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logo by Orlando Morales
(logo by Orlando Morales)


Initial version 2015-06-25, last updated 2015-09-18
(This is the detailed version, see WISP-summary.html for an overview)

WISP Options - commentary by Steve M.


Internet access in this area has been a challenge, to put it mildly1. Our best, and in fact only, viable option for Internet access seems to be from WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers).

Many of us obtain Internet access from a small local WISP2 that I will refer to as the "incumbent WISP". However, for reasons that need not be belabored here that has been less than satisfactory for many of us.

This web page discusses a new possibility.

The SOHO leased line (T-1)

I work at home with a bunch of computers, in what is a fairly typical Small Office Home Office (SOHO) configuration with all the computing services of a small to medium size commercial office (hosting web, E-mail, telephony services in addition to more specialized networking services). For the past five years or so I've been leasing a T-1 line. It's slow (~1.5Mbps) but fairly reliable3. It's also rather expensive for such modest bandwidth: $602 per month or $7200.00 per year. Since I work at home and there were no other options I just did what had to be done and paid the bills; some $35,000 to date. But, going forward I have two concerns. One is that I hope to retire in the next year or three, and that $7,200 annual tab is going to loom a lot larger on a retirement income. Also, based on extensive discussions with our LEC (Local Exchange Carrier, Verizon) technicians and some research, I'm not sure how much longer the T-1 service (or POTS4 telephone service) will continue to be an option at any price5.

So, that led to an extensive search for alternatives. It didn't take long to realize that only wireless connectivity was feasible, and that requires adequate proximity or visibility to a WISP "POP" (Point of Presence, i.e. an antenna or access point). Such antennas are invariably on towers, and there are a lot of towers in the general area.6 The question then becomes one of which towers are accessible from a given location, such as my property at 1829 Mount Ephraim Road.

This spring I hired a local tower services company (the people who install and service towers) to do a "wireless survey". That is conventionally done by renting a crane to lift a man with binoculars high in the air. This company was just starting to experiment with drones and I was one of their first trials of that new technology7. The results of that survey showed a clear line of sight to an expanse of Mar Lu Ridge to the west, where multiple communications towers are located. A local WISP, Telegia, already has a presence on one of those towers, and confirmed that they could provide much higher speed service for a much better price. For instance, their 20Mbps down/10Mbps up service for $100 a month would save me $6,000 a year while being an order of magnitude faster.

The Catch

There's always a catch of course, and in this case it's that an antenna here has to be at least 130' in the air8 to have that clear line of sight to the towers on Mar Lu Ridge. A properly engineered tower that tall isn't cheap; it will cost at least $25,000. Still, at a savings of $6,000 a year that cost would be recouped in roughly five years.

The WISP, Telegia, proposes a 5GHz antenna for the "backhaul" connection from the tower here to their tower on Mar Lu Ridge. That would have no effect on any other neighborhood Wi-Fi, both because of the different frequency band and the narrow beamwidth of the parabolic antenna. After researching Telegia's reputation and talking with Telegia customers I'm convinced that this 5GHz direct line-of-sight service would be as reliable as the current T-1 line.

A "micro-POP"

However, Telegia also noted that if they installed a 5GHz link from my tower, they could also use that backhaul to provide 2.4GHz Wi-Fi service to the immediate neighborhood, i.e. a "micro-POP". 2.4GHz is the traditional "Wi-Fi" frequency band, and the standard configuration of three sector or panel antennas in what is called an "ABC" configuration would occupy all three independent channels within the 2.4GHz band. That may well conflict with other local Wi-Fi usage, in particular current incumbent WISP customers.9

Note that any willing WISP could manage a micro-POP10; it doesn't have to be Telegia and I have no particular affiliation or affection for them beyond a favorable impression from some research and our interactions to date. Unfortunately (but understandably), I have confirmed that the incumbent WISP has no interest in in being the WISP that provides and manages that micro-POP service. That leaves Telegia as the WISP of choice for my Wi-Fi service and for the micro-POP.11

So, that leaves an open question for the neighborhood. We'll all be better off using the same WISP, but will all of the neighbors in near proximity to this tower want to use Telegia as their WISP?

