machinery9). Renting a commercial business office doesn’t work for a number of reasons: a) my workday can be sunup to sundown on weekdays and weekends, which is tolerable when a kitchen and amenities are only a short stroll away but which would be far less tolerable in a tiny isolated office; b) I need more than just a desk as I often work with client equipment using two 19″ freestanding racks, two workbenches, and several hundred square feet of storage space for all the boxes and gear.

So, we’ll see. As I slowly suffocate on this 1.544Mbps bandwidth the decision may be made for me. If and when I do retire from revenue generating activities I’ll no longer be able to justify the current $7,200 annual cost of the leased line, and will drop back to the local WISP service. That will do for casual E-mail but will rather abruptly cut me off from dabbling in part time work as the T-1 service requires a three year contractual commitment10, so I can’t buy short term bandwidth increases.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I really like the current property and its location. The lack of broadband options will surely impact the resale price, but I’m in good health and plan to remain here for many years to come so that is a future worry. I’m a redneck at heart and there aren’t a lot of places where I could park a forklift in the front yard and be surrounded by greenery and wildlife. I do find it a bit ironic though that I have worse communications options here, a few miles from an interstate highway and a mere one hour drive from the White House and Capitol, than those in many so called third world countries.

(Update 2015-08-03) Well, after much research and pondering I have decided to take the plunge and build a 140′ (43m) tower for a 5GHz line of sight link to a local WISP. I’m still refining the cost estimate but I expect it to total about $30,000; a properly engineered structure that size isn’t cheap (the “geotechnical” report alone is costing me over 3 grand). To help control costs I’ll be doing the foundation excavation and prep myself. I expect the construction process to take at least several months and since the current T-1 lease doesn’t come up for renewal until the fall of 2016 I don’t have an incentive to rush things. I hope to have the foundation ready this fall but may defer the tower assembly and erection until next spring.

With this tower I’ll get more than ten times the bandwidth for less than a sixth the monthly cost of the T-1 line, or an annual savings of $6,000. So in five years I will have broken even. That’s a big capitol investment to escape from the digital ghetto, but I think my odds of finding a better option in those five years are slim.

The WISP I plan to use wants to leverage the tower to host a “micro-POP” for my immediate neighborhood, so some other good may come of it. I’ll also put a dual-band cellular repeater and DTV antennas on the tower, so we should have cell phone service and some DTV reception as a bonus. The tower will also host ham radios antennas (which in fact will be the biggest presence on the tower); I’ve already upgraded my license to Extra class in anticipation (KB3IHF).


[1] I’ve kludged together a SMS-emulation of sorts using a Google Gtalk number. It works for receiving SMS messages from some sources (which I receive as E-mails), but not for others. So for instance, we can’t get the fraud alerts from our bank telling us that our credit card has been suspended due to suspected fraudulent activity. We find that out the hard way, when trying to make a purchase.

I also know about repeaters (“microcells”) and have done a fair amount of research on the options. For less than a thousand dollars I could put a cellular repeater on the antenna tower and possibly get a decent 3G signal. But, such repeaters aren’t “supported” by either of the main cellular providers, meaning any issues would receive even less sympathy than the usual level of apathy those providers are famous for. In addition, even with a perfect signal the cost at my current level of data traffic would be prohibitive. I will try a microcell when I eventually drop the T-1 line and thus lose the current SOHO VoIP services, but usage will be largely limited to voice (and SMS!) only.

[2] A Heights aluminum tower with a Ham IV rotator. This is a popular model of ham radio tower (call sign KB3IHF). Only the HF bands (20m and up) are feasible given the high surrounding terrain.

[3] Sugarloaf Mountain, which is actually just a large hill or monadnock.

[4] Ironically we have some neighbors only about 1000 yards (900m) away, at roughly the same elevation, who get a decent 3G signal. The cost of such service for the data volumes I currently manage to stuff through a narrowband pipe would be ruinous, but at least those neighbors have that option.

[5] Our POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) lines, aka “landlines” have been rather unreliable so we’ve had multiple opportunities over the years to talk with the telco linemen. They note that the local telco (Verizon) has no intention of doing any enhancement of the UTP (copper) infrastructure and associated regulated services, preferring instead to concentrate on unregulated wireless and FIOS services (neither of which are available to us, though). The time-to-repair for POTS problems is as long as two weeks; at one point I was paying for four POTS lines so that at least one would hopefully be working at any point in time. At present I’ve put all my eggs in the T-1 basket; that still fails periodically (typically squirrels chewing the overhead lines), but with a commercial SLA repairs have a higher priority and I can file for and get rebates for the extended outages.

The SLIC upgrade to support DSL would supposedly cost something like $60,000. I’ve even inquired of the local telco if they would consider allowing me to pay for that upgrade; the idea was rejected out of hand. I’m not sure I would have been willing to absorb that entire cost myself (if no neighbors wanted to chip in), but when you consider what I’m paying for the narrowband T-1 line it could be cost effective over the long haul.

[6] T-1 outages are usually caused by line damage (squirrels, storms, treefalls) but one extended outage resulted from a massive DDoS attack targeted at journalist Brian Krebs with whom I share upstream provider Level 3. I’m lucky I haven’t earned that level of hostile attention, as it wouldn’t take much of a DoS to shut me down.

[7] I’ve even considered getting a second T-1 line, at the staggering cost of $1,200 monthly for 364KBps, and bonding that with the existing T-1 for double the bandwidth, but the 25 pair line leading to my house can accommodate only one T-1 signal.

Satellite service isn’t an option due to severe upload limitations; I run multiple servers (VoIP, web, E-mail) and even though I have colo servers located at sites with good bandwidth I still need to upload data to them.

[8] Erecting a taller tower is an option, but local zoning rules would limit the maximum height to about 140′(43m) and it would easily cost $25,000 or more. I would first hire a crane service to come out with a manlift basket to put a technician high enough to see if that additional 40′(12m) or so of height would make a difference. A $22-25K tower investment would be paid back in only a few years given the exorbitant cost of the T-1 line, so I will consider installing a higher tower if I’m still working at the point where the T-1 service contract comes up for renewal.

[9] I have a fairly well equipped machine shop (manual machines only, no pesky computers), see Metal Illness

[10] The cost for month-by-month service, after the original multi-year commitment has expired, is obscenely expensive. The current three-year commitment expires in December of 2016, at which point I’ll have to make a ~$22,000 decision about another renewal.

Opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of Veridical Systems, OpenSSL, DoD, the author's evil twin Skippy, or anyone else possibly including the author himself.