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

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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  • 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 :-)
  • Ubiquity (Score:5, Informative)

    by PhunkySchtuff ( 208108 ) <.ua.moc.acitamotua. .ta. .iak.> 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.

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Re:don't (Score:5, Informative)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:22AM (#41906527) Homepage Journal

    Pretty much. The local government controls access to right of way so you will want them on board. The local chamber is next on your hit parade. You need them to back you because it will help them make more money and bring in more businesses. Next the Economic Development board needs to back you and possibly get you tax breaks and grants.
    Do you have a local cable company? If so they will fight you tooth and nail. If not you should at least look at doing TVIP as well as Internet. If you are going to build out then you should make the most of it.
    In other words it is a lot of politics these days.

  • 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.

  • Re:My Suggestions (Score:4, Informative)

    by mapsjanhere ( 1130359 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:50AM (#41907419)
    Before you start anything, check on the status of your existing DSL provider, they might have gotten an exclusivity deal from your local government in order to set up something in a rural area to begin with. You might not be able to get a permit for years to come.
  • Re:Ubiquity (Score:3, Informative)

    by Urban Nightmare ( 147344 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @11:47AM (#41908171)

    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 on how to get licensed. They also where able to provide me with a map of the area which gave me a really good idea of how far my signal could go with out putting up repeaters and such.

  • 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

  • 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 :)
  • Re:don't (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @01:28PM (#41909363)

    fail to fixa customer's internet in two hours and you've lost then

    You had me up to this point. I can tell you from experience that if you're a small ISP bringing the world to the farmer's living room, people are pretty darned understanding. As long as they can see that you're doing everything you can, that you're not an idiot, and that you do actually care that their internet works, they'll back you 100%.

  • 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.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato