Yes Virginia, there is broadband in rural America!

My connection to the civilized world (the internet) had degraded to the point where I could no longer work. While my internet service provider was helpful in diagnosing the problem, their solution was unacceptable.

I live in a rural area bereft of cable television, fiber optic lines, and any other form of cable plant based broadband services. The only broadband services available in my area are satellite, cellular, and my ISP’s private point to point radio (P2P) -- think wireless only with different, higher power frequencies. This form of broadband requires line of sight for the best signal and therefore the highest bandwidth.

I have already tried and given up the satellite option because of the terrestrial latency and unreliable bandwidth. Satellite systems are affected greatly by weather conditions as well (much more so than cellular). Basically, if it rained you lost your signal. Heavy snow and overcast skies were sure to cut bandwidth in half. With bursts of somewhere less than 400 Kbps download speeds, ruthless bandwidth throttling when you exceeded 2 Mb in a 24-hour period, and a maximum 128 Kbps upload speeds, it wasn’t so blazing fast as the commercials claimed.

The cause of the degraded P2P radio signal was simply because the trees in my area had grown more than ten feet in the past two years. I was told I would have to erect at least a 60’ radio tower in order to return to the highest expected speed of 1.2 Mbps. The connection had degraded so badly that I was getting only 60 Kbps bursts with an average of about 40 Kbps download and less than 20 Kbps upload speeds. On top of that, only about 25% of the packets were getting through to the server because the signal was so weak the equipment was generating faults.

I researched various forms of towers. The ‘affordable’ options are a huge ugly telephone pole or a slightly more elegant (but my wife says nerdy) freestanding or guyed metal lattice tower (like a ham radio tower). The least expensive tower was going to run me a cool $3500-3700 US installed with a three week delivery timeframe and the telephone pole option was a little more but would take at least 3 months to get installed because it required renting a crane that is only available every other month because it is shared by another county in the state (strange, but true). Clearly, the tower option was a no brainer so I decided to switch broadband providers.

With no other option left, I began a quest to find the best cellular-based ISP. Just about every major carrier has broadband access via their cellular modems. The modems come in a variety of forms (express card, PCMCIA, USB) and most come with drivers for two of the world’s popular operating systems. With some digging one can even find drivers for Linux systems.

Once I began researching the cellular carriers, I discovered the only ones that have towers in my area are AT&T and Verizon. Yes, the technical world has yet to reach rural Virginia!

I tried AT&T first but it soon became obvious that they don’t have broadband in my area and their speeds never exceeded 100 Kbps download even with an external antenna. A trip to the nearest AT&T store (1 hour one-way) and a conversation with a ‘red shirt’ confirmed that AT&T is not a viable option. Fortunately AT&T has a 30-day trial period. It only took me 3 days to give up and return the modem and cancel the service.

That left Verizon Wireless. I don’t really like Verizon Wireless because the coverage in my area is really poor. I had Verizon phones for a while but gave them up and went with AT&T simply so that I could make a call from my home. A buddy of mine has Verizon Wireless broadband and swears by it. I asked him to bring his laptop over to my office and try it. Much to my surprise, not only did he get a strong signal, he was getting almost 300 Kbps download speeds.

With nothing to loose (Verizon also has a 30-day trial period), I decided to go back to Verizon. Unfortunately, Verizon has a very strict monthly data limit of 5 Gb. I routinely use 9 Gb per month so I had to buy two new Verizon Pantech UMB175 modems (free with contracts) because Verizon doesn’t have a plan with a higher data limit. A very knowledgeable Verizon ‘red shirt’ suggested I switch out the modems once a month and thereby avoid the severe $0.25 per Mb overage charge. I will have to make sure my internet data access is curbed -- no more late night on-demand movies! :)

Before you ask, no, Verizon does not offer the Sun discount for data contracts. What a bummer, eh?

I installed the modem software on my laptop and fired up the speed test I was pleased to discover I was getting over 300 Kbps download and upload speeds without an external antenna. I experimented with several antenna finally settling on the Wilson Trucker’s antenna. You may wonder why I chose a mobile antenna instead of a Yagi or other antenna and why I’m not using an amplifier. I asked around and several knowledgeable people recommended this form of antenna (omni-directional with 5-6 dB gain) and said an amplifier would be overkill. They were right. I get a -67 dBm (80%) signal strength which is just about maximum for the Pantech modem (the nice folks at confirmed this). I mounted two of the antenna on the roof of my office (they must be separated by at least 8 feet to avoid crosstalk) and ran the cables to my modems. The new antenna boosted the signal significantly giving me 1.0 Mbps download and 800 Kbps upload speeds. I was delighted.

Next, I had to figure out how to use the modems for my home network. I solved that problem by purchasing a Cradlepoint MBR-1000 cellular router. This router is really cool. Not only does it have a wireless-N access point, it also has one express card slot and two USB ports supporting a long list of modems from just about every cellular carrier. The multiple modem ports allow you to use up to three cellular modems in a load balancing and failover setup. Now I have both of my USB modems connected with load balancing turned on and my home network connected to the internet. Hey, Verizon! Can you hear me now? :P

Here are some links if you’re interested in learning more about my cellular antenna and cellular router

I must say the folks at Cradlepoint are very knowledgeable and very responsive. They answered all of my questions quickly and thoroughly. I highly recommend their products.


what a quest.

Posted by Alfranio on December 13, 2008 at 04:29 AM EST #

I live in rural Southwestern Virginia and this blog entry gave me some great ideas. Thanks for the links.

I really hope that rural broadband access is something that can get a lot of support in the coming years. God knows we need it.

Posted by Ernie Braganza on December 19, 2008 at 01:20 AM EST #

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Charles Bell


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