All Hail the Feudal Lords of our Data

A recent article by Bruce Schneier outlined many of the issues that have been bothering me about the relationships that we have with the companies that build and develop our smartphones, tablets, online applications and operating systems.

I don’t have any Apple devices, but I spend much of my day using Google/Android, Windows and Facebook systems and Amazon makes regular deliveries to my office.   The relationships between these entities probably look magical to some people, but scare the heck out of me.   I changed my Facebook profile/background picture the other day, and was greeted the next morning with those pictures staring out at me from three different Windows 8 computers when I went to login.   A Google search for recommended modifications for my crapcan Acura racecar that was bought at an impound auction turned into a barrage of car ads for the new Acura TLX on nearly every website I went to for the next ten days.   Facebook has become nearly useless for anything beyond filling leftover time, as it pumps out the “optimal” news stories and ads to appeal to my demographic profile while the updates and news from my thoughtful friends gets crowded out by wingnuttery and hysterical evangelical propaganda.

My least favorite relationship is the one between my smartphone, my tablet and Google/app developers.  I tried to fight with Android over user permissions but finally just gave up.   Two different apps that let me establish at least partial control over what apps had access to hardware on the phone (location, cameras, microphones and such) just quit working and caused my tablet to randomly reboot until I finally deinstalled them.  If a nutjob employee at Facebook, Twitter, Google or one of many other app developers that asked for access to camera/microphone/contact list/location information/etc during app installation wanted to listen to my conversations, watch me through my cameras, download my contact lists or track my comings and goings through the location features, they can do it and I don’t have any control over it!    No one is interested in me, but I would be scared if I were a celebrity.  I finally resorted to putting a piece of tape over the camera and shutting off location services manually on a regular basis, until some app asks for them again and the dance starts all over.   The lack of granular user control over data sharing and access to hardware features, combined with the insidious way that apps request access and then refuse to work if you don’t grant everything they ask for is disturbing to me at the most basic level.    It might be time for the same kind of warning labels for smartphones that you see on cigarettes:

Attorney General’s Warning:   By using this Android device, you agree to let all installed apps, Google and your service provider access your cameras, microphones, location information, passwords, pictures, documents, text messages and anything else that they feel like any time they want without your knowledge.

In the interest of fairness, Apple and Microsoft are not much better – they might even be worse in some ways – I just have a lot more direct experience with Android.

The thing that worries me the most is the loss of independence and resiliency that these feudal systems are encouraging.   Many small ISPs, enterprises, school systems and government entities have outsourced their IT needs to Google or Microsoft.   Data that used to be on a hard drive in the back room, tended to by a local employee is now out there “in the cloud” somewhere.    It is the WalMart-ization of data – one job at the corporate headquarters killed off a hundred sysadmin jobs and the gravity of the cloud continues to draw power, capacity and influence inward from the edges toward a monolithic center under the guise of efficiency and cost savings.   All it cost was local self-determinism and independence.

All hail our feudal masters!

LTE-U and Harm Claim Thresholds

There will be more to come from me on this subject, a lot more.

For right now, here a link to today’s ISP Radio show where I appeared with Jack Unger to talk about the potential impact of LTE-Unlicensed on WISPs and a new spectrum policy concept called Harm Claim Thresholds that could change the way WISPs utilize spectrum.

(Just click on the archive link and download the December 11, 2014 show link.)


Starving the Beast

The best way to deal with bad behavior is to stop paying the players who are either not delivering what you want or are treating you poorly and either support the ones who are doing a better job or start your own.

My own personal example is the way that the independent ISPs were treated by the phone/cable companies.   I was front and center at that bloodbath, watching my DSL margins and customers taken away when the telcos decided to wipe out competition in DSL.    The independent providers were forced into little niches and the bigger ones consolidated or were wiped out when they couldn’t compete.   All the “regulation” in the world was not enough to save the CLECs and independent ISPs, and more regulation will have the same result – it won’t help.    Net Neutrality advocacy is a crybaby tactic – we want our open Internet WAAAHHH!!! – and expecting government regulation to resolve the problem is a delusion shared by many smart and otherwise thoughtful people who think that government has the power to make a difference on this subject.

