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Ask Slashdot: What Is the Best Way To Become a Rural ISP? 239

Posted by Soulskill
from the hit-the-lotto-and-then-buy-somebody-out dept.
hawkeyeMI writes "I live in a small, rural town nestled in some low hills. Our town has access to only one DSL provider, and it's pretty terrible. However, a regional fiber project is just being completed, and some of the fiber is in fact running directly past my house. Currently, there are no last-mile providers in my area, and the regional project only considers itself a middle-mile provider, and will only provide service to last-mile providers. Assuming this will not be my day job, that the local populace is rather poor, and that because of the hills, line-of-sight service will be difficult, how could I set myself up as an ISP? I have considered WiFi mesh networking, and even running wires on the power/telephone polls, but the required licensing and other issues are foreign to me. What would you do?"
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Ask Slashdot: What Is the Best Way To Become a Rural ISP?

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  • Connect to the fiber, and use it up for yourself.

    • I've seen the orange stripes on the pavement, &c. leading to the junction box across the street from the local software solution guys. (Four miles out of town and fifty yards down from the end of my driveway.) I've been trying to figure out how to approach them about just a leetle fiber tap for the home front.

    • think how fast his torrents will download

  • Find someone to help (Score:5, Informative)

    by ccguy (1116865) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:30AM (#41905559) Homepage
    Unless you really want to be a one person ISP, which seems like a recipe for disaster before you even begin, find someone else to help. To me it seems like there's 3 primary roles: a) Someone who bankrolls it, b) Someone how deals with bureaucracy (licenses of all kinds), and c) Someone who at least has some technical knowledge to figure everything out.

    I guess you'll hear stuff like "leave it to the ones to know to do it", etc. Fuck that. If there's an opportunity, willingness to learn, etc, go for it. Worst case scenario you will fail but probably will be the "one who knows how to do it" the next time.

    Good luck :-)
    • by pubwvj (1045960) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:38AM (#41905869)

      I completely and totally disagree with your seperation of roles. I have had several successful businesses over the decades, nearly half century, and I've fulfilled all three of those roles as well as more. Those three roles are not at all mutually exclusive.

      The question of whether to involve more people depends on how much time it will take to do things. That is to say coverage of the day. If you're setting up a neighborhood ISP and present it with the understanding that this is a part-time, Do-It-Yourself gig that you are sharing then you can probably do it all by yourself.

      I would suggest doing a repeater based WiFi type system. If you're in a rural area like we are you can probably find owners of local hill tops who would be willing to have a low profile, minimally visible, solar powered repeater stuck on their hill tops. Start with your own place. Expand to a line of site one. Add more

      As to the regulation requirements, it is all online. Go read the regulations. I am building an on-farm USDA inspected meat processing facility. This is a highly regulated industry. I spent a year reading all the regulations as well as a great many case studies and talking with other plant owners and managers online. When I went to get my permitting and regulations settled I already knew all the answers and sailed through the permitting process in one month. Understanding the law makes it so you have a better idea of how to design your system and how to move through the regulatory process.

      You may well find that there is a discussion group online about this. Google.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:07AM (#41905997)

        While you make a good point about how to learn about regulations and how to handle the process, you seem to have misunderstood the GP's point about the seperation of roles. He never said, or even implied, the rules were mutually exclusive. He merely provided a reasonable way of turning the problem into a couple smaller problems.

        The submitter seems aware of the limitations on his current skillset in both the technological and paperwork side of the business. Splitting the main problem into smaller ones introduces the option of bringing in a partner which would split the amount of knowledge that has to be gathered/learned. As you said yourself, learning about regulations is a lengthy process and if the submitter has a friend who would be interested in that, the submitter can fully focus on the technical choices.

        The submitter could easily both bankroll and do the technical side of the job, while the friend does the "paperwork". Or they could divide up the investment cost in any way that suits them, anything is possible.

        • by TubeSteak (669689) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @02:19PM (#41909959) Journal

          However the submitter decides to do it, he needs an accountant.
          And if he's getting help for free, two accountants. And no matter who's handling the money, trust but verify.

          My experience has been that people take failure better than any success where their money has been mishandled.
          The worst thing you can do in a small town is to screw up with other people's money.

      • by ccguy (1116865) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:31AM (#41906127) Homepage

        I completely and totally disagree with your seperation of roles.

        I'm not separating roles. I'm pointing out their need if the business is to succeed. One role doesn't mean one person. You can have one person do more than one or need more than one person to do just one.

        Those three roles are not at all mutually exclusive.

        If you mean in the same person, no. However the OP says he won't be giving up his day job which means that he will need to find someone else to finance the operation, and also means that he doesn't have a lot of time.

        The question of whether to involve more people depends on how much time it will take to do things.

        It also depends on what your abilities are. If you aren't a people person then you just need someone else do to what a people person does, or the business just won't succeed, unless you are a small eBay seller.

      • by rodrigoandrade (713371) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:45AM (#41906225)

        Hmm, I'm always suspicious of someone who "had several successful businesses." Did Ray Kroc or Sam Walton have "several successful businesses"??

      • by Razgorov Prikazka (1699498) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:58AM (#41906339)
        I couldn't agree more. Why not make it a community based movement?
        That is the way I would go. If I understand it correctly, this is a small, rather isolated community. Usually in those communities the social cohesion is much stronger and therefore people usually work together in order to get things done for that community.
        1 - get people together
        2 - decide what way to go (what kind of organisation to set up) in a democratic way.
        3 - Ask them to participate with money or getting their hands dirty (digging ditches for cable for example, if you choose not to go for wifi)
        4 - quit your day-job and be the (only?) paid employee (can you do tech / administration / tax-stuff / customer support / rest ?)
        5 - work hard and you will definitely succeed!

        You don't need 'google-sized' servers for this, a couple of x86-64 pc's with a bunch of NIC's should do the trick. I would love such an ISP, especially if you support Linux and BSD as well, and you can personally come over to grandma to set up her e-mail client for her. That way you can provide 200% of the service provided by normal ISP's for a fraction of the cost. Make a sound calculation of the costs including interconnection fee's, hardware costs, electricity, your wage etc.
        If you run it from a dedicated room in the house you could even use the wasted heat to warm your house (or tropical fish tank), provide courses for the 'not so technical' people and make yourself much more valued than you would in a normal day-job.
        Besides, having your own NOC down the hallway is just friking awesome! :-D
        Good luck!
        • Oh, forgot... If you are going to set up a network, why not interconnecting the nodes, and have it all on a VPN or a TORnet so everybody can be completely anonymous?
          Just a thought...
          • a vpn for a whole town would lead to a number of problem including baning you ip due to "suspicious activity from your ip" but i quiet like the route through tor idea but tor is fairly slow, I would however run a tor node at my ISP if i were him. also try giving people cheap/free static IP addresses. Also don't log where people go so the gov can show up and demand your logs of peoples traffic to catch suspected evil dirty pirates.

        • by CastrTroy (595695)
          Something like this would have been fun back in the 14.4k modem days. But I'm not sure how well this would work out in 2012. People expect way too much from their internet. Do they have a number they can call at 2 AM when it's not working? Running an ISP, even a small local one isn't a 1-3 person job at this point in time. If a switch dies do you have one on hand to replace it immediately, or does everyone go without internet for a day or two while you order a new one? Having n+1 redundancy is pretty b
          • by TubeSteak (669689)

            Unless it's a really geeky community, you aren't going to find a lot of people interested in digging cable ditches if they still have to spend the same amount of money every month on their bill, that is even assuming you could get the level of service up to where your other ISP has it.

            If it's a small rural town, there is someone with a backhoe that would be happy to volunteer their time & equipment for a community effort.

      • San Diego used to have a radio-modem internet access service called Ricochet [wikipedia.org], offered by a company called metricom. Their radio-modems broadcast with one-watt of power over the unlicensed 900 MHz frequency. There's even a wiki-page about the hardware at http://ricochet.wikispaces.com/ [wikispaces.com]

        .

        Maybe there's a way to use amateur radio instead of wifi for the medium to long hops from your fiber-access to the town and then set up a wifi base station there for the customers. I don't know about the licensing issues

      • by fm6 (162816)

        I've fulfilled all three of those roles as well as more.

        Yeah, and I'll bet you worked a lot of 14-hour days. This guy doesn't even want to give up his day job.

      • I would suggest doing a repeater based WiFi type system.

        Is there some reason not to use WiMAX? The last I heard, it was pretty much for this sort of use case. One transmitter provides coverage for everything 10-20 miles away.

    • I think the "get help" concept should framed in terms of redundancy. All the people involved need to be "good enough" at all the tasks to make do in a pinch, since people get sick, take vacation, and (according to the question) work other jobs.
    • by mknewman (557587) * on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @12:27PM (#41908685)
      I was a one man ISP for 10 years. It was an outgrowth of my BBS that I ran for 10 years prior to that. It's fun but thankless, and competition is fierce. Packet traffic became commodity, which means minimal profit margins and large companies (read AT&T and before them Southwestern Bell) willing to come in and throw large amounts of money at stealing the market. If you want to sell DSL get an ATM T3 router and get a big PVC to a provider with some ATM bandwidth. Then allocate bandwidth to your customers on SVC connections. You will need some infrastructure servers, billing, DNS, Web hosting, DHCP, etc. I'd say you could get into it in a minimal way for $100k and a few employees. If you are wanting to do a one man operation you are basicly nuts, you will want to sleep, take a vacation or a night out. I made that mistake and would not recommend it to anyone. Contact me if you want more insight. I have a reasonable hourly contract rate :)
  • Usually you dig up a path and install the last mile lines, but if you can work out a deal to piggy back on the power lines it would be much cheaper. I would not recommend the mesh wifi route as there will be dead zones and whenever it rains you could lose internet. Good luck to you, I would love to have something like this as an option. The broadband options in my area are incredibly slow.
  • Ubiquity (Score:5, Informative)

    by PhunkySchtuff (208108) <kai&automatica,com,au> on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:35AM (#41905577) Homepage

    You don't want to go through the trouble and expense of rolling out cable to people's houses - you don't have the budget to cover for it, and no one could afford the installation charge if you passed it all on to them. Look at Ubiquity [ubnt.com] wireless gear - it's very good, priced amazingly well, and is relatively easy to set up and configure. They do backhaul stuff, distribution stuff and even 802.11a/b/g/n that is comparable to Cisco at 1/4 the price.

