Alternative Internet Access Methods
April 30, 2021
Today you likely take access to the Internet for granted, using your phone for short bits of communication, or a computer connected via a router and WiFi or a directly wired connection for more serious input.
How this data is transferred is often restricted to a handful of choices, potentially meaning high prices and/or lackluster performance. While geography, i.e. actually laying cable from location to location, has been a barrier to competition in the past, there now a few other options that might be worth a look.
Wireless Community Network
You might not own the land that connects point A to point B, or have an easement to run cable between the two, but with RF communication this isn’t a strict requirement. Methods for data transmission include 802.11 WiFi standards, often combined with directional antennas (e.g. “cantennas”) for range extension. One interesting alternative is the RONJA, which was released in 2001 and used optical light to transmit data at 10 Mbit/s in full duplex–certainly impressive for the time.
(Image Credit:By energylabsbr - Finished Cantenna in Dish, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54852340)
This sort of community network/wireless Internet access projects started somewhere circa the year 2000, and they seem to have had a sort of ad hoc heydey for a few years while more “official” broadband services continued to catch up. These small networks appear to have sprung up independently worldwide with varying results. If you weren’t satisfied with dialup, and there were other like-minded individuals around, it was certainly an interesting time to access the Internet.
Now with the web/apps/etc. in the palms of our hands at rather reasonable prices, it might seem that the motivation for such networks doesn’t exist anymore. This, however, isn’t entirely the case, and the idea of a wireless community network is far from dead. For example, these two networks are very much active today, in very different environments:
Guifi.net describes itself as “a bottom-up, citizenship-driven technological, social and economic project with the objective of creating a free, open and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model.” It was established in 2004 in Catalonia, Spain using WiFi radio links to provide broadband Internet access to rural areas. Today it operates over radio links, as well as fiber, providing service via well over 30,000 nodes.
NYC Mesh, centered in the Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn regions of New York City, features 702 nodes, which generally serve one building and may service a number of apartments. Nodes connect through a mesh network of hubs and finally supernodes, the latter of which pipe data to and from the Internet.
(NYC Mesh interactive map: https://www.nycmesh.net/map/ - Image Credit: Screencap: https://www.nycmesh.net/map/)
Somewhere in between commercial Internet Service Providers and entirely grass-roots community networks lies municipal broadband. The basic concept is that instead of a private company providing Internet access, a municipality is the entity taking care of it.
How well this works form a cost and performance standpoint varies from city to city, and certain states put limits or restrictions on how it can be implemented. According to BroadbandNow, my home state of Florida has some barriers to this kind of implementation.
Interestingly, the previous link mentions that the cities of Bartow and Ocala, both relatively small municipalities, operate their own networks. While a guess on my part, perhaps the combination of a rural environment where traditional carriers aren’t excited to service, and the flexibility of a smaller population and city government were helpful to this implementation.
While an Internet connection method run by a large and well-funded company like SpaceX might seem out of place here, ultimately it’s poised to bring competition to broadband providers regardless of geography and local restrictions. Instead of transferring data from one land-based point to another, the system uses a constellation of thousands of satellites to handle this data with a high bandwidth and low latency.
Or that’s the plan. As of this writing, the project is still in in a beta stage, and users can expect speeds from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s. While not terrible, this does lag behind many traditional services. Latency may be also be an issue for some, as it’s between 20ms and 40ms. Other drawbacks include potential interference with other satellites, and even visual obstruction of the sky, though both may be overstated.
Regardless of potential drawbacks, this service will allow for more competition, along with the ability to have Internet access in places where it was previously unfeasible. I’s an amazing accomplishment from a pure technological standpoint, and could be a real game-changer when it matures.
Do You Actually Need An Alternative?
In the end, while I find this technology exciting, it’s hard for me personally to justify using a non-traditional service. It seems that there is some competition in my area, which likely helps with prices in general. Additionally, my small-ish neighborhood was able to negotiate a group rate with our ISP, which is thrown into a rather reasonable home owners association (HOA) fee.
Perhaps one might say this sort of grass-roots neighborhood bargaining is in the spirit of community networking or municipal mesh networking. While not a purely technological solution, it can be important to step outside of the tech-centric box and consider how else you might be able to accomplish a goal. If you’re not satisfied with your network connectivity, consider that there might be a better option out there if you look around a bit!