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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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  • Re:don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mwvdlee (775178) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:24AM (#41905535) Homepage

    Please explain; how does someone become such a "pro"? Is it perhaps by learning and doing? Or is it by giving up before you even start?

  • by DeathToBill (601486) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:47AM (#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.

  • Re:rural isp (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:58AM (#41905715)
    He's clearly in the USA since he doesn't acknowledge the existance of countries outside the borders of his own in the question!
  • by wvnet (2018102) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:11AM (#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 @06:12AM (#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 pubwvj (1045960) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:38AM (#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 @07:07AM (#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 Matt_Bennett (79107) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:30AM (#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.
  • by ccguy (1116865) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:31AM (#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.

  • Re:don't (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Joce640k (829181) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:14AM (#41906455) Homepage

    Maybe OP has different overheads/profit requirements...

  • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve (949321) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:20AM (#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.

  • Re:don't (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:41AM (#41906691)

    Sounds like he wants something ASAP, no dicking around learning, he just wants to do.

    1) incorporate to protect yourself. If this goes bad, you don't want it following you for a decade or more; think about alternative models like a co-op
    2) talk to your customers. What would they pay, what would they need you to provide, unless they sign something proactively, expect a portion to bail.
    3) you need to beat the incumbent by at least 25%, and be repared for retaliation. They have an investment to defend, and they may have a lot more leeway to change than you know (price, upgrading head-end equipment to boost speeds, etc)
    3) talk to the provider and negotiate. This is going to be a big fixed expense, and you'll be inning a long term contract typically
    4) think outside the box, and focus on need vs what is typical

  • Re:don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by griffjon (14945) <GriffJon&gmail,com> on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:52AM (#41906773) Homepage Journal

    We have a similar setup blocks from the Capitol Building in DC - not rural or poor, but you can get slow-as-molasses DSL, or comcast cable+Internet that goes out weekly to the extent you need to call their /wonderful/ support services and have technicians dick around and do nothing.

    Not that I'm bitter. A local family has cobbled together enough "business-class" connections and shares it over point-to-point wireless: http://www.dcaccess.net/ [dcaccess.net] They're very friendly, and might be willing to help you out on some of the aspects (though your state's regulations are probably much, much different than the District's).

    I presume you're mainly doing this for the geek cred of having crazy access to bandwidth. I'd advise you, this being the case, to be willing and financially able to be your only paying customer unless you're going to make this a real full or part time job.

  • Pretty simple (Score:5, Insightful)

    by interkin3tic (1469267) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:45AM (#41907355)
    You've already completed step one, which is to move to someplace rural. Step two is to become an ISP. So basically, you're halfway there.
  • Re:don't (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fm6 (162816) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:59AM (#41908317) Homepage Journal

    OK, it's a lame post, but he's got a point. The guy doesn't want to quit his day job, but he wants to start a business that what will take a lot of work to get up and running. Finding money, buying hardware, designing infrastructure and systems, billing and supporting customers. The notion that he can do all this in his spare time is purely amateur thinking.

  • by LodCrappo (705968) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @11:45AM (#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.

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