Rural Broadband, Picture Essay

I awoke to a beautiful day today, with that special kind of appreciation for nice weather that native Midwesterners have.    We live through four seasons and all the joys and hazards that each one brings, so it is especially nice when we get a breezy, temperate day that is perfect for doing things outside in our beautiful surroundings.

Here is the farm where I live:

This is where I live

We have 40 or so acres of land between Mitchell and Scottsbluff, Nebraska.   Spring Creek is 20 feet from my front door and the North Platte river is a stone’s throw to the West.   This farm was originally a timber claim and the Mormon Trail went through it.    There are references to emigrants stopping here to refresh themselves and their animals in the creek before traveling west again on the long journey to Utah.

My wife’s father, who had served as a Marine on the USS Arizona before World War 2, built the house we live in with his own hands.  My mother in-law lives in the house next door to us, which was built before 1900 and belonged to one of the early families that settled this part of the country.   This is not the farm and ranch where I grew up, but there is a strong connection to this land, the people that were here before us and the future that we have in front of us.

The wrong side of the tracks!

So what does that have to do with broadband?

My wife and I both have businesses that rely on fast, reliable Internet connectivity.   If we want to continue to live here, we need to have access to broadband.   When it comes to wireline access of the kind that is supported by USF or delivered by a cable Internet provider, we are on the wrong side of the tracks, specifically the Burlington Northern railroad tracks at the end of our driveway.

There is no fiber to our homes, and won’t be at any point in the near future.  The cost to run fiber across the railroad right of way and down to our two homes would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.   Even with massive government subsidies, it is not going to happen.

The copper telephone wire to our houses is barely suitable for voice – it was sometimes down for days after heavy rains – and has no DSL capability.   Not that I would want to use something as slow and unreliable as DSL, but you would think that a company like CenturyLink that receives something like 45% of its annual revenue from USF would be able to find the coin to fix the problem.

Charter cable is available to the houses on the other side of these tracks.   But not to us, and probably not any time soon.   My guess is that there are another 30-40 homes on the south side of the tracks between the highway and the river that are not going to get fiber anytime soon because of the expensive costs to build out and low density.

Fixed Terrestrial Wireless (FTW) For The Win!

Fear not for us though, because fixed terrestrial wireless (FTW) is providing all of the speed and reliability that we need, for a fraction of the cost and with no government subsidy!

The round, white antenna on the rooftop is a Ubiquiti NanoBridge radio shooting to a radio tower on the ridge in the background.   If you look really close, you can see the FM tower that the access point is installed on.   Our house is one of nearly 400 within a 15 mile radius of the tower that gets high speed Internet service from Vistabeam.

This radio is the third one to grace our rooftop since we moved to this house.   The first was a Tranzeo 2.4ghz model that was capable of solid 1 meg speeds.    The second was a StarOS unit that could get up to 8meg.   The current generation of the Ubiquiti AirMax platform that Vistabeam uses is capable of up to 50meg to end users, but maxes out at about 20meg in the configuration that we are using on this tower.   In a place where DSL tops out at 1meg (in the places where the copper is usable) we have 20x more speed and it is faster than the speeds that Charter is offering to the houses across the road.

There is real broadband, and then there is "Toy Broadband"

But what about all of these fancy mobile broadband networks that the cell phone companies are setting up?   You see lightning bolts and fancy robots and cute girls in pink dresses talking about how fast their “4G” networks are.   All I have to say is this – Lets Get Real.

I have the fanciest phone, fastest available mobile broadband plan (3G) and service with the one provider that has reliable coverage at my house.    Running speed tests from my cellular broadband and fixed wireless broadband connections to the exact same server at the exact same time produced the results you can see in the picture.

I was a little disappointed in the fixed wireless speedtest because it averages 18-24 to our network center, but this sort of thing happens with offsite speed tests that include all the variables of the Internet backbone.   The biggest surprise to me was that the mobile network was this fast.   Apparently Saturday morning is a low usage period because it almost never gets faster than about 768kbps.   Even with the decent speed results (for 3G) check out the latency.   55ms for the FTW and 300ms for the 3G network.   Try running a VPN or VOIP over a 300ms connection and see if it really feels like broadband.   I can tell you this – my rooftop radio lost ethernet after a power spike during a thunderstorm, forcing me to use the 3G.   After 45 minutes of that hell, I climbed up on the roof in the rain and put up a replacement radio because the 3G network kept dropping my VPN and ssh connections.    I don’t want to even think about how miserable it is for people who only have 3G available to them.   Ugh.

There is one thing that the mobile companies are doing a great job on – overhyping their “toy broadband” with advertising!  At a recent broadband forum in Gering, NE, I ran 15 speed tests in a row from my cell phone that never got over 640kbps and all of which failed to meet the government definition of broadband.   Verizon advertises this service on the National Broadband Map as having a speed of 4meg down.  Who is in charge of verifying those speeds anyway?   If all you use is Twitter, Facebook and email, “toy broadband” is probably fine.   But it is not real broadband.

When it comes to delivering broadband to rural areas, mobile broadband shouldn’t even be in the picture.    Mobile “toy broadband” is slow and expensive to deploy.   DSL is obsolete, the copper infrastructure is decaying and now it is more expensive to maintain it than to just put in fiber.   Fiber is great, but it is also expensive to deploy and as you can see from my situation, there are places where it is going to be too expensive.   Fixed wireless is the perfect solution to our rural broadband needs.

I for one, am thankful that I have the ability to own and operate a business like Vistabeam.   By filling the coverage gaps and providing competitive alternatives to landline and mobile providers, WISPs using fixed wireless are doing the work that USF is supposed to be enabling, even as that money is used against them.

Plus, we get some great views of nature.   Here are a few shots taken from my front yard and from our tower sites.   Enjoy!

Summer Sunset over Spring Creek

Looking into Wyoming from one of our tower sites

Purple Mountain Majesties – Laramie Peak at Sunset from Rifle Site Pass

Pink Moon over Spring Creek at Sunrise


3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. This is a great testimonial for vistabeam.
    Shows they are providing a very good, professional service.
    Well done to them.

  2. Brian Harris,

    Nice work Matt. Do you have any fears that the latest regulatory fandango in DC to “eliminate the PTSN” will have any impact on your business?

    • I don’t think it is going to have much if any impact on what we do. The worst impact would be if USF money is used by our competitors (RLECs and ILECs) to build out infrastructure on the taxpayer dime. That is my biggest fear.


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