The Last 1000 Feet

by b1tl0ck

It was April 2003; we were breaking ground on what would become the greatest struggle for high-speed Internet that I have ever experienced.

While building the house was challenging enough, finding an ISP that offered high-speed Internet in my area was my greatest challenge.

Before we even broke ground, I called Time Warner Cable (TWC) to make sure that Road Runner was available in the area we were building.  I was informed "Yes, it should not be a problem."  I followed this call up with a visit to the TWC website, and it was confirmed that I could indeed get Road Runner based on the phone number of a house in the area we were building.  This gave me a feeling of relief.

When the house was about finished and our phone number was assigned, I decided to call TWC once again to find out when I could get Road Runner installed.

During this call, I was informed that Road Runner was not available for my house.  In a state of disbelief, I asked the person to check again.  After reconfirming that it was not available, they offered to perform a site survey to determine why exactly they could not provide Road Runner to my residence.

The results of the site survey concluded that they would need to extend service 8850 feet to provide service to my house.

The letter indicated that TWC would cover $1800 of the project, and that I would need to cover the remaining $38,946.  Don't get me wrong; I enjoy broadband as much as the next person, but I was not about to pay that kind of money for it.  There was a contact person and phone number listed on the letter.  I decided to call this person to find out if I was expected to pay that amount for service.  The person said that the company writes letters like that on occasion and that nobody had taken them up on the offer to date.  I thanked her for her time and politely declined their services.

After calling all the major broadband providers that I could find, I realized that it was going to be a losing battle.  I decided to look for a more "grass roots" type of establishment.  The first local ISP I called had been around for a long time in the town where I live, and they had just started providing a wireless broadband service.  My ears perked up a bit when I was talking to the tech guy about it, but there was a catch.  My house had to be within line of sight of the water tower located about 5 miles away.  I scurried up to my rooftop to see what I could see.  A feeling of sorrow came over me.  I couldn't see the water tower from my house...

Then, I had a "eureka" moment.  My in-laws live just a stones throw away from my house (well, actually, it's about a quarter mile), and they're on a hill.  I raced up their driveway and, what do you know, I could see the water tower from their front yard.  I called the ISP and signed up the in-law's house.  They came out and installed their antenna and radio.  Their house was now hooked up.

Being in the IT industry, I thought to myself "I can make this work; I know enough about wireless communications to 'shoot' the signal from the in-laws' house over to my house."  Even if I didn't, that's what Google and smart friends are for.  I measured it out, and it was about 1000 feet (line-of-sight) from the corner of their porch to the back corner of my house.

The hunt was on.

I needed the equipment to make it happen.  Having dabbled a bit in wireless "cantenna" building, I had a few ideas for where I could find the goods I needed.  A few websites and phone calls later, I had my antennas on order.  I also purchased two Linksys WAP11 access points and a standard four-port Linksys router from a large electronics store.

Finally, the day came, and my antennas arrived.  I had purchased an omnidirectional antenna for my house and a directional, Yagi-style, antenna for the in-laws' house.  I won't go into the technical specs of each antenna, but I'll say they are commercial-grade, meaning they are very nice.

When I showed my father-in-law the antenna that I wanted to mount on the front of his house, he was a bit skeptical.  Not only because he thought I was nuts for going to all this trouble for Internet, but also because the antenna was white, and his house was brown.  I told him I'd simply paint the antenna to match his house, and he was on board.

I mounted the omnidirectional antenna on top of our TV antenna and purchased 50 feet of heavily shielded cable with TNC connectors.  At the in-laws' house, the directional antenna was mounted on the corner of the porch and a cable was run up through the soffit, through a closet in the bedroom, and connected to the left antenna jack of the WAP11.  I cut a hole into the wall behind a shelf in the closet in order to climb out into the soffit area to pull the cable through.  I then drilled two more holes and mounted the cables nicely into the wall.  In the basement of my house, I set up the other WAP11 in bridging mode, with the cable of the omnidirectional antenna plugged into the left antenna.  The RJ45 jack on the back of the WAP11 in my basement fed into the "source" port on my main switch, which fed all of the network jacks in my house.  DHCP was being served from the in-laws' house via a relatively inexpensive router.

After three years of reliable service, around May 2006, the wireless connection between the two houses became flakey and unreliable.  After troubleshooting, I narrowed the issue down to bad hardware on one of the WAP11 devices.  I went back to the large electronics store only to find that WAP11s had been replaced by WAP54G device.  (While in bridging mode, the WAP11 would only communicate with a few other Linksys devices; WAP54G was not one of them.)  I purchased two WAP54G devices for around $79 each, went home, configured the devices, and within 20 minutes was back up and running.

Since May 2006, there have been sporadic hardware issues with the Linksys devices I used.  I've replaced each access point in my system twice since 2003.  Yes, I know I could invest in some higher-grade equipment, but where's the sport in that?

Another item to mention is that between our houses is a fairly thick tree line.  For the first couple of years, like clockwork, each Mother's Day the Internet connection would go flakey.  Turned out that when all the leaves grew back on the trees, it was enough cover to hinder the signal strength.  After investing in a tree saw, we've made sure there is a large enough hole in the tree line that we won't have to worry about the degraded signal for a few more years.

Some of the things I've been kicking around for future improvements are:

  1. Bury a cable between the houses and sever the wireless communications.  This route would be difficult because the distance between the houses is greater than the maximum distance recommended for Cat 5e.  This would need some sort of repeater/signal amplifier in-between, which would require power.
  2. Swapping out the antennas for newer equipment, but if it isn't broke, there's no hurry.
  3. Experiment with better hardware and software firewalls to replace the Internet-facing router in place today.

I'm getting 1.5 Mbps down and 384 kbps up with the service I subscribe to.

Not the fastest connection in town, but it was a learning experience for me as well as a fun project.  Whenever I call the ISP (usually after a big storm, when their antennas on the water tower are acting up), I get the usual greeting of, "Oh.  Hi <insert my name here>.  You're the one with the wireless between the houses."  One nice thing about the ISP being local is that they don't mind me doing what I'm doing; in fact they donated a couple of antennas to my cause the last time they came out to see me.

Thank you for reading and I hope that this story inspires you to keep going when someone or some company tells you that what you want to do isn't available or possible.

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