    • Re:Ubiquity (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:40AM (#41906187)

      I did the design and operations work for one of the largest WISP builds on the planet.

      There are lots of WISPs out there, most of them mom and pop shops. You can make a few bucks but it is very hard work. Do not underestimate this.

      Ubquity is great value for money and is perfect for your situation. They've got good forums and you should have no problem getting something going.

      Please be safe when erecting towers or other antenna supporting structures. If you make a mistake, you can die. Have someone who knows what they are doing show you proper techniques for working on poles, poletop rescue, etc. Do not skimp on this.

      Good luck!

    • by johnjones (14274)

      kai that is naughty...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Ubiquity is really awesome gear and I've used their WiFi (802.11a/b/g) stuff for a few years now.

      I had thought about doing the same sort of thing in my rural area and one suggestion I would make is this... Get a FCC license for your wireless (like the 3GHz range). This way you can keep people from trying to hack your signal a bit. Yes I know determined people can and will try but being in a license part of the spectrum mitigates this a bit.

      Ubiquity has this type of gear and may even have some suggestions

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:41AM (#41905603)

    Sounds like a huge task.

    Why not spend your own time on contacting providers and encouraging them to come into the area, and canvassing the local community for support. There may also be government grants and initiatives available. Speak to your local politician and see where they come in. You're not going to learn much networking and technology in the process, but you're more likely to get some results.

    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      THIS

      It will take many people to operate this kind of business. You have to have someone to answer the phones at all hours who can troubleshoot connection problems. People aren't going to want to wait until 7pm to get their internet back because you are busy at your day job and can't fix it until after you get off work.
    • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

      Campaigning is a good strategy, but the first thing to do is really assess the opportunity.
      -How many households are currently served by DSL?
      -What percentage of people would switch to your service at the same price as they pay for DSL?
      -Are there any other services you could provide to help subsidize the cost of your network?
      --Would people pay you more money for them?
      -How much capital do you have to start up?
      -Do you need to recover that initial capital, or are you ok on getting "dividends" to cover your perso

  • by DeathToBill (601486) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:47AM (#41905653) Journal

    It's not clear what area you're trying to cover, but it seems the sort of thing WiMAX was made for. But I suspect this is still something you're going to have to raise capital for, and therefore something you're going to have to make money back on from your subscribers.

    I've no experience, but I suspect this is not something you can realistically set up as a hobby in your spare time. Your costs will look like this:

    * Capital equipment - a WiMAX base station and connection to the fibre (probably involves paying the company providing the fibre to dig it up, splice it and run a cable into your house). If you're happy to ebay second hand gear, the WiMAX station could be fairly cheap - maybe a few hundred dollars.
    * Monthly invoice from the fibre provider for access. You're going to want some serious bandwidth, or your customers will complain.

    Your time is going to look like this:

    * Administration. If you're trying to pay your costs, you need people to pay you. That means keeping a list of customers and invoicing them each month, making sure people pay up, etc.
    * Support. People *will* blame you when the intertubes is broken, whether its your fault or not. If no-one answers the phone when they call, then you'll lose customers.

    Your biggest problem is likely to be that the DSL company will just undercut whatever you set up. Squashing you like a bug is unlikely to show up on their bottom line, while you need to make money consistently to keep up with the fibre costs and repay the capital you needed to set it up.

    If you've got $100k lying around to get it all set up and to absorb a few months of fibre access costs while you get people signed up, then you might be able to survive. You might even make your $100k back, eventually. Since you have to work to make ends meet, it seems unlikely this is the case.

    • by TheBracket (307388) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @04:10PM (#41911245) Homepage

      I currently have a small (3 towers; 3 more going up in the next few months) WiMAX ISP as my primary client. They already had some appropriate frequencies available; if you don't, you either need to find some (schools are a good bet - many have some old licenses lying around that they don't use) - or go with unlicensed frequency bands. That will severely reduce your range/throughput, but has the advantage of being free.

      WiMAX is a good fit for the rural model, but there's a fairly hefty setup cost. Most vendors require that you have an ASN-GW at the core of your network, which is a very large initial cost (both in setup time and actual purchase price). The large ones can easily run to a quarter of a million, with smaller models costing a lot less. My client is on NewNet gear (formerly Nokia-Siemens, formerly Motorola - corporate pass-the-parcel), and the setup was pricey - but it performs very well (they have plenty of customers getting 18-20 mbit/s down; upstream on WiMAX isn't so good, expect 3/4 mbit/s on a good day).
      You can shave a LOT off the cost by using an open source core to the network (you can't avoid needing RADIUS, DNS, NTP, plus servers for actually running the business), and you could shave more off by going with someone like Alvarion who use a distributed ASN rather than an expensive core (in my experience, performance on Alvarion is decent but not on a par with the NewNet gear). You also need base-stations and antennas per site, but the cost there is quite reasonable in comparison (although "tower monkeys" are expensive to put the stuff up!).