The big players are better at gaming the system, so the best way to deal with it is to play a different game.    The way to kill the beast is to starve the beast.   Take the money out of the system.   Instead of whining about how they treat you, punch them right in the face!

When I started my WISP in 2004, I made a conscious effort to completely avoid any long term contracts or dependencies on the telcos.   Even when it meant building 120 miles worth of microwave backhaul to break out of a telco “hostage situation”, or watching a customer base of 800 in one area dwindle down to 100 over 18 months.   Putting in the extra work to build my own infrastructure and keep revenues in house limited my gross revenue potential but meant that my margins were higher and that I was no longer dependent on companies that wanted to see me fail.   Within 12 months, I was making more net revenue from 100 customers on my own fixed wireless infrastructure than I made with 800 customers on dialup and DSL over telco copper.

So lets do a little thought exercise.   There are about 3 million WISP customers in the US.  Average customer revenue per month is about $50.    That is $150 million dollars a month taken out of the pockets of the telcos/cablecos.    That is $1.8 billion a year.   WISPA coordinated lobbying efforts in 2012 took $55 million in CAF funding out of the pockets of CenturyLink alone.   Now CenturyLink is targeting WISPs not because we are taking their customers (been doing that for years) but because their government funding is at risk.

I relish every opportunity I get to take money away from the telcos after what they did to me and so many of my colleagues.  Helping create a trade association and being part of an industry that is taking BILLIONS of dollars away from the telcos makes me very proud.

I Don’t Need a Gigabit at Home and Neither Do You

All of the discussions about “Gigabit Internet” and coming up with uses for it focuses too much on the American obsession with “bigger, faster, moar!” while obscuring what I feel are the more important issues of accessibility, affordability, choice of provider, freedom from data exploitation and dependency on the cloud.   To wit….

Accessibility – The most important element of networking is accessibility to the network.   Gigabit networks do nothing to resolve this, and draw focus away from the bigger issue of accessibility for people and businesses in places that have limited or no access.    100% accessibility to reliable 5meg connections has more ultimate utility than even 50% access to gigabit.   The power, utility and benefit to society of networks increases with the number of connected nodes and persons on the network.    There is too much focus on the magical quest for a Holy Grail of networks for the few blessed souls to drink from when the more important need is cups of clean water for everyone to drink from.

Affordability – This point refers to affordability on both sides of the provider/consumer equation.  The focus on Gigabit-capable networks effectively excludes all current non-fiber broadband delivery systems and forces a provider to have set of deployment skills, capital requirements and political relationships that are very difficult to put together unless many compromises are made along the way.   Nearly every fiber deployment model requires a per-connection threshold of $100/month of revenue to cash flow and a take rate greater than 50%.    The networks that don’t meet this requirement end up being dependent on outside capital (investment or Google Bucks) or government subsidy/support to remain viable.   Consumers are looking for the cheapest price possible, but the telecoms have gamed the system to make consumers think they are paying less, when in reality they are paying more through taxes, bundles of services that they don’t need or allowing outside parties to monitor their traffic and behavior.   What is the REAL cost of an economically sustainable, non-government funded, unencumbered with data mining Gigabit fiber broadband connection?  Would consumers actually pay that price?   Those are two questions that desperately need to be answered to get a true perspective.

Choice of Provider – Without competition there is stagnation, rent seeking, abuse of power and entropy.    The common thought is that once fiber is installed to an area, that is the end game so all of our efforts should be to get fiber to every household/business/teepee/mud hut in the world, as fast as we can and no matter what it costs.    But those costs are high, and there are very useful alternatives that are equally capable (for nearly all practical purposes) and cost a fraction as much to deploy or have already been deployed.   Let those alternatives be deployed, and let the consumer make the choice.   The focus on gigabit obscures choice, and draws attention away from more affordable and sustainable methodologies that can make a bigger difference and provide choice for the end user.   If we had more choice, we also would not have the issues that we have with Net Neutrality.   If you don’t like how your ISP treats you, switch!   Broadband doesn’t have to be a universal human right, but every person should have the ability to stop sending money to a bad provider in favor of one that works better for them.

