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Weekly Column

Bank Shot: Not Even a Mountain Can Get in the Way of Bob's Search for Faster Internet Service

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Some of my most popular columns have been about my continuing struggle for good Internet service from my home in rural Sonoma County, California. From bad dial-up to bad DSL (IDSL — don't get it) to Starband satellite Internet to my current set-up, where I use a 10.5 kilometer wireless link to borrow DSL service from a guy down the valley who I found by looking through a telescope, readers have followed, sympathized, and sometimes even copied my efforts. For the moment, I am satisfied with my Internet connection. With Starband as an alternate, my wireless DSL connection is solid and reliable. It does violate the service agreement with SBC Pacific Bell Internet, but as long as I am not stupid enough to print the name of my down-valley partner, I don't think the phone company will do anything to stop me, nor do they probably care. So I should be happy, right? Wrong. Frustrated engineer that I am, I want still greater speeds. And as of this morning, I have them — two megabits-per-second straight to chez Cringely. But remember, your mileage may vary.

What prompted this latest adventure was an e-mail from Dan Arra at Gatespeed Broadband in San Jose, California. Gatespeed is a wireless Internet provider serving much of Silicon Valley. Dan was writing to crow about a new innovation he had come up with — a different way to offer wireless service to users in restaurants and coffee bars.

"We have just entered the so-called "broadband public access market" that has recently gotten a lot of hype from promoters such as Boingo and HereUare," said Dan. "As you probably know, this is the space where Mobilestar (Starbucks fame) and Airwave died ugly deaths. Wayport and STSN are still pretty active here, but mainly at hotels and airports. The VC community seems to like this space with ComVentures backing HereUare and WiFi Metro (picked up the pieces of Airwave). The current business model is pretty flawed, the last one was ridiculous, but the hype is there, so I have figured out a way to garner some of the hype with little to no expense, and hopefully generate some revenue."

"The current business model [used by those other guys is to] beg Starbucks, coffee houses, sports bars, etc., for permission to put wireless access points (APs) on the premises — offer to pay for the bandwidth and THEN even offer to share the revenue. Can you imagine Sprint PCS offering to pay Starbucks for every minute someone used a phone while sitting in the store? The brilliant VCs believe they've fixed the model that killed Mobilestar."

"My model is different. We use our existing Wireless Points of Presence(WiPoPs) to blast a group of stores, coffee houses, restaurants, from atop a building. We don't do this everywhere, only where we already have bandwidth and roof rights. (There is) no extra cost except the AP, and we've got some old two Mbps 802.11 ones laying around. I set one up this morning. I put a two year-old two Mbps AP with an 18dBi directional antenna on top of our downtown San JoseWiPoP, and pointed it at the Starbucks, Rock 'N Tacos, Spiedo restaurant, and the Campbell Cigar shop below. It works great. I got 1.2 Mbps inside these places with my WiFi card. I didn't have to ask Starbucks, nor offer to pay them anything!"

Good for Dan. He has found a way to bring new services to new customers for almost no extra expense. But of course, I found myself wondering if there was some way I could use Dan's experience to improve my own Internet service out here in the boonies. Dan's idea was to use a high gain rooftop antenna to offer wireless Internet service. What if I found a place that already had wireless Internet service, and used a high gain antenna to take advantage of that service from a great distance? It would be just like sitting in Starbucks with a notebook computer and a latte, except that I'd be at home where the coffee is considerably cheaper.

The nearest town to where I live is Santa Rosa, a delightful community with a very good Internet Service Provider, Sonic.net. Sonic is my backup, backup ISP — the outfit I dial up if bad weather makes both my bootleg wireless DSL link and the Starband satellite unusable. It is a backup link I have never had to use — until now. Sonic also has 802.11b wireless coverage throughout most of the Santa Rosa downtown, so that's the logical place to aim my high gain antenna if I want to get faster service.

