That’s a great question. Let’s talk about the answer.
In a word, yes. There’s a lot of precedent out there for how to do this. Several companies specialize in building equipment designed for small wireless networks just like ours, and they have years of experience doing it.
If you’re interested in your own research, search for WISP (which stands for Wireless Internet Service Provider). You’ll find hundreds across the country, in both huge cities (like in San Francisco) and small ones (like the Doe Bay Internet Users up on Orcas Island). The model works, but it takes funding and a user community to make it work. Even Google is getting into the game in bigger cities, announcing that wireless Internet is how they plan to deliver faster connections in the city.
How it works
The network has three main parts: a high speed wireless connection between an Internet provider and Mt Jupiter; a few antennas on Mt Jupiter; and a small antenna installed on your house/pole/tree.
We’re working with a commercial provider to build and maintain a high capacity link to the Internet that we can grow over time. At launch, our goal is to have at least 1000 mbps of capacity available, with the ability to add more when needed.
Our Internet connection is likely to come from the Kitsap County PUD as a wholesale Internet service. Our connection across the Hood Canal will be built and operated by a microwave provider that specializes in point-to-point links and has experience with other small community networks here in Washington. They’ll be responsible for monitoring and operation, ensuring we have a stable and reliable connection to the Internet at the tower.
From there, we pick up the service.
Mt Jupiter Network
The Mt Jupiter tower is owned by a local resource management company. We will be leasing tower space and data center space. In return, they provide power from a solar system and diesel generator that keeps us online 24 hours a day.
We’ll be installing roughly a half dozen small antennas on the towers plus a battery backup system that gives us several days of additional backup power. That helps ensure the network is always on, even when winter storms roll through.
Customer Equipment (CPE)
The final component is a small radio installed at your house. Just like a satellite dish, it’s got a highly directional antenna pointed at your nearest access point, which could be Mt Jupiter or a smaller relay station near your house. Once your antenna is installed, and your link light turns on, you’ll give our team a call to enable your account and be online.
If you have line of sight to Mt Jupiter, your antenna will range in size from a large flood light (~5”) to a 24” dish (a bit larger than your satellite TV dish). The further you are, the larger the dish. Costs range from ~$100 to ~$200, and the equipment takes almost no experience to install - just a screwdriver, an Ethernet cord, a ladder, and a clear day.
If you can’t see the tower, you’ll likely need to connect via a relay (see more below). If you’re close to the relay, your antenna may be even smaller - about the size of a small paperback book.
You’ll own the equipment, which means no monthly “box fees” to pay.
What’s more, all of the equipment is outdoor rated (we’ve had one unit outside in Brinnon and it’s worked flawlessly for more than 2 years), so you don’t have to worry about protecting it.
How fast will it be?
If you want to get a taste, try the WiFi at the community center. It’s roughly the same speed that we’ll provide subscribers of the personal plan. Business service will be roughly twice as fast. Our goal is to maintain a minimum of 25 mbps upload and download to every customer all the time.
Your download speeds will be comparable to the national average (per the FCC). Your upload speeds will be significantly faster than average (double the speed of ISPs in the city). Most Internet companies limit your upload, which means uploading those photos takes longer.
If the network isn’t busy, we’ll also allow you to burst up to the maximum bandwidth available. That means you may see individual speeds up to 250 mbps (depending on distance). While we can’t guarantee that sort of speed all the time, when you are bursting, you’ll faster than the best ISPs in America.
As a point of comparison, DSL in Brinnon is 8 mbps download, 0.768 mbps upload. Our service would be more than 3x faster download, and 25x faster upload. If you use LTE or Satellite, you usually get no more than 12 mbps download and 3 mbps upload, so our service would be 2x faster downloading and ~8x faster uploading.
What about those who can’t see the tower?
We know a lot of people don’t have line of sight to the tower, either because they have trees in the way or terrain obscures their view. For those users, we’ll be working to install relay stations, which use a pair of radios to “bounce” the signal. Using a relay helps us span longer distances without losing speed or performance.
A great example are the Marina slips. They’re in the shadow of Mt Jupiter, but we can bounce a signal off of a tall tree at Black Point and back toward the docks. People would point their antennas toward the relay point, instead of the tower.
Each relay is pretty simple - two antennas and a small battery backup system to keep it online when the power goes out. The harder part is getting property owners to agree to installation. Once we have a better list of who is interested, we’ll decide where we need relays and start contacting owners about the possibility of installation.
Who will run the network?
Right now, we’re planning to staff the main tower with a combination of part-time professionals as well as members of the board of directors. Most of the time, we won’t need to do anything outside of monitoring that things are healthy and proactively upgrading equipment when units near their end of life.
Technical support and billing will be handled by a regional call center (we want to find a team that’s 100% based in the PNW), so you can get questions answered and handle billing issues 24x7.
Unlike other networks, our goal is to make this fully sustainable, and to model in the cost of maintaining equipment, upgrading technology, and extending our service to as many people as possible into our monthly subscriber costs. We believe that enables us to maintain a healthy business, and to return the savings back to customers in the form of lower monthly bills.
Our intent is to form a not-for-profit corporation that would provide the service, allowing us to avoid relying on public utility districts or for-profit providers to expand service, and ensuring the community remains in control (so we don’t get left in the cold again like we saw with DSL.)