Monday, April 20, 2015

Living Off The Grid: Getting Internet Access

Introduction


There are some die-hard folks in this area who have lived off the grid for decades and they don't understand how the Internet could be central to someone's life. Of course these same people all seem to have Internet access, even if all they use it for is bejeweled.

Moving to this remote cabin was quite a shock. No cell service and no Internet. The neighbors have a slow DSL connection with a Wi-Fi router, but the router is 'old as dirt' in the phone company's own words. Oh, and the ancient router has one broken antenna, so they didn't even get good Wi-Fi coverage in the next room, not to mention poor me who had to stand in a certain spot on the trail on my tippy toes while I hoped my tablet would connect and check my email.

Most folks living in a rural area have limited options for Internet access, which I will go through here. I ended up getting Internet by putting a router at the neighbor's house on their patio facing the little valley I live in, and another router inside the cabin to form a wireless-to-wireless Wi-Fi bridge. It's not a solution I'm doing back-flips for, but every device in my abode can now connect to the Internet and update apps, check email, etc.

My router in the loft of the cabin, forming a bridge with the router at the neighbor's house


Cable / DSL


It is possible to push the envelope on traditional technologies, but it's usually very expensive and a huge hassle even if you have the money. No company wants to roll a truck with a crew full of guys to spend the day installing expensive equipment just for one customer.

Cable is easier to push farther distances, and it never hurts to ask...

Fixed Wireless


This is a specialized service that you will mainly only find in rural areas. The way it works is that a provider puts some antennas high up in the surrounding area, and the customers use a special modem that uses the wireless signal.

These types of services are almost always from a smaller provider, and sometimes you can end up with a fast, low-latency connection at least in the ballpark with something like cable.

Fixed wireless is usually area and provider specific so it pays to do your homework.

Line of Sight


There are LOS types of Internet service which use focused beams of light or even high frequency microwave energy to give you a wireline-quality connection to the Internet. When all the stars line up that is. Bump the equipment and bye bye connection. Bad weather and bye bye connection. Like fixed wireless, it's usually a local 'boutique' provider. But in some situations it can give you a high quality connection to a remote area.

3G / 4G Internet


If your area gets a strong cellular signal, that is often your best bet for Internet access, although keep in mind that most providers like Verizon and AT&T have low data caps with ridiculous fees for going over.

But for just surfing the web, this is not a bad technology. Most phones can "tether" to act as a portable Wi-Fi hots pot to give Internet access to all your other devices. These tethered phones will also track your usage and help you manage the artificially-scarce bandwidth the carriers give you in the hopes of gouging you with overage fees.

There are also dedicated devices that will take a 3G or 4G signal and create a hotspot, making sure that your Wi-Fi is always available in a certain area even if you are not there.

Satellite Internet


When all else fails, there's always satellite Internet. Modern satellite connections have almost the bandwidth of Cable with slightly better data caps than the cellular providers. There's just one little catch. Every bit of data (packet) has to go to space and back. Now, even travelling the speed of light, that's about a half second each way.

What this all means is when you click on a link, it takes a full second before the page comes up in your browser. This doesn't seem like a lot, but most people are used to a 10-100 millisecond latency,which is thousandths of a second.

The high latency isn't a big deal for streaming media like music or videos. There's a one second delay and then from that point forward, your stream is the same as it would be on a cable connection.

This type of connection pretty much makes online gaming impossible due to the high latency.

Other


In my little cabin in the woods, I was hoping to do some gaming. The neighbor is about 1/4 mile way on a road, but only 500-600 feet across a gully as the crow flies. I thought strongly about running Ethernet, but it only goes 300 feet without a repeater. There is a strand of romex giving me power, and it would be possible to splice the romex at the point where it would need a repeater. Sounds like a nightmare, right?

So what I did was plug a dual-band, nice shiny new router into their existing DSL modem/router and run the new router onto their back patio, with all three of its antennas facing the gully. Then I put a router in the cabin and set it to wireless extender/repeater mode.

This configuration I have acts as a wireless-to-wireless bridge, and now every device in my cabin sees a full five bars of Wi-Fi from the cabin router.

Unfortunately my Wi-Fi connection is only as good as the neighbor's DSL connection, which is flaky at best. I'm surprised the neighbors even have DSL and aren't on satellite. Given that the neighbors pay something like 30 bucks a month for their lowest tier DSL service, and that high latency satellite is 80 a month for the lowest plans, I think I'm getting a pretty good deal at zero dollars a month to leech off the neighbor's Internet.

Of course, I give them lots of swag from my blog, and they could decide one day they don't like me and power off my router, but for now I have free Internet just from thinking outside the box cabin.

Good Karma


My solution not only scored me free Internet access for my little cabin, but it also gave the neighbors drastically increased Wi-Fi coverage for their property and the surrounding area. Their ancient phone company router barely covered their own house, and now there are three Wi-Fi hot spots covering almost a quarter mile square area.

I only half-joked about them using their connection just for browser games. In areas they have service in, they will often look up local plant and wildlife. They have been in this area 50 years and still encounter things they have never seen before, and of course they can pull up a picture of some weird rat to amaze visitors like me.

My Wireless Bridge

For the neighbor's house, I bought a fairly expensive dual band ASUS RT-N66U router which is shiny and fast and awesome, but I'm not sure how much that extra money got me. It doesn't really need the dual band for the 768k class DSL connection, but I guess it leaves some room to grow.

On the cabin side I have a $20 TP-LINK TL-WR841N router with the high gain antennas, which you can see in the photo above. It's a SUPERB router not counting the several hours it took to figure out how to configure it for what I wanted to do. If I had it to do over again, I probably would've tried the $20 router on both ends, though I've always liked Asus routers. I am still surprised by how good a $20 router can be.

I even bought a Medialink Range Extender in the same order for the cabin side, but it didn't get as good of a connection as the TP-LINK did, so it's sitting as a backup in a box in the loft. It was easy to setup, though, giving the cabin it's first Internet ever with less than 5 minutes of setup time. But it doesn't have those high gain antennas I needed from the TP-LINK.

I may still use it to extend the Wi-Fi further up the property, but it should be noted that every wireless bridge you add introduces latency and lowers the connection speed. 



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