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section I'll put questions and answers from discussions with the neighbors.

What service options does Telegia provide?

Their initial installation cost, for the CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) is $200. Some of you in the very near vicinity probably can get a good connection directly from your Wi-Fi client devices (laptops, access points, etc.) and may not need any CPE gear (i.e. a radio+antenna unit on your roof or outside wall). Those further away will need the CPE radio, just like they have now with the incumbent WISP, but still be only one hop from the micro-POP.

  • $ 80/month for 10Mbps download x  5Mbps upload
  • $100/month for 20Mbps download x 10Mbps upload
  • $130/month for 30Mbps download x 15Mbps upload
These rates compare favorably to those of the incumbent WISP on a dollars per Mbps basis, though cheaper options are offered:
  • $ 55/month for 2Mbps download x 1  Mbps upload
  • $ 70/month for 3Mbps download x 1.5Mbps upload
  • $ 85/month for 4Mbps download x 2  Mbps upload
  • $100/month for 5Mbps download x 2.5Mbps upload
Note the $70/month plan (nominally) provides faster speeds that I get for $602/month with the T-1 line; oh how I would prefer to be paying only $70 a month!

Personally I plan to sign up for the $100/month service; it will be much faster than the current T-1 and I don't want to become spoiled with high bandwidth so close to retirement and a fixed income. Note even higher bandwidths are available at higher prices; I could get a lot of bandwidth for the $600/month I'm paying now for narrowband T-1.

Would it make more sense to put this tower somewhere else?

Quite possibly, and I'd be thrilled if someone else wanted to install a tower that would give me solid line-of-sight Wi-Fi service. If anyone's interested I'll be happy to share everything I've learned about towers over weeks of in-depth investigation.

But, I suspect I'll be the only one determined (or foolish!) enough to build a suitable tower, for several reasons:

  • Cost: towers are expensive; this one will cost $25,000 or so. Some of the local properties have more suitable terrain and could get by with a shorter tower, but you're still looking at thousands of dollars.
  • Permits: in initially inquiring about a permit for a "communications tower" I found that the requirements for such are extensive, requiring thousands of dollars in paperwork and a full blown "Special Exception" process. But, I had noted that I planned to put ham radio antennas on the tower and am a licensed ham radio operator (callsign KB3IHF). The very helpful Frederick County Permits and Inspections folks pointed out that permitting for ham radio towers is handled differently12 and that on such a tower Wi-Fi antennas are allowed as an "accessory use". On that basis I have obtained a standard permit for a tower that specifically allows hosting of a micro-POP (permit #131429). So the applicant for a standard permit for an antenna tower will need to have a ham radio license13.
  • Backup power: the proposed micro-POP would require a cabinet at the tower base supplied with 120VAC utility power, preferably uninterruptible. This property already has uninterruptible power (a combined PV and battery bank system with autostart diesel generator). Absent that power we would lose our internet access and thus (for most of us) telephone service14 during a utility power outage.
  • NIMBY: Who the heck wants a tower in their back yard? Not us, and this thing will literally be right in our back yard. The tower base will be about 50' from our house, to the north and east, and will be yet another obstacle to mow around. Most of the neighbors won't see much of the tower but the top portion that will extend above the treetops, but we'll have a close-up view of the whole thing from our house. The tower will also require periodic maintenance (occasional inspections for corrosion and replacement of coax cable that eventually deterioriates in the weather).
  • Risk (of superfluousness): there is the possibility, however slim, that some other viable means of Internet access could become available before the investment in the tower could be offset by other savings (five years in my case). I don't think that's likely, otherwise I'd not be pursuing this option, and in any event I'll still have a first rate ham radio tower as a consolation. But if Comcast or Verizon or whomever brings decent broadband down Mount Ephraim Road a year after the tower is up it won't look like a very good investment.
  • Risk (of futility): My expectation that the 5GHz line-of-site link to the Telegia POP on Mar Lu Ridge will provide high quality Internet access may be wrong, or the WISP service may prove inadequate for other reasons, and I may be unable to find another suitable service. I'm confident enough with my performance expectations to gamble a large investment, but still recognize it as a risk.

