Prepping: Homestead Internet: Plain and Pain

This  may be one of those articles to “click and save” especially if it has dawned on you that at some point, the global economic house of cards/system will crash and living in a city could become problematic.

Of course, if/when that happens, the availability of Internet access might also become (how you say?) sketchy… Today, let’s assume no gangs, lights are on, and the web is up.  Just everyone’s broke.

Having lived in the wilds of East Texas for almost15-years, now, we’ve accidental experts on about everything that can go wrong with the Internet.

I know…”…ain’t like that in the city, old man..Our stuff works….

True, far as it goes, but if I want to go out in the wee hours of the morning, night-vision gear on and go coyote stalking, about all that’s going to happen maybe is a local sheriff may drop by and ask “Whatcha doin?” Might not even come, if I call my neighbors, first.

An answer of “Got some coyotes after my animals…” or the “Damn raccoons are tearing things up…”  will get you a nod of understanding from reasonable law enforcement.  “‘Preciate it if you could do it a closer to sunrise, though…”  “Yes Sir…”  And that’s how we roll.

The same thing would never happen in the city because if you have a problem, you call animal control.  Part of the trade-off out here is we don’t CALL animal control, we LOAD IT.

So, back to the Internet, because things out here are WAY different than in the Big City.  As our experience last week with a strange Internet issue underscored for us, if you live in a Big City, you need to grok “How Life in the Outback works.  Even the web is different…”

Providers and Service

Good starting point.   In most cities you have a choice of several telephone and Internet providers.  You can mix and match pretty easy.  Save money.  I’ve penciled it out:  What we would pay in higher property taxes would be covered by savings from our $300/month communications costs.  (Both are deductions if you work on the web, right?)

Out here, there is exactly ONE phone company (CenturyLink) and basically ONE satellite Internet provider. ViaSat.

If you try to get some other/brand X land-line outfit, good luck.  And, if you aren’t happy with 1.5 MB down and 0.25 up on a DSL (on a good day), rotsa ruck.

The problem the Telcos have in the sticks is something called “distance to carrier” to use the IBEW worker’s terminology for it.

If you live “in the city” the typical distance from your D-Mark (where their service ends and you’re on your own line, typically the RJ-45 on their DSL modem). is 600 to1000 feet.  So, on a DSL, you can (with recent equipment) count on a reasonably short run of copper before hitting a small device in a “carrier box” that will concentrate dozens of homes into a single “base-band signal” that will jump on (usually) fiber and go off to the phone company.  Easy-peasy, fast and pleasy.

Out here, the problem is “getting copper to carrier” – which means if you ever decide to move rural (even semi-rural) be sure to ask the phone company “How far am I from carrier?

One of the ol’ boys up the hill insisted on a quote to get on fiber.  Well-off oil feller.  The telco estimated cost for 8-miles of fiber?  Over half-a-million.  He passed.

In our case, the phone lines (2 of ’em) run from our phone box at the house out to the street.  That’s almost 300 feet.  Then, we hang a right down the east side of our property to the corner.  That’s 1,500 feet down thought the creek bottom and back up ‘t’other side.  Counting? Up to 1,800 feet now, and about 1,900 from the modem in my office.

A/ND we’re still not to carrier yet.

No,; sir.  We have to go 1,400 feet, down the main country road (still a single track, oil sand, lol) and then hang a left and wind around another 100 feet until we get to the carrier box.  That’s 3,400 feet.

Once we get to “carrier” there’s another problem.  You understand, out here, the data is not hitting blazing fast fiber in the carrier box.

Because of costs and slow paybacks due to low population-density, we hit what sounds like an “IMUTH” box…essentially, all the data is divided up and concentrated into four T-1 lines.  These in turn roll upstream until finally, the coax turns into fiber somewhere.  (In this case “somewhere” is a good distance away…seven miles.)

The hell of our problem – and what took so long to get sorted out – was when one of the T-1’s glitched-out in a partial failure mode – then we end up with flaky service and that explains Grumpy George of last week.

Mind you, the techs out in the boonies are spectacular people.  They are as good – and likely a whole lot better -than playing “tech roulette” in the city.  These guys have to know it all – soup to nuts to provisioning to cleaning double-IP clog-ups in the CO (central office) IP management software.

The problem (in our decade plus living out here) is utilities (like phone companies) change.  To give you an example of corporate roll-up impacts:  We’re on our fourth garbage company on the 29th of this month…just one example.  We started with a small garbage outfit, they got bought, another outfit (Republic Services) bought and now they’ve sold our route to some other trash outfit…AmeriTex or some-such.

Well, same thing happens with telco’s.  We started with Sprint, that became Embarq, and now that’s CenturyLink.  This is one of those situations (thankfully) where there’s a silver-lining to unions that most people don’t think about.  That’s because only the union guys hold these companies together in the Outback because sure as hell, no one in merry-go-round management has a clue.

Sure, they can count beans all day, design paper systems ofs incredible grandeur, but when comes down to making it all work, it’s the IBEW folks – now spun off into some new union deal (had something to do with pensions) – that make things work.

Which gets me to speed of help – when we need it.

We call CenturyLink Internet help and we get a “script reader” in the Philippines.  (I ask this kind of thing…)  They tell me (on Sunday September 16 that the soonest I can see a tech is on September 18 late afternoon.