Freedom from Data Exploitation – Online usage, browsing habits, location data and product purchasing information is already being monitored to a disturbing degree.    Cell phones are constantly collecting information and feeding it to corporate data analysis engines, but the terms of this monitoring and tracking is a given – a necessary trade off for most people who are unwilling to forego the functionality and services offered on modern smart phones.    Google Fiber has the ability to take this data mining to a completely different level.   Google will have the ability to track every single packet of data that goes through its network and control over the devices in the home used to deliver that service.   How intrusive can data-mining become?   There are already disturbing hints of what we can expect in the future.   My grandmother has a funny picture of myself, my sister and a cousin playing in our underwear in a mud puddle when I was 5 years old.   If someone were to take that picture today with a smart phone, there is a risk that image recognition software could consider this to be child abuse/pron and flag the user.   That is the tip of the iceberg, and gives no consideration for the other potential abuses of granular data collection that will be taking place on monitored networks.   This is part of the hidden cost of Google Fiber or the mobile broadband networks, and is implicit in their utilization.   Users should be able to recover some of their privacy.   The right to monitor personal data at the granular level should not be built into our networks.

Dependency on the Cloud – Gigabit fiber networks are also being pushed because they are the keys to “The Cloud” being ubiquitously available.   Companies like Google, Amazon, Neflix, et. al. want to see Gigabit connectivity to every household because it makes their business models work better.    Google Fiber is optimized to provide the user with the best possible experience for using Google services, and those services are dependent on the connection back to their server resources.   Is it just me or does this sound like the mainframe mindset coming back around again?   Before personal computers, there were single purpose connections back to centralized computer resources.   The PC broke that stranglehold and moved computing power back out to the edge, unleashing a torrent of innovation.    Now we have super powerful pocket computers that are basically a tiny warm brick if they are not connected to “the Cloud” and the desire for instantaneous streaming of video and offsite data storage for photos and videos has pushed broadband networks to the limit, especially at peak usage times.    The independence of the personal computer era is being replaced with dependencies, closed models and congested networks.    When it comes to suitability of purpose, a 10meg connection is just as good as a gigabit connection for nearly all practical purposes.   I have a gigabit connection at my office and a 10meg connection at home.   I use the 10meg connection more and see little or no difference between the two.   But I also do try to maintain my own “cloud” of information that does not live on someone else’s servers – it lives on my own hardware and access to it is not controlled by any outside party or scanned and monitored for behavioral data or advertising purposes.    10meg works just fine for streaming Netflix, Youtube and the like even when three family members are using it at the same time.    I do video conferencing, sizable uploads and downloads and I work from home a lot.     Everyone wants a gigabit connection for $40/month, but not very many are going to be willing to pay $4000/month.

Where do we need gigabit connections?   They work great for feeding alternate providers like WISPs and small fiber carriers.   The gigabit connection at my office is used to provide service to 2000+ customers of my wireless broadband business and rarely gets over 50% utilization even at peak hours.   It also costs over $4000/month, but it is unencumbered by overprovisioning, is not data mined at the subscriber level and is not government subsidized.    It allows me to build a sustainable network that provides 10Meg or better speeds to a huge rural area that covers three states without a need for constant government support or massive influxes of outside cash into the business.   I can provide a CHOICE for the people in my coverage area, and the business I get is because of the quality of the product that I provide instead of the quality of my political connections or ability to milk our regulatory system.

There will be a time when it will make sense to have a gigabit fiber connection to every possible location, but that time is not now, and the price is not right.   Our progress as a society and future as a species is not dependent on big pipes.   There is nothing wrong with dreaming on ideas, but the most powerful dreams and concepts are the ones that are inclusive and provide opportunities for everyone and not just a chosen few.

Writing Time…

As you can tell from the sparseness of my posts here, I have not been devoting a lot of time to writing.   Like many WISPs, my business is evolving rapidly and there has been a constant cycle of equipment upgrades and repairs, far too much winter weather for my tastes and all of the other assorted trials and tribulations that small businesses face.   However, I have finally reached a point where I feel like I can take some time off and work on other things, so I am going to tackle something I have wanted to do for a long time.

I am writing a book about Wireless Internet Service Providers.