Now for a word about paying for Internet service. Some people read these articles and think I am advocating stealing service. I am not. On all the schemes I have presented (even including the "dry pair" homebuilt DSL scheme not involved in this particular column), there has to be some sort of meter between you and the Internet. Yes, at this point in the story I am preparing to grab bandwidth from Sonic.net, but I am a longtime paying customer of Sonic's, and am not proposing anything that I believe violates my service agreement.

So all I have to do is aim my high band antenna into Sonic's 802.11b service cloud. I have the high gain antenna, as well as my Sonic user name and password. There is only one thing in the way — Taylor Mountain. I can't see downtown Santa Rosa from my home because there is a 427 meter (1,400 foot) hill in the way.

Undaunted, I decided to try a bank shot. I'd simply bounce my signal off another, even higher, mountain — 1,887 foot Bennett Mountain — and straight into downtown. It is far, far easier to write these words than to actually accomplish this feat. Radio waves don't actually bounce off mountains. You need some sort of repeater. And since I don't own the top of Bennett Mountain and didn't really know who does own it, whatever repeater I used would have to be inexpensive in case I had to abandon it.

There are many designs available on the Internet for homebuilt yagi antennas, some made from old Pringles potato chip cans. Now I know the potato chip lobby refuses to see Pringles as chips, preferring they be referred to as "snacks," but it's my column, my yagi antenna, so I'll be calling Pringles "chips," not "snacks." You can find in the Links of the Week the general design I followed. Interestingly, most of the passive repeater designs on the Internet have not been tested — a fact I notch up primarily to the "Jolt Cola and Three Musketeers" phenomenon mentioned below.

A couple trips to Home Depot and about $100 later, I had in hand a pair of double-headed yagi passive repeating antennas tuned for 2.4 GHz. I built two repeaters thinking that, if I could even find a place to put them on top of Bennett Mountain, two repeaters might be better than one.

Now comes the absolute hardest part of this project, climbing Bennett Mountain with two double yagis, a notebook computer, and various implements for attaching the yagis to a tree and to each other. This is the sort of effort most geeks from the Jolt Cola and Three Musketeers school of computing should probably not try. The top of Bennett Mountain is 1.5 miles away, and 768 feet above my house and there is no way to drive any of it.

Ninety minutes later, I found the bronze marker left by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey crew in 1956 signifying the top of Bennett Mountain, but from that spot, I couldn't see my house or downtown. That required climbing a large oak tree. Once up in the tree, a blue oak, the view was amazing! I could see the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles away, and to the south I could even see San Francisco Bay. Downtown and my house were both visible, too, so I mounted the first yagi and pointed each end in the appropriate direction.

From the treetop, I could log-in to my home network and also into Sonic.net. Using both double yagis at the same time did increase total signal strength and made the installation stronger, too, since I could attach both yagis to the tree and to each other with large cable ties. The complete system, for those taking notes, involved a Linksys WAP11 access point at my house that had been reprogrammed to operate at a full 100 milliwatts. Connected to the Linksys was a Cushcraft 21 dB parabolic mesh dish antenna. The dish was aimed at the ganged jagis attached to the oak tree on Bennett Mountain, which were aimed in turn into the Sonic.net 802.11b coverage area in downtown Santa Rosa, approximately five miles away.

And it works! Right now, I am getting a solid two megabits-per-second and might try for five or even 11 megabits if the Sonic downtown network can handle those speeds. I literally got things running less than an hour ago, and have had little time to tinker with it.

But I have my doubts about this as a long-term solution. The yagis, while supposedly weatherproof, might not handle a bad storm. The installation is on shaky legal grounds, too, though I doubt there is a lawyer in California who could find those yagis. Sonic.net, which thinks I'm sitting in some bookstore computing like crazy, probably doesn't appreciate this use of their system. And that old blue oak could turn on me come springtime when its RF-absorbing leaves return. So, having proved the concept, I am going to go back to my slightly less offensive bootleg DSL connection until I can find out who owns that oak tree and make my new installation legit.

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