Will we have better service than now?

That's hard to say in general. Those half dozen or so houses that will have direct line of sight to the WISP antennas on the new tower will definitely see better performance. I think we'll find another half dozen will have only minimal obstructions and a solid signal. The 2.4GHz Wi-Fi signals degrade rapidly when obstructed with foliage, which in this area is a major problem. Telegia claims that the micro-POP should be usable for anyone within a mile radius of the tower15, and they have visited the site and seen the area from the top of our current 60' tower. For those without clear line-of-sight visibility we won't know for sure until the new antennas are operational. However, those far enough away from the tower for that micro-POP to be marginal or unusable will also see correspondingly less interference to their current incumbent WISP service.

What do you (the Marquesses) get out of a micro-POP?

There are pros and cons for us. On the pro side:
  • It's traditional for a WISP to provide discounted service to the owner of a site used for a micro-POP, so we might save on the $100 monthly cost of our service. However, Telegia has made it clear they consider a micro-POP of only a dozen or so customers economically marginal so that is far from guaranteed. We are cost-justifying construction of the tower on the basis of the T-1 savings and not assuming any rebate on our monthly Wi-Fi cost.
  • We'd have the satisfaction of providing our neighbors with a better opportunity for internet access. I know we're not the only ones dissatisfied with the status quo.
On the con side:
  • The three antennas that would be needed for this "micro-POP" service collectively add up to a significant portion of the total wind load on the tower. That tower is custom designed for the site and specific antenna load, and the cost is a direct function of that load; the 2.4GHz "micro-POP" antennas increase the cost by a grand or two16 over the cost of a tower sized to support only the 5GHz antenna needed for our Wi-Fi service.
  • With just a 5GHz antenna providing us service our neighbors will be unaffected by any changes we make, from switching to another WISP to decommissioning the tower entirely. But, once a micro-POP is operational we're effectively stuck with it. Suppose, for instance, we find a better deal for us with another WISP; if we switch the backhaul link to that WISP then the micro-POP has to switch with it17. A better deal for us won't necessarily be a better deal for the micro-POP customers.
  • Coordinating with the entire neighborhood and Telegia for a micro-POP is going to take time. Now that we have a permit and a clear understanding of what's involved in building a tower we have a financial incentive to replace our T-1 service with Telegia Wi-Fi sooner rather than later.18
  • No good deed goes unpunished: we may be blamed if anyone ends up with worse service than before, or if anything at all goes wrong anywhere, or just because. On the other hand, if we put up this tower to get high quality internet access for ourselves and didn't host a micro-POP for a WISP willing to provide it we could be blamed for that too ... it's a bit of a lose-lose situation so we'll try to do the right thing even if that means more complications.
Note incidentally that we will have no part of managing the micro-POP; that will be entirely the responsibility of the WISP and any neighbor who chooses to become a customer will deal directly with that WISP (we won't even know who those customers are unless they tell us). A WISP necessarily incurs multiple obligations in that capacity, such as responsibility for what their customers do with their Internet access (DMCA take-downs, legal service, NSLs, and so forth). We will very deliberately have no involvement beyond hosting the WISP managed antennas on our tower.

So Who Exactly Will Be In Range?

Good question. Using Google terrain maps and the Maryland Real Property database I've come up with the following list of properties that are close enough to probably have solid connectivity. Here I've taken the address and owner designations for occupied properties as shown in the SDAT records:

1721 Mount Ephraim	Lankford, John
1749 Mount Ephraim	James, Larry
1803 Mount Ephraim	Carlsson, Per Uno
1805 Mount Ephraim	Bledsoe, John
1819 Mount Ephraim	Clement, Diana
1820 Mount Ephraim	Morrison, Kristen
1829 Mount Ephraim	Marquess, Steven
1840 Mount Ephraim	Toof, David
1846 Mount Ephraim	Danko, David
1875 Mount Ephraim	Gehman, John
1888 Mount Ephraim	Lapsa, Tom
2002 Mount Ephraim	Nicklas, Stephen
2010 Mount Ephraim	Wilkes, Nathan
2104 Mount Ephraim	Freedman, Philip
2116 Mount Ephraim	Harrell, John
7605 Stewart Hill	Kilgallen, Liliane
7621 Stewart Hill	Thacker, Robert
7680 Stewart Hill*	Stonemetz, Lysia
7380 Ira Sears		Ohlke, Amanda

*maybe, could be obstructed by terrain

All of these properties are in tax map 104 (see FinderOnline). Also in tax maps 104 and 110 are the houses on the plateau traversed by Ira Sears Road, at least some of which are likely to be within direct range:


We're spread fairly thinly here so this not a long list; that's the essence of the problem in getting any Internet service providers to take an interest in this area.

Parts of Parks Mills Road may be in range also, though the beamline angle will be pretty low and thus intersected by a lot of foliage.

[update 2016-08015] I've figured out how to use Google Earth to do a elevation profile between the antenna tower and another location. I've also found an interesting Google Earth based service that can generate a coverage map for the areas with line of sight visibility to the tower.

coverage map
(tower coverage from http://www.heywhatsthat.com)

What Level of Interest is Needed for the micro-POP?

The tower itself is not dependent on the micro-POP; it's already permitted and I'm on to the next stage (getting the geotechnical report which alas looks like it will cost several thousand more than I'd hoped). This was the original plan; the micro-POP only became a consideration when the prospective WISP (Telegia) suggested it.

Some minimal level of community interest is necessary for the micro-POP for two reasons; us and Telegia, neither of whom will want to proceed absent some significant indication of interest. Telegia claims (correctly I believe) that they are not interested in encroaching on the incumbent WISP turf for just a handful of customers, and that the micro-POP won't be hugely lucrative for them in any event. If they don't think they have a good chance of signing up at least a half dozen customers they probably won't be interested in installing the additional hardware needed for the micro-POP.

They could of course install the micro-POP antennas at any future point in time after the tower is up, but only if that tower has sufficient capacity to support them. I will be tempted to avoid that extra cost if I'm not reasonably confident there's a point to it.

What Happens Next

Planning an coordination has taken a long time, but the construction process has started. The geotechnical bore samples were taken on September 17. Starting at that point the actual tower construction will be documented on a separate web page.

- Footnotes -

1 For a personal perspective see Life in a Digital Ghetto.

2 At this request of this WISP (personal communication 2015-06-29) I have not named them explicitly. If you're one of the residents in this immediate area you will know who they are, and if not the specific identity of this WISP is irrelevant. While I found that WISP inadequate for my purposes (I was a customer for a couple of years), they have long provided the only affordable Internet access for many of my neighbors.

3 We've gone months at a time with no service interruptions. But, during the period June 15 to June 23 we had interruptions totaling over 16 hours of complete outage, effectively shutting down the home office here for several days. The T-1 line runs through 40,000 feet of overhead cable and two "doublers" (electronic gadgets to amplify the signal) to the Verizon Central Office (CO) south of Buckeystown; a Wi-Fi link to a WISP will span about the same distance. But, the T-1 cables run through wooded areas and are subject to treefalls and evil cable-gnawing squirrels; the Wi-Fi link will traverse only clear air. It should be more reliable than the T-1.

4 Plain Old Telephone Service, an industry acronym for traditional landline phone service.

5 TL;DR: Verizon wants to get out of the residential/consumer wireline business entirely, and is neglecting the wireline ("UTP" or "copper", the overhead phone lines running to our homes) infrastructure. This is a well documented objective, see for instance Verizon To Exit Wireline Business Within 10 Years. That wireline service won't be shut down immediately once Verizon succeeds in ditching it, but it will go to a "value extraction" business like Century Link that is unlikely to extend or improve that service. Rumor has it Century Link wants to acquire only the commercial wireline business, and Verizon is insisting that Century Link take over residential service as well. The T-1 line is a commercial service, but is also the only such service in this immediate area and thus will also be vulnerable when the plug is inevitably pulled on the residential service that uses the same copper infrastructure.

6 Some but not all communications towers are registered with the FCC.

7 Not only was it more fun to see the drone in action, and get digital photos and video, but it also cost me only $500 instead of a thousand dollars or so for a crane rental. I talked to one crane operator who wasn't even sure he could get his crane into the necessary position on our property; I would have had to use another service with an all-terrain crane.

