BackCountry Wifi; An Epic

Part 1 : The view from Broker’s Knobb

(Part 2!)

Let me tell you a story about my log house on the northern-front of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. We just bought it a few months ago. It took us 30 years to save enough to be able to afford it, and another half-dozen to actually find it. It’s all we’ve ever really wanted, since I can remember really wanting something. It is perfect in every way I could ever possibly imagine it being perfect, except in one, teensy-tiny, eensy-weensy, for-most-other-people insignificant, and utterly ironic way. Namely: internet-access.

The perfect location to defeat internet connectivity of every kind

To quote the locals: “ain’t none”. Nestled deep in the mission-creek drainage in the shadow of shell mountain; there’s no cell reception here. No fiber. No DSL via copper phone lines. It’s 13 miles to the nearest paved road, and bonus, the lovely hillside it’s nestled into obscures our view of the southern sky, so satellite isn’t even a viable option. We’re in a bit of a canyon you see, surrounded by the towering foothills of the Absarokas (poor us). It’s a weird, and honestly kind of disrespectful-feeling thing to be complaining about, but, to be clear, this isn’t a vacation home. I live here. This is my home now. And I work from home. On the internet. Like.. for a living.

You see my dilemma.

Where no signal dares tread

Before we bought the place, the real-estate agents both assured us that we’d be able to hook up with a wireless internet provider in the area who specialized in rural internet access, but alas; not even the specialists, whose very business plan is the bringing of internet access to far-away places, could penetrate the depths of my lovely little valley, which appears as a violent gash in the belly of their interactive coverage map.

My little dream house sits on 16 acres, and most of them are below the house in terms of elevation. Grassy sloping horse pasture that runs down toward the creek. I don’t own a horse.

My neighbors by comparison are millionaire ranchers who measure their land by the cardinal number beginning the phrase “thousands of acres”. They own lots of horses. My eastern neighbor owns everything I can see all the way to the east, and my western neighbor everything to the horizon to the west. Between them, they own the very foothills. Can you imagine owning a foothills?

Neither can I.

The signal oasis, Sheep Mountain (and the snow-capped Crazy’s behind it) as seen from Reception Point

Given where they live, you might suspect my neighbors of being luddites, but they’re nothing like. They have Netflix accounts and iphones. They drive to “Reception Point” (no joke) to make calls, and use facebook. They limp along with unusable satellite internet, watching a 20 minute TV episode over the course of two or three hours. Chatting over coffee as their laptop buffers silently gasp and starve for input.

But also, they are people of the west, whose cowboy code of ethics does not indispose them to the notion of a little tenuously-legal radio transmitter experimentation. What I’m saying is, they own high hills and yearn for internet, while I? I make internet happen. And we are, all of us, somewhat infamous for taking matters into our own hands.

Anyway, suffice to say hills were reconnoitered, neighbors were stalked, cookies were baked. And several weeks later Plan-A was in motion. This, by the way, is just exactly how cable T.V. was invented in the 1940's.

Plan-A, a passive repeater on Broker’s Knob

The hill has no official name, but it’s known locally as “brokers knob” (because in the 1970’s, it’s where all the real estate agents used to bring potential land-buyers to awe them with the valley’s splendor). It’s about 3km from my little dream-house as the crow flies but unfortunately there’s no line of site (It’s fine. We’ll get to that later).

Plan-A was to re-broadcast native 4G from the highway into the valley. The primary hop is ten and a half miles. From Broker’s Knob, all the way down the shields river valley, and across the mighty yellowstone into the foothills of the Crazy Mountains.

The tower sits on the ridge of the rather majestic rocky outcropping known as Sheep Mountain. It’s the only tower for quite some distance in every direction, and it’s heavily populated by network providers. Sheep Mountain Tower is an oasis of connectivity in an otherwise barren land.

From Broker’s Knob, I measured -80db with the omni antenna attached to my Wilson signal meter. With a 10db yagi I get -68db on a clear day. I’d been reading at the time about the use of passive repeaters (literally two antenna’s with a low-loss cable between them) in subway tunnels to provide cell-phone connectivity to BART passenger’s, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

There’s no road to Brokers’ Knob, so the idea of a passive repeater also appealed to my back, since no batteries and etc.. would need to be hauled up. But alas, this plan was a bust, as was plan-b, which was an amplified version of Plan-A.

I’m not sure why Plan-B failed; we did get a 3-bar signal into the valley with that repeater setup, but it seemed like none of our hardware (phones, hotspots, etc..) would ever really associate to it. Reading up, I discovered that there’s a distance limitation built-in to the GSM Protocol. By all rights, we should have been no more than 18km total distance from the tower, but perhaps the relay added some latency. I’ll probably never know.

Plan-B, 4G terminated to high-power WIFI

Plan’s C through H all involved terminating 4G at Broker’s Knob, and transmitting WIFI from the hill into the valley.

This complicates things greatly with respect to not only networking gear, but also power. It meant the kit on the hill would need to route and NAT, along with all the crap solar, entails (Batteries, charge controllers, Nema Enclosures, and the whole shebang), but I couldn’t see any way around it. For the WIFI gear I, of course, turned to Ubiquiti Networks. Figuring-in the eventual necessity for point-to-multipoint (for my neighbors) I chose a Rocket-5M radio on a 19db 120 degree sector antenna for the AP on Broker’s Knob.