      By far the highest long-term cost is backhaul; you need a good connection to each tower (100 mbit/s for full capacity for a 3-sector, max 768 concurrent users). In many areas, dedicated fiber is really expensive - and you end up paying the telco you are trying to supplant. Microwave is a better option - you pay $10-15k up-front (plus FCC license if you need it), but there are no recurring costs. With fiber prices around here, it pays for itself in well under a year. There will also be the cost of your upstream Internet connection; that's incredibly variable by location.
      The next cost is CPEs. Our experience has been that the fixed devices sell far better than the mobile devices (mobility isn't so useful when its only within your small network), and the outdoor CPEs need good installation to perform well. Expect to pay $150+ per unit, which can make for a high setup fee.

      Finally on the money-side, there's the human cost. You'll want support, enough engineering muscle to monitor/fix your network, and any sales/business side you need. That can be hard to juggle while you get started: mouths to feed while you get enough customers to hit the magical "break even" point. It's a tough phase, and you have to be very careful to keep your spending within reach of this goal. That means you can expect to be working hard for very little for a while - but that's true of most start-up ventures.

      It's also worth considering LTE. It's currently an expensive proposition to get into LTE, but you can cover your butt against the eventual inevitable transition. All the major WiMAX players are moving towards a dual-stack mode, allowing you to concurrently run LTE and WiMAX (on different frequencies) on the same gear. Most CPEs scheduled for next year are also dual-stack, so you can deploy WiMAX now and LTE later when you can afford the exorbitant cost of a packet-core (or packet cores come down in price). To do WiMAX well, you want 3-4 10mhz channels; if you can get adjacent frequencies, when you light-up LTE you can start by using one of the 10mhz channels - and gradually phase-out WiMAX adding bands to the LTE side. It isn't free future-proofing, but it's a lot better than knowing you will have to tear out all your gear in a few years.

  • by emes (240193) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:06AM (#41905743)

    I would suggest you learn about what are known as 501(c)(12) telecommunications cooperatives. One specific example would be www.rric.net
    It would also be good for you to consult the IRS information on this kind of nonprofit organization.

  • My Suggestions (Score:5, Informative)

    by DiamondGeezer (872237) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:09AM (#41905763) Homepage

    Definitely it's a project worth doing but you've got to put in some work, both legwork and office work to make it work.

    You need to go to the regional fiber provider and talk to them about becoming a last mile ISP and what their requirements are to terminate their fiber in your town and likely licensing issues, service contracts and support.

    You need to speak to your town hall about permits and applicable laws.

    Depending on where the fiber actually is, you need to pick a business unit where the fiber can be terminated and where your fiber can be run from.

    In that business unit you're going to need reliable power and UPS backup to create a small datacenter (2 or 3 racks should be plenty) on raised floors for cable runs. (There are companies out there that ship all of this stuff in a single container [techcrunch.com], meaning that all you have to do is site it and run fiber and power to it)

    You'll need to find out how much it will cost to run fiber from your datacenter businesses (who will be the main consumers) and home users. Get maps and start planning. Your regional fiber network provider should be able to put you in touch with the people who put fiber cables down in streets.

    You'll need to talk to your local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau about likely customers as well as schools and colleges (and the town's own infrastructure like the townhall itself) who will be big consumers of fiber bandwidth and likely to be the baseload of your cashflow. Also likely partners in your state who might like to put their systems in your datacenter to provide services to your town such as VOIP providers, cloud services and storage providers etc. (Speak to them under NDA)

    You'll need a business plan, a financial planning showing likely costings and cashflow and a project plan to maximize return by hitting major sources of revenue first.

    I would suggest that you go for a low cost base based on opensource software and hardware as much as you can (I hear cheers from Slashdotters!)

    Once you've got this done, then find out about likely sources of finance, microloans, angel investors who will need to see the proposed balance sheet and cashflow projections. (You might find that the reason there is only a crappy DSL service in your area is that that is all the demand that there is - economics trumps everything else and the whole idea has to make economic sense)

    You will need help. Other people have done this on very limited budgets so use Google and network like crazy. Make contacts with technical people willing to pitch in. You will need to look at project plans created by others and business plans created by others and sources of finance used by others.

    This isn't to put you off, but to give you an overview on the size of the mountain you're looking at climbing. Others have started where you are now and made great local companies. But the business must be based on sound economics and a steely concentration on a plan of action.

  • Options (Score:5, Informative)

    by twisteddk (201366) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:10AM (#41905769)

    Well, the projects I have been running have all been based on either wifi or xDSL. So I can pretty much only provide my expertise in these areas, BUT......
    I see a couple of possibilities:

    1) Contact the preexisting DSL provider in your area, and tell them that fiber is now available in the area. Ask them if they would be willing to provide a new DSLAM in the area connected to the fiber, which would boost the speed of the internet considerably (if the DSLAM is within a mile or two you should easily be able to get a stable 20 Mbit connection, which I assume is better than what you have now). Its always easier to lobby someone else to do the job they're supposed to, than it is to start competing with them......