The tech shows up, but after we work to almost six (remember, we have  8-wireless Amazon devices, nine computers, three networks and let’s not leave off the network-attached storage units…), we figure the problem is upstream and it’s here the specialist was called in for fix things on September 19.

That’s where September 19th went.

You don’t have that two-day service lag in the city.  Understand, though, Anderson County Texas is a fair-sized county (1,078 square miles) and techs have to float between multiple counties out here…especially after storms come through.  Which, oh yes, we had…  That 25 people per square mile for the county?  Our here, a mile’s a pretty small thing – on 5,280 feet…and our fence line alone is 6,200-odd.

Southwest of us, the population density is 12 people per square mile.  North?  Try six people per square mile…if that.  Payson, Arizona, just to use a small town we have looked at, is about 1,000 people per square mile, depending on time of year,

Off topic:  Our here, there are 5,400 households in our zip code.  In L.A. the 90011 zip code holds 106,000 households…

You can see why, in the city, there’s enough work that techs may be 10-minutes out.  Rare, but it can happen.  Out here, it can be a 2-hour drive after a two day wait – since you begin the fixing process from the bottom of a queue.

What About Other Carriers?

We have tried to get multiple satellite systems in.  The NRTC (national rural telecommunications commasariat, or some-such) sees to it that we are “choice-limited.”  When I tried to get ViaSat direct, I was sent back to the NRTC local electric co-op that “has our area.”

Sound like “anti-trust?”  Wrap it up a certain way and call it “in the public interest…

At any rate, after a month-from hell trying to get upgraded ViaSat service this summer (0.25 MB download speeds and such) we are finally getting 10 MB down and 0.25, or so, up when we’re lucky, which is fine.,

Except, when it rains.

Radio waves are subject to path losses because the resonant frequency of water is very close to microwave data frequencies.  Microwaves boil water, right?  On your satellite uplink, you’re talking a couple of big flashlights worth of power to hit a hole in the sky 33,000 miles up in geo-synch. A big fart can topple it, I reckon.

Which brings me to one more reason to understand ham radio:  We work on the ham radio satellites now and then and guess what?  We actually understand satellite aiming pretty good.  Still, make a prepping note to answer the question “If my satellite gets bumped, can I re-aim it?” 

Point to Point Providers

When we first moved here, we had 2-hops from fiber from East Texas Broadband.  Great Service!!!  Problem is, it was a microwave dish, too.  It was aimed at a 300 foot tower about 3 miles up the road.  Still, stunningly fast.

Problem?  The trees have grown up.  And, short of putting up a 100-foot tower (buddy can you spare me $8,000?) to get the point-to-point antenna aimed right…well, that doesn’t play, either, bubba.

Cell Phones and Hot Spots, then?

No way, Jose.  The problem with these is we are in a “holler” – and the only way to get cell coverage out here is to take a walk around the property “looking for bars.”  I mean in addition to the one off the kitchen.

You can usually find one or sometimes “two bars” from AT&T and Verizon, but they move around every day.  Not sure why – suspect it has to do with wind, trees, moisture, but nothing’s ever stable-enough to get a cell phone to work in one place UNLESS we go up 50-75 feet.  Now we’re back into another tower because the ham radio tower rotates and that’s not a benefit when you try to make a hot spot work.

If we had cooperative neighbors between us and the tower, I would call a local logging outfit that my buddy Dan told me about.  Have them come out and cut a fairway for the radio beam toward the lower.

But seriously?  I’m generous and all, but if someone wanted to cut timber on our land to make it possible for them to write on the internet…care to guess what our answer would be?  It would involved “up a rope.”

Point of today’s experiential epistle is?  If you ever “go rural” – make damn-sure you have two long-term on-ramps onto the web.

Phone companies change hands so distance to carrier is one question but more important:  “Is it fiber or old T1 gear?

If you’re on a hilltop, see who your point-to-point providers are and if they can see a path that will not be gobbled up by tree foliage loss as Nature grows back.

If you have cell coverage at your property, there’s even risk to that – since you will be placing a “property cost-sized bet” on the long-term provisioning of cell and hot spot service.

While we love ViaSat (having been through hell as they moved to higher-speed birds), make sure you understand the costs of unlimited access ($150/month for 25MB speed) and that it can/will drop out when it rains, or if someone knocks the antenna…

Those are some hard-realities about internet here in the Outback…It’s a sweet dream to live out here, but you gotta know up front what Ure getting into.  We might have chosen differently, had we know then what we know now….

Write when you get rich,

3 thoughts on “Prepping: Homestead Internet: Plain and Pain”

  1. Move to the city George. A Gig is worth a thousand downloads. That’s my speed (No Joke)….and I am sticking to it.

  2. The internet is always a double edged sword. When you look the devil in the eye, the devil looks back. That said, we have internet for now and we all might as well use it to the max while we can.

    One thought for the cell coverage is an external directional antenna mounted on your tower just below the rotator. Well aimed, it might give more bars. The FCC may take a dim view of this, but it’s backup, FWIW. Just another partial solution.

    There’s nothing more annoying than fiber on my property line(put there by an Obama “shovel ready” program that never got lit up! It sits there and mocks me. Perhaps it’s a bizop for someone.

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