I unsuccessfully tried several pieces of gear for the router, including a very expensive cradlepoint router, and a much less expensive, very cool Netgear 4g router (pictured), for which I had very high hopes. Alas, I couldn’t get any of these devices to associate to the tower as well as my silly little consumer verizon 4g hotspot did. So in the end, I went ahead and terminated the 10db Yagi into my hotspot using it’s crappy ts-9 antenna port.

My current boarder gateway, (a consumer-ass Verizon Hotspot)

This complicated things further still since, instead of having an ethernet cable between the WIFI-Radio and the 4G router, I was going to need some sort of interstitial device capable of using the hotspot as an AP, and routing + natting ethernet traffic from the Rocket to it.

If you look close just above the zip-tie, you can see the line between power supply and the AirGateway

Enter, the Ubiquity AirGateway, which is by all rights the hero of part-one of this saga. It’s a $20 dongle designed to socket on to any Ubiquity POE injector. It’s intended to act as an AP to your laptop, thereby bridging ad-hoc clients to an upstream ethernet network without having to add a switch, but it runs a full-version of air-OS, so I was able to configure it to do essentially the opposite; running in station mode and routing to an upstream wifi network. In the photo, you can’t even tell it’s attached to the Ubiquity power-supply, and yet it’s acting as the default gateway and NAT device for the entire Valley-Side of the network.

And of course.. for every change in the network; for every failed experiment; for every dead battery; there was a lovely walk in the mountains.
My old pack is a Mystery-Ranch Cake-walk. SO VERSATILE. I can’t count the number of times I couldn’t have lived without it.
The second hop is 3Km from Broker’s Knobb to the road embankment 300m from my dream-house

As I mentioned, there’s no line of site between my dream-house and Broker’s Knob, so a second-hop became necessary. For this hop, I used two Ubiquiti Nano-Beams, which are wifi AP’s running AirOS built-in to a parabolic dish antenna and powered via POE. I swear that place is staffed entirely by evil geniuses.

The hop from Broker’s Knob to “second hop hill” (the road embankment across the road from our house)is 3km give or take, so I used a larger 19db NanoBeam 5M to shoot up the valley. Then I used a pair of the smaller 16db Nanobeam 5M’s to make the final 300 meter hop to my dream-porch. The two nanobeam’s on the utility pole are wired together with a crossover cable to save power. I’m currently reconsidering my use of the 5ghz parabolics to push wifi to my porch. If I used a 2ghz sector antenna on the pole instead, our laptops/phones could connect directly to it, and we could still point a nanobeam at it, to bring WIFI indoors. Therefore I will probably replace the house-facing nanobeam on second-hop hill with possibly a loco2, or even another rocket to blanket my entire property with wifi from across the road.

The first successful ping from my dream-house to the interwebs.

I had two pretty glorious days of working from my porch before it snowed (in August). Well, the experiment was a success anyway, and twitter was super supportive.

Broker’s Knob with frosting

The Ubiquiti gear is weatherproof of course, but my batteries, multi-bars, poe injectors, and verizon hotspot are not, so on the eve of the weather I went up to Broker’s Knob to bring everything down.

At the time, I’d been playing around with the Nanobeams and happened to have one of the smaller 16db unit’s in my pack, so on a lark, I took it out, and held it roughly North, down the mission creek valley, and took a site-survey.

To my great surprise, it found an AP, which I could only surmise belonged to WispWest. I was so excited, I literally danced a jig right there on Broker’s Knob. I bet those poor real-estate agent’s did the same thing when they finally sold the place.

I was sitting in Wisp-West’s office the next morning; willing to physically bleed if need-be in order to convince them to take me for a customer. They listened to me ramble for a bit before shrugging and saying to each other “He must be hitting the AP on Sheep Mountain”. Oasis indeed.

Evidently WispWest gets a fair number of walk-ins who are hoping to trade property easements in exchange for free internet access. It took a bit of work to convince them I wasn’t looking to put up a tower with them. I wanted a CPE install, only on a hilltop instead of at my house. I’d take it from there.

I took a screenshot of the site-survey from Broker’s Knob as evidence of my connectivity for WispWest

They were also a little apprehensive about the lack of AC power on Broker’s Knob. Evidently they get a litany of support requests every time it rains for the better part of a week, from customers who believe they’re experiencing a service outage, when in fact they’re experiencing a dead solar battery, which is neither Wisp’s prevue nor their problem.

Yall know it’s snowin up there right?

Once I convinced them that I wasn’t going to be one of those customers, they sent a technician up to measure the signal the very next day! The whole thing was super impressive. He hiked right up there with me, in the middle of a snowstorm, lugging a powerbeam and a toughbook. Even the deer were like WTF?

We proved out the signal strength, and they’ve agreed to take me on as a customer as soon as I get a permanent post stood-up, sufficient to install their gear. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll remove the 4g yagi entirely, or keep it for a back-up route.

Anyway, so ends part 1 of the epic. I have a working solution but I need to sink a permanent pole on broker’s knob to hold a Wisp-West Demarc, my Rocket-5m, an ~80w solar panel and a nema 3r enclosure with batteries, charge controllers etc.. I’m currently spec’ing all that out, along with a Raspberry Pi to log battery voltage and possibly control an enclosure heater to keep the battery warm. Hopefully we can be in business before winter.

Continue to Part 2!

current experimental network map (hopefull the 4g hotspot/AirGateway will be replaced with a WispWest managed PowerBeam)