    2) Contact the people providing the fiber and ask them what servicepartners they have that are last-mile providers. Contact some of them and ask if they would be intrested in setting up shop in your town. Get the local populace to sign a letter of intent, that they will switch providers, if they can get better or faster internet at the same or lower cost..... Again with the lobbying, but it's an easy way out

    3) Consider setting your own lastmile service up. But use xDSL connections or wifi, because FTTH would require that you start digging fiber to each house. I doubt you could make a profit on that if you're a one-man operation. In a hilly area, get a permit to set up repeater antennas on the highest areas. I'm sure you have cell service in the area too, so ask the local cell providers if you could use their towers. Usually, they have the permits in place, and you'd just have to pay rent, or simply swap services with them (your internet for their towers), if you can find someone who'll go for a straight swap..... This option requires a lot of footwork, and negotiation, but it's possible even in an industrialized and regulated society, it's just a lot harder than in Africa ;)

    4) Get a group of friends together and work out a division of labour, make plans and set them into motion... More people = less burden on the individual.

    I'd say it's possible, but if the market was big enough that you could live of it, then I'm sure you'd have more than one provider covering your area at the moment. So dont expect to get rich in anything except experiences :D

    • by aitikin (909209)

      1) Contact the preexisting DSL provider in your area, and tell them that fiber is now available in the area. Ask them if they would be willing to provide a new DSLAM in the area connected to the fiber, which would boost the speed of the internet considerably (if the DSLAM is within a mile or two you should easily be able to get a stable 20 Mbit connection, which I assume is better than what you have now). Its always easier to lobby someone else to do the job they're supposed to, than it is to start competing with them......

      I'm going out on a limb and assuming that this is rural US, which typically means that the distance between one house and the next can easily be greater than a mile, so it's unlikely that the OP would have that DSLAM within a mile or two, and even if he does, that doesn't help out those around him much at all.

  • by wvnet (2018102) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:11AM (#41905773)
    I'd go fixed-wireless. It's the only option that you can start on a shoestring and end up with a decent business. Tapping the fiber can get quite expensive. It probably goes through the local telephone Central Office, so your best bet is to find cheap office rental as close to the CO as possible, and then contact the middle-mile provider for a quote to run you a drop. Bonus if you can rent a space in a muti-story building and arrange roof rights for a few antennas.

    But this is doable, if you are serious about it.
    Ubiquiti wireless gear is the way to go right now, and there's lots of technical help on their forum and others. Their 900Mhz gear will handle SOME tree coverage, as will the 2.4Ghz. Their gear is so cheap that you can afford to make little house-to-house relays to get into hard to reach spots. Their wiki has a decent write-up of how to build a WISP with their gear.
    http://wiki.ubnt.com/Building_a_wisp [ubnt.com]

    There are lots of other gotchas in the biz, arranging tower sites (private landowners are good, but you'll need a solid contract), getting customers to actually pay you (at all, not just on time), each install is going to have to be paid for up front ($150-200) and you won't make any money off that customer for about 6-8 months, service truck & tools, insurance (wispinsurance.com) and lots more.

    Go lurk on the Ubiquiti and Mikrotik forums for a few months, and you'll start getting a clear picture of what running a small ISP day-to-day is like.
  • by OzPeter (195038) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:12AM (#41905783)

    You said

    Assuming this will not be my day job

    But I bet your customers *will* assume that it's your day job which will generate a lot of emotion when the system goes down at 9AM and your response is ..

    Well sorry, I have to be at work now, I'll get on it after 5

    It seems you are already setting yourself up to be just as terrible as your current DSL provider.

    • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve (949321) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:20AM (#41906511)

      You said

      Assuming this will not be my day job

      But I bet your customers *will* assume that it's your day job which will generate a lot of emotion when the system goes down at 9AM and your response is ..

      Well sorry, I have to be at work now, I'll get on it after 5

      It seems you are already setting yourself up to be just as terrible as your current DSL provider.

      I think OzPeter pretty much nailed this. I have a friend who actually did what the OP suggests. My friend was an ISP as a part time business he did outside of his normal job. He barely turned a profit at it. It took up a lot of his spare time. He mostly had residential techie customers who knew him personally and were willing to put up with delays for problem resolution (he was very limited in what he could do while he was working his primary job) in exchange for what at the time (mid to late 1990s) was faster connectivity than most local ISPs could offer. I don't think he ever had more than a handful of business clients. Eventually he shut it down as he couldn't really grow the customer base enough to make it his full time job and the time to run it outside of a regular job became too much. It's not difficult to imagine the OP winding up in a similar situation.

  • Buy a shovel and start digging.

    Or even better: Buy a bunch of shovels and make sure that everyone who wants to get connected does a fair bit of digging, too.

  • What should you do? Leave the country and become an Australian citizen in protest! If you're planning on living there for a long time maybe become a micro-ISP as a fun project purely for yourself initially. Don't sell the service to your neighbours until everything is up and running.
    • by OzPeter (195038)

      What should you do? Leave the country and become an Australian citizen in protest!

      You do know that you just can't waltz up to Oz and say "I want in" and expect to settle there?
       
        Visas, Immigration and Refugees [immi.gov.au]

      • It was an attempt at humour. Steve Wozniak seems strangely obsessed with the "last-mile" provision of internet access and has expressed an interest in becoming an Australian citizen specficially citing the US broadband network as a reason.
        • by OzPeter (195038)

          Its way too early for me .. I'm humour impaired in the morning.

          Steve Wozniak ... has expressed an interest in becoming an Australian citizen

          Yeah but he ha$ certain advantage$.