I am going to tell the story about how I became a WISP, the people I have met along the way, the amazing things that WISPs have done and what I think the future holds.   I have not written anything over about 20 pages and my college journalism classes are a distant memory, but I am going to get on with it and see how far I can get.   I will most likely share a few excerpts here and I would certainly welcome stories from others that are in the WISP business.

I appreciate everyone who has been reading this and am looking forward to this new project!


WISPs and Online Video

I did a series of phone interviews with Jimmy Schaeffler last month before the WISPAPALOOZA show.   The focus of his topic was how WISPs could take advantage of and help forward the cable-cutting movement by embracing online video.   Here is a link to a story that he recently published in Multichannel News about WISPs:

(of note – I am in Scottsbluff, NE (Nebraska), not Council Bluffs, NB (New Brunswick) – the former journalist in me had to point that out!)

Thanks Jimmy!


The WISP Tower

I have several locations where we have had to make do with improvised deployments that have ranged from a big pipe in the ground with dishes on it to pulling our nice converted COW trailer to a pasture in Wyoming to establish connectivity into a town and having to leave it in place for almost a year.    The improvised setups have worked okay, but there are limits to how far you can go up in the air when you can’t put in a solid concrete base for a tower – and our COW is overkill and really too expensive and useful to have sitting in a pasture for a year.   Also, I have run into situations where a county or town expects to have a building permit pulled before putting a tower in place, even a short 30’ tower.   Which is a pain.

Over the last few months, I have been working with a local manufacturing company to design and build a heavy duty, semi-portable tower system for use in places where there is no existing infrastructure.    The idea is that we can take this unit out, deploy it in a short period of time and be able to leave it at a location indefinitely.   It also had to be stable enough to hold a 30’ tower with multiple backhaul dishes and access point antennas and simple enough that a two man crew could put it up without any special tools or equipment needed.

Prototype Tower

Prototype Tower

Our prototype unit was rushed into service in July when we had to find an alternate way to feed a town in Wyoming.   All we had available to us was a hilltop that had line of sight to the town and one of our towers which was 28 miles away.   There was no power available for miles, nearly solid rock on the top of the hill and very limited accessibility – five miles of cow trails and a very steep final incline to get to the top of the hill.    Putting in a typical tower was going to be nearly impossible, and we really needed to get 20’ of elevation to make the paths work well.    The prototype ended up working out perfectly.   It took two of us about four hours to get the tower put up, dishes and backhaul radios installed and the site fully operational on a battery pack.   It then took another four hours the next day to get a solar power plant installed and fencing put up around the site to keep curious antelope from chewing on the wires.    After three months, everything is working perfectly.

Last month, we put up the first of the production units on a hilltop in Nebraska.   We had a potential customer that was using HughesNet at home to run her good-sized consulting business and was desperate for a good Internet connection.  We couldn’t get a connection to her house from our nearest AP, but she had a hilltop on her farmland nearby that not only had a good path to two of our towers, it also had good potential as a access point location for quite a few potential customers that were shadowed from the other wireless ISPs in the area as well as the mobile operators.

First Production Tower

The first production tower, operational in less than four hours.

The production tower went up remarkably easy.   It took us only two hours to go from unhooking the trailer from the pickup to full deployment of the 25′ tall tower with antennas mounted and wires run.   It took us another hour to get the solar panels and batteries hooked up, and another 45 minutes or so of antenna alignment, so total deployment time from start to finish was under four hours.   The first customer was installed a week later and within another ten days, all of our traffic to this town was re-routed to go through this tower because it was two hops closer to our local fiber connection in this area.

Four hours to get a broadband facility may not sound like anything special, but it is a pretty remarkable achievement.    Putting up a tower is usually a done over a period of months.   Site negotiations, power planning, tower engineering, permitting, environmental studies, ordering the hardware, pouring concrete, waiting for the concrete to cure, configuring the wireless equipment and finally installation of the facilities are all items that take a long period of time to get completed.  A typical cell tower deployment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and takes months.   Our WISP microcell tower was put up in a day and cost well under $10,000.   In the future, we can deploy a new broadband facility within 48 hours and start installing customers as soon as the backbone connection is established.   The portable tower is extremely low maintenance and very sturdy.   Our operational history indicates that we should only have to replace batteries once every 3-4 years.   The ability to drop a fully functional tower into place in a matter of days is a powerful weapon for a WISP to have.