8 The fixed tower structure will be 140' tall, with a rotating mast extending an additional 8' higher that will carry three ham radio antennas (an HF beam antenna, a UHF/VHF Yagi, and a multi-band vertical). The entire antenna structure can be used as an antenna on the 160m band, via a gamma shunt feed. The parabolic Wi-Fi antenna will be attached to the fixed tower at a lower height as there needs to be some separation between the different kinds of antennas to avoid interference.

9 Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio frequencies, in what is known as the ISM (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Within the allowed power levels, anyone is allowed to transmit on those frequencies and no specific use or users have any exclusivity. There is no legal means for one permitted unlicensed user to prevent interference from any other permitted unlicensed use, even if the result is that both desired uses are ruined. As a result WISPs tend to operate in de facto territories and try to avoid competing in the same geographical location, as a failure to informally coordinate use of that unlicensed spectrum leaves everyone worse off.

10 Strictly speaking a WISP is not required; Wi-Fi technology isn't rocket science, the hardware is pretty affordable, and any enterprising neighbor could lease space on a commercial tower (I talked to a couple of tower owners; that's what those towers are for) and manage both ends of the connection. But, that neighbor won't be me as I already manage five companies in some capacity; I don't need the headaches of another no matter how small.

11 Needless to say I'm more than a little leery of putting all my eggs in one basket, especially when that basket is going to cost some $25,000. So I did research the possibility of utilizing WISPs other than Telegia or the incumbent WISP. I concluded that while it would be preferable to use a nearby local WISP, there are other options as a fallback.

12 Long story short, federal regulations preempt local restrictions on ham radio antennas 46 CFR 97.15(b). This is also known as PRB-1. There is a comparable type of exception for windmill towers. But, a windmill would interfere with antennas and would have a huge windload that would drive up the cost of the tower substantially.

13 One other neighbor is a licensed ham radio operator (it's easy enough to check). However, that ham's property isn't any more promising as a tower site than mine.

14 We don't get a usable cell signal inside the house here. I converted all our landlines to VoIP (Voice over IP) shortly after getting the T-1 line; VoIP is far cheaper (which matters when you have 10 phone numbers like I do) and as reliable. I have kept one POTS line for calling Level 3 (our T-1 service provider) when the T-1 line goes down. The POTS line tends to fail about as often as the T-1 line, though fortunately not always at the same time.

15 That's a half-mile radius for a direct link from a CPE radio to the WISP micro-POP antennas. The range could be extended further with multiple hops (from micro-POP antenna to one CPE radio to another CPE radio, and so on). But, those extra hops inevitably degrade the quality of the Wi-Fi service, as do obstructions (foliage) between any two nodes.

16 I don't know the exact cost because that is a function of two factors: the cost of the tower "package" (the above ground metal structure) and the foundation. The foundation will need thousands of dollars of concrete and fabricated rebar, but I won't have an exact design until I commit to purchase of the tower package and pay for the geotechnical soil report. That report alone will cost at least $1,500. Only at that point will I have a complete design from which to estimate total tower costs. However, from several iterations with Rohn of tentative tower designs I have a pretty good feel for how the cost varies, and that is quite sensitive to the total EPA ("Effective Projected Area") of the antennas.

17 Unless a second backhaul antenna was installed on the tower, one for the old WISP serving the micro-POP and one for the new WISP providing us with Wi-Fi service. Depending on the location of the destination tower hosting the new WISP coexistence of those antennas may not be possible, and the tower may not be able to accommodate the additional wind load. Two full-coverage 2.4GHz micro-Pops would definitely not be able to coexist on the same tower.

18 Our T-1 service is under a three year contract that comes up for renewal in December 2016, or $9,000 from now. Nominally that contract can't be terminated prematurely, and I'd assumed I'd be stuck with it no matter what. However, a well-placed Verizon source recently informed me that because of the high ongoing costs of maintaining my T-1 service, I would indeed be allowed to terminate early. So if I move expeditiously to build this tower this summer instead of moving leisurely as originally planned I could save another $5-7K.

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