It all started with a conversation between a software engineer and a retired database analyst. The software engineer (me) bought a house 35 minutes outside of downtown Reno, which may as well have been on the Moon.
When it comes to internet access, if you live mere miles outside of any urban or dense suburban area your options drop down to zero quickly. You are basically left with a few options: satellite, DIY line-of-sight wireless or if you're lucky, DSL. These options are usually expensive and hard to find, and in the case of satellite -- pretty much unusable.
I rely on internet access for work and it isn't unusual for me to need to transfer large files. When it comes to satellite internet access you have the compounding combination of high latency (it is going to space, after all), low usage caps (25GB per month) and underwhelming speeds (<1Mbps). And you'll be paying a premium for this space age technology, including hundreds of dollars in equipment.
DIY line-of-sight wireless internet access is a good option if you can find it. This type of internet access is usually the result of someone fed up with the other options in their area. It relies on directional antennas with a direct line-of-sight between a tower and your location. This option is usually on the expensive side and coverage, speeds and reliability can very from provider to provider.
But neither were good options for me. Satellite was just too limiting and there weren't any DIY wireless providers in my sparsely populated valley. So I was in pursuit of DSL. This is where the story gets a little...strange.
Before I bought my house I had to make sure there was useable internet access, which drove my wife nuts. If we found a home that was perfect in every other way except for internet, we had to pass on it. My wife raised dairy goats, so we were looking at rural homes -- which flew in the face of finding decent internet.
One day we were driving out to Rancho Haven, which is a remote area outside of Reno on the California border. We were looking at a house so remote that it was a 50 minute drive to the nearest store, of any kind. Suffice to say, I wasn't hopeful about the internet situation there. The house was nice enough, nice panoramic windows and a large den. But the inevitable question, "So what is internet access like out here?" I asked the realtor.
"Oh, we use DSL out here." She said.
"DSL? Way out here? Who's the provider?"
"Some telephone company in Idaho. I'll call a neighbor and get you the name."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Never would have occurred to me to ask an Idaho ISP if they serve an area hundreds of miles away. But as it would turn out, there is indeed an ISP in Idaho serving rural areas in Idaho, Utah, Washington and Nevada. It was a provider I had never heard of before and seemingly only the rural residents of the areas they serve even know they exist. And that's largely via word-of-mouth out of necessity to get reasonably good DSL. Upon further digging I found out there were a handful of rural communities being served by this ISP, which greatly expand our search.
We eventually found a home, not quite as remote as Rancho Haven, served by this Idaho ISP and upon closing I signed up. It was a $150 one-time setup fee, $120 a month for 8mbps down and 768kbps up and a two year contract. Oh, and then the fine print: I needed a $40 a month AT&T landline. intrigued by this I called AT&T and asked them if they provide DSL in my area, sadly they did not but would happily provide the landline. So I was on the hook for $310 and would be paying $160 a month after that. that's pretty steep, I thought, but what alternative do I have?
Then it struck me. What if I could build one?
That's where the conversation with my retired database analyst father begins...
"So this Idaho ISP installed my DSL the other day. I'm paying $160 a month for 8mbps. That's $20 a megabit, if it was 1Gbps I'd be paying $20k a month! Living rural is expensive." I said.
"It doesn't get much better in poorer suburban areas," my father explained. "Here, outside of Las Vegas, I have one DSL provider and they know they're the only game in town, so the service is both expensive and unreliable."
"Really? Henderson is the second largest city in Southern Nevada, you'd think they'd have decent internet."
So I did. I started researching the options.
Building a wired ISP was a non-starter for a few reasons, the exorbitant expense and the monopolies. Most states in the U.S. have what are called "franchises". ISPs bid to become a franchise either at the state or county level and if awarded they basically have a monopoly in return for maintaining the infrastructure. A franchise is awarded for 5-10 years and is either renewed by the state/county if the ISP is doing a good job or another bidding period starts if there's a rival ISP petitioning the state/county. Typically there's a franchise for the telephone infrastructure and one for the cable infrastructure. The big ISPs tend to specialize in one or the other, as it would be unlikely to have a state/county award the same provider with both franchises in their area (a real monopoly at that point). So, for example, AT&T tends to focus on telephone franchises and Comcast focuses on cable franchises. Sadly, franchises rarely change hands, so the incumbents are very much entrenched. Building a wired ISP infrastructure is also very expensive. One of the reasons the incumbents are so successful at retaining their franchises is that a rival upstart ISP just doesn't have the resources to support a state or county's entire infrastructure, and those government bodies tend to favor bidders who are willing to take on that expense.
By this point I was starting to think like one of those DIY line-of-sight wireless providers that I mentioned earlier. And went pretty deep into researching high gain antennas and wireless bands in my area that are free for public use. But I knew that if I went down the DIY path I would really only be able to serve at most my immediate valley, as my budget was limited and I could only really afford the equipment for one tower antenna. Plus given the significant upfront expense I may have to price the service outside of the reach of those people I want to help.
I knew I had to think bigger. I wanted to build a wireless ISP that could reach not only my valley, but my entire state and maybe even the nation. So NetRango was born. More on how we achieved that goal in part two.