I am very excited about the potential for these new tower setups.   They will make excellent microcell platforms, for clusters of customers who cannot get service from a traditional tower setup due to distance or vegetation.   Our tower in Wyoming is the endpoint of a perfect example of telco bypass – hooking up the last 35 miles of a telephone company bypass network that stretches across two states and 185 miles and provides the equivalent performance of a $4000/month DS3 connection.   Other uses for this type of tower setup include temporary installations for special events and emergency network deployments in disaster areas.

One of the biggest advantages of the fixed wireless/wisp model is flexibility and speed of deployment.   The WISP Tower is a tool that will enhance both of these features and open up many new possibilities for WISPs.

FCC OIAC Annual Report Released

The FCC released the OIAC Annual Report today.   I mention this because I represented WISPA on the OIAC and contributed to the Transparency and Mobile Broadband sections of the report.    Here is a link:

I would be happy to answer any questions about the report or discuss topics of relevance from the report.

Matt Larsen

The Finish Line is In Sight!

I spent some time today working on an equipment order and decided to run a report to see what upgrades we had left to do at any of our smaller tower sites to go along with the projects on our work schedule.    What I found was that I am about $17,000 and three months of work from the finish line, and I thought that was something worth celebrating.

Let me explain…

I look at network upgrades kind of like I look at my email inbox.   More stuff is always going to show up and have to be dealt with, but two or three times a year I get to the end of my inbox and there is no email there that requires my attention.     The next day, the inbox starts to fill up again, but I always take a little bit of time to feel like I got caught up.

Vistabeam is coming up on our tenth year in business, and it seems like it has been a life of constant upgrades and expansion.   We started out with three towers fed by T1 lines and are now at 114 different AP or BH locations with 2500+ miles of microwave backhaul.   To say that the expansion was uneven and not always well planned would be an accurate.    There was a lot of learning and experimenting that went on throughout that time, and the messes did not always get cleaned up right away.    Throughout that time, the business evolved and one of the important steps in that evolution was to clean up all of the messes right down to the last lonely repeater.

I am really proud of the progress that we have made over the last year.   We made a concerted effort to put adequate, monitored battery backups and power controllers at all of our sites, documented the network with a very detailed database, replaced old StarOS backhauls with Mikrotiks and overloaded Mikrotiks with licensed links, added AP capacity where it was needed, setup our NOC with a backup generator, moved the majority of our servers to a pair of XEN servers with a NAS and revised our customer plans to eliminate all sub-1meg speed packages.   Doesn’t sound like that much, but when you are dealing with 2500+ customers spread out across three states and ten years of accumulated errors and omissions – it is a pretty sizeable challenge.

Anyway, it feels good to finally be at the point where it looks like there will be a day, sometime before the end of the year, when I will be able to look at the to-do list and see that there isn’t anything on it.

Free Public WIFI and Externalities

I have been digesting the discussions about open wifi access points and the recent Free Public Wifi debates that came up after Cecilia Kang’s Washington Post article and I think I finally came up with a good way to express my grave concerns with the idea.

The continued use of inexpensive fossil fuels leads to the unintended consequences of global warming and the degradation of our environment, and the same goes for the concept of free shared public wifi access.   Shared free access leads to an increase in utilization of network infrastructure with no economic benefit to the network provider.   I recognize that there are going to be situations where free wifi access is considered to be an economic benefit (McDonalds, Starbucks, etc) but in those situations the entity providing it would be reasonably expected to be purchasing a commercial grade connection in order to deliver that service.    One person with an open wifi connection on a residential account, sharing it with their neighbors, is taking potential customers away from the provider while increasing the oversubscription ratio of their network.   This will eventually lead to performance degradation, increased prices or both, so FREE is anything but.   Free public wifi is the equivalent of global warming on our broadband infrastructure.

A network operator has to face the massive increase in demand for bandwidth and pay the bills to upgrade infrastructure, while facing stagnant or declining revenues.    This is a daunting task to deal with already, so encouraging people to share their connections is more carbon based fuel thrown on the fire.

Nothing is free!