  • Western Mass? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Shishak (12540) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:04AM (#41905987) Homepage

    If you are in Western Massachusetts and the middle mile network is MassBroadband123 network you should give me a call. I'm the only small ISP left in this region and I can help.

  • Business Case (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Sez Zero (586611) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:23AM (#41906063) Journal
    Find out your potential market. There may be a reason there is currently no last-mile provider; perhaps people use cellular data or satellite or have just decided that dial-up is ok.

    There's some great advice above about starting a small company, but don't go to all that trouble unless you know there will be enough customers to make it worth your while; don't start a business with a product that no one wants.

    However, if you want to start a business that has one customer: you, then starting a small ISP sounds like a great way to subsidize your Internet cost and perhaps a good tax write-off as long as you don't pop-up on the IRS's radar.
  • by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:30AM (#41906111) Homepage Journal
    The tech support will kill you. You can buy the hardware and wires etc, but the physical infrastructure is not the challenge- it's the human support infrastructure. Support will crush any free time you have, and also any love you have left for your fellow man. Your clientele is low income rural people, probably not tech savvy. Problem is, that they will probably also (mostly) be really nice and your neighbors. You do want to help them- without a decent size group of technical people with good personal skills as your support team, you'll be floundering.
  • Become a WISP (Score:5, Informative)

    by fwc (168330) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:54AM (#41906291)
    There are a lot of us out there doing exactly what you're wanting to do, using fixed wireless technology typically from Cambium Networks, Ubiquiti, or Mikrotik.

    Some links which will help you find people who are doing this already, and are more than willing to help you start down this path follows. Believe it or not, most operators in the WISP industry are pretty friendly and more than willing to help a new wisp get started with advice and the like.

    www.wispa.org [wispa.org] - The Industry Association for WISPS.
    Animal Farm Users Group [afmug.com]
    Broadband Heroes Whitepaper [wirelesscowboys.com]
    Wireless Cowboys Blog [wirelesscowboys.com]

    I'm sure there are others. I'd start by reading what I can, probably joining the (free) email lists on a couple of the sites above, and asking questions. Everyone in the industry was a newbie sometime, and most of us remember what it was like to start out, often with about as much knowledge as you have.

    • This. Here's a handy resource, the WISP Technician Wiki: http://www.wisptech.com/index.php?title=Main_Page [wisptech.com]

      I know a lot of rural area ISPs, and using PtP, you can get 150 mile ranges out of the equipment at 300Mbits speeds, although typically they are operated between 3,5 and 15 miles, depending on customer density. The Cambium Networks equipment in particular used to be known as Motorola Canopy, until it was sold off in 2011.

      Above a certain threshold, EarthLink or other large providers will also happily b

  • It's probably going to be cheaper and easier to get rights-of-way from the council and dig rather than mess around with FCC stuff. Also, you would be providing a more reliable service to your customers.

    Just dig a trench and lay PVC pipe with normal CAT in it, restrict access to MAC addresses of routers you provide to people and there you go. People don't pay, cut off their MAC address. Easy done.

    Sure people could spoof their neighbour's MAC address or what-have-you but there's that potential for abuse in an

    • Oh yeah, and the phone company came out the other day (here in Australia they bury all the phone lines) and they have a nifty little bore machine that lets you dig little tunnels under streets, driveways, sidewalks, etc. (Just in case anyone wants to rebut with the whole 'patching concrete is expensive' bit...) =)

  • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:07AM (#41906415)
    I work for an ISP that focuses on Rural broadband. There's a reason people don't do this... It's not profitable. We get large subsidies from the feds and still barely make any money at it. The way this works is, you obviously need equipment to service your customers. When using copper to deliver service you have a limited distance you can send your signal. So you'll have a minimal cost for your equipment and then that equipment can only reach customers that are within a certain radius of that equipment. At the bare minimum we're talking about $200,000. Now you've got a density of customers that can be service by that equipment... In a rural town, you'll be very lucky to get 200 customers. We have remotes that have less than 10 people on them. Customers will not pay more than $50 to $100/month for internet service. So do the math... how long will it take you just to pay off the equipment, much less pay for service? Microwave doesn't work. We've tried it. Wide area wifi doesn't work. We've tried it. Fiber works, but costs a fortune and you'd have to dig up your entire town to do it. Your local ISP will also likely sue you. They have exclusivity rights in your town. You might win, but it'll cost you. This is the state of broadband in this country. Other countries deal with it by nationalizing the phone network, but that has its own problems that are arguably even worse.
    • Very true on the rural hurdles. My parent who live on a farm dropped the microwave, wifi, and crap DSL for a MiFi and couldn't be happier. And in the next few months the word of mouth has caused several other farm families to drop whatever they had for a MiFi. May want to resell those instead. if there is cell coverage in your area.
    • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

      In all fairness, your rural broadband ISP is unlikely to want to reduce costs, as it could impact their subsidies. It's been a few years, but if he can get a mini-DSLAM up and running in a location that can serve 35-48 customers from a 50-pair aerial cable less than a half-mile long with 100' taps to the customer demarc point, he has about $20k in costs to serve the first customer and $50-100 for each additional customer.

      It depends a lot on the topology, but it can be done cheaper.

      • And how much does it cost to bury the fiber feeding that DSLAM? How much do the right-of-ways cost? The building the equipment is in is going to cost more than $20k. Ok, you want to put it inside a cabinet... fine... And when a farmer hits it with his tractor? Federal subsidies for rural broadband are based on customers served... so doing things cost effectively is the name of the game. ADSL cards are around $200 to $400 per card. So, I'm not sure where you're getting your info but you basically wrong on al
  • I worked for a WISP for 3 years and I can tell you that most WiFi mesh gear sucks, and it relies on very noisy radio space that is subject to a high noise floor and interference from all kinds of other gear. I'd look into a point-to-multipoint system like Motorola Canopy. You hook up a tower (water towers are especially great, as you can often trade tower access for sharing bandwidth with the municipality) with 6 access points each covering a 60deg area around the tower. Then you "backhaul" the tower using

  • There is a reason nobody has already stepped into this market and I think you have hit on the major issue. If WiFi won't work for you, the only other option is using wire (or fiber) and that is NOT cheap even in high density areas. You *might* be able to engineer a mixed network of wireless and wired, but I dare say it's going to cost a LOT of money up front and the ROI will take years. I seriously doubt that if some existing ISP hasn't snapped up the market, there is anything to be made.

    Stay away from th

  • More info (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:27AM (#41907117)

    I want to thank everyone for the advice. I already have a profitable small business, and I understand that this probably will not be profitable. My goal is better internet access for myself and my community. It sounds like I need to go with Ubiquity-type stuff, if anything.

    Even if the established provider is simply scared into installing a few more DSLAMs, that would be a good outcome. The best outcome in my mind would be for me to end up leading a community-owned effort.

    • by hawkeyeMI (412577)
      Whoops, forgot to log in. OP here.
      • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

        Keep in mind on the suggestions that nobody knows the scale of "rural" for your community. If it is a town of 500 with a surrounding community at a radius of a few miles there may be better options.

  • Here's your plan (Score:5, Informative)

    by Noexit (107629) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:50AM (#41907415) Homepage

    I work for a small, rural ISP with many of the same challenges that you're looking at. We started up as a dialup provider in 1997 and have moved into wireless and DSL.

    First, get some money. A lot. Shitloads. Second, raise your pain threshold. Third, that whole "this will not be my day job" thing? Forget that, it will be your day job, night job, weekend job and holiday job. Finally, hire some talent that isn't lost in licensed frequencies and other issues.

    What we do is wifi mesh. We use grain elevators, radio towers, old TV masts at customers locations, whatever we can ad AP or radio on to help extend the mesh. We use inexpensive customer premise gear, lightning sucks around here. You'll need some backend equipment, bandwidth backhauls and some routing gear; everything we use is open-source, DYI equipment because money, that's why. Don't try to cover the entire area at once, hit customers you can easily reach, solidify them and then move slowly. DO NOT! run an ad that there's a new ISP in town offering high-speed service, you likely won't be able to meet the demand.

    A guy, you, can totally do this. But you're going to need some help, some money, and some adjusted expectations. If you're a gambler, go for it, if you're hoping to make a bit of money from it on the side, get out now and save yourself.

  • Step 1: Buy an urban ISP.
    Step 2: Buy a bulldozer.
  • Step 0: Can you build or own or rent a small cell like tower structure in your district?
    Step 1: Map your area for line of sight wireless. How many can you reach with existing Wi Max like units, fixed to a roof with a correct aimed install?
    Ho many people own homes in the area vs renters? Any strange local laws, taxes, costly inspections, codes, height issues, tree protection laws... anything that stop a home owner from getting a dish up on their roof.
    Step 2: Find out who the isp is in your coverage
  • Find a high structure (a WISP in NW Minnesota here uses grain elevators in each town) you can attach to for a reasonable rent or trade out of service. Get a 3.65 Ghz license [ubnt.com], place Ubiquiti Rockets [ubnt.com] attached to sector antennas (or an Omni if you're covering a really small area), and use Ubiquiti NanoStations [ubnt.com] for CPEs....If the structure is remote from the fiber termination use something like Air Fiber [ubnt.com] for the back haul to fiber termination - this could start as a 150Mbps 5.8 GHZ point-point link if you'r
    • You'll also want to invest in a good spectrum analyzer if you go the WISP route. I recommended 3.65 Ghz because it is likely quiet in your area, but specific links may need 900MHz (most forgiving when a link isn't quite perfect line of sight), 5 GHz, or 2.4 GHz to work well and the spectrum analyzer will give you great insight on what could interfere or how strong the signal from the POP really is. You may have to make agreements with some of your customers in good locations to place multiple antennas on th
  • Then seeing what you can get from your immediate neighbors??

    even if your neighbors don't have a lot of CASH to pay with you still could get payment in %other stuff% as long as you have enough actual cash to pay your bills with (i would say a freezer full of Critter would be good payment for a few months of net access).

    but yes it would be a very good idea to have a lawyer involved with this just to keep the various Wolves in line.

  • That's great that you've got likely several hundred strands of fiber running by your house. Now... if there was a point of presence (POP) behind your house where the fiber came in, went into a fiber switch/booster then things would be a bit more interesting. However since you haven't indicated this, here's what would have to happen.

    The company that owns the fiber is going to have to come out, build a little building, dig up the fiber, then cut the fiber, then re-terminate the fiber, put in a couple of bad
  • Take a time machine back to 1994.

  • by spiffydudex (1458363) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @12:16PM (#41908549)

    I worked at a wireless ISP that serviced roughly 200 customers that were completely unreachable by traditional means. The location was set in the mild to medium forested areas of East Texas. We had a 30Mb pipe that worked quite well for our network we never saw it start to "peak" or be overtaxed. Being that we were on the 900Mhz spectrum, the fastest anyone could run at was 1.5Mb/s - 2Mb/s.

    Here area some of my thoughts regarding setting up your own ISP.

    1) It is completely doable. However, there are two roads to take. You can do it on the cheap, or you can do it the way that will stand time. My company chose the method that stood throughout time. What I mean is, we were not using off-the-shelf radios. We rolled out the network using the 900Mhz Motorola Canopy equipment. We used outdoor rated cable that had separation of twisted pairs and grease filled interior to prevent water issues.

    Our main competitor, who worked on the north and west side of the city went the opposite route. He chose to use cheaper 2.4GHZ equipment, primarily PTP bridges.

    2) The technology is out there, you just have to find it at a price that you are willing to pay. When I was servicing the radios, they would cost roughly $350 new from Motorola just for the endpoint Subscriber Module. We instead purchased refurbished models for almost half the price at $200-225. The Access points and other major equipment will set you back, IT IS NOT CHEAP.

    3) Backbone and network structure. We may have over engineered our network, but we felt it was necessary to keep subscriber information private. We had a small cisco switch that at each access tower that would assign VLAN to each subscriber module. On the internal side of the switch, the VLANs were removed and went into a bulk VLAN that was specified for that tower. No other subscriber could see any other one without first going to "The Internet". We also created a Management VLAN, so we could service and access the management interfaces on each of the Backhauls and APs. Latency across the network averaged about 50-150ms.

    4) Please for the love of all that is holy, do not, run your own Email server. It is a absolute pain in the ass. I was the person who was in charge of ensuring that the systems in place stayed running. This meant, DHCP, DNS, HTTP, Email Services, and Management interfaces.

    Remember Virtual Machines are your friend. Buy one or two hefty servers and backup the VMs to each other. That way if you have an outtage, you can get the VMs back up in running in about an hour.

    DHCP - Since we had a bit of a robust network, we had different subnets for each of our towers. In total we had about 18 subnets that each had different purposes. This tool helped like the charm that it was. http://phpdhcpadmin.sourceforge.net/ [sourceforge.net] At the time the logout system was broken, however, I patched the code to disable the login/logout functions and wrote a script that would automatically give me the next available IP address.

    DNS - No fancy tools here, I mostly just let it roll and didn't touch it. I only touched DHCP when we added a hosted website.(which later went to rackspace)

    HTTP - Simple, run Apache, set and forget.

    Email Services - Complete Pain In The Ass. No really, I'm not joking. At the time, the powers over me, decided that we would give our customers up to 5 email addresses. So I setup a linux server in that ran Postfix, Dovecot, ClamAV, Squirrel Mail. It provided IMAP, POP, SMTP and SSL(if wanted). At the time, when I arrived the server was already in place and running. However, fast forward, 3 months, and someone decided to run "updates" on the server. Breaks all of the packages, settings, the whole shebang. Not a fun week at all.
    Besides that, there were also issue with SPAM. We would constantly get blacklisted by various servers.

    Management Interfaces - This was where the heart of out network lay. I have one word, Cacti, http://cacti.net/ [cacti.net] For wireles

  • You need to consider and interlocking series of mesh network transponders that your subscribers would pay to rent. That way, you can boucne the signal to them across wide swaths of land without line of site. No need to satellites or other expensive solutions.

    Think about it.

  • by LodCrappo (705968) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @12:45PM (#41908885) Homepage

    "Assuming this will not be my day job, that the local populace is rather poor, and that because of the hills, line-of-sight service will be difficult, how could I set myself up as an ISP?"

    So.. you aren't going to put much time into it, your customers won't spend much money on it, but you've got the worst possible geography *AND* to top it off you don't even know how an ISP works.

    Seriously? WTF are you thinking?

    Take a clue from all the other people that don't offer broadband in your area.

  • Assuming this will not be my day job, that the local populace is rather poor, and that because of the hills, line-of-sight service will be difficult, how could I set myself up as an ISP?

    This *will* have to be your day job. Tech support alone will eat up many hours in a day, plus swapping out hardware, dealing with billing issues etc. Being a rural ISP is not a part-time thing. Frankly, if the local populace is able to get DSL that is fast enough for them to watch Gangnam Style on YouTube I'd leave it at

  • by evilviper (135110) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @01:57PM (#41909681) Journal

    I think the answer is pretty clear. Put a flag pole or antenna mast up next to your house, install a good outdoor WiFi AP on top of it, connect it to your DSL service (however terrible it may be), and shut off encryption so your neighbors can connect to and use it at will. Get together with other techies in your town, and convince them to do the same. Suddenly, a good number of those poor rural people are connected to the internet, at a price they can afford.

    It's clear the economics aren't there to make a business out of it, and you apparently don't have the chops for it, anyhow, so setting up a few open APs around town will probably provide the most benefit, with the least cost and effort on your part.

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