[Revised June, 2009]

Local Network Cookbook:
A Recipe for Starting a Local Broadband Wireless Network
via Federal Stimulus Funding

By Wally Bowen, Founder/Executive Director
Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN)
Asheville, N.C.


The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband deployment in unserved and underserved communities. Most of this federal broadband stimulus funding is earmarked for nonprofit organizations and local government entities. Grant application windows are expected in July, November, and May, 2010.

This funding will be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) over the next 12 months. NTIA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce; RUS is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For NTIA stimulus funding, large commercial providers must get special permission from the agency director to receive a grant. It is not yet clear whether RUS will adopt this funding approach. The grant application windows of July, November and May, 2010 are approximate until each agency issues its Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA). A summary of federal broadband stimulus funding can be found at: http://www.baller.com/pdfs/Baller_Herbst_Stimulus_2-19-09.pdf

A note on federal grant proposals: Many community-based nonprofits turn to their local Council of Government (COG) for help with federal grant applications. Indeed, COGs can serve as the fiscal agent for new grassroots organizations with little or no track record of managing major grants. Federal agencies are accustomed to using COGs as conduits for federal grants to community-based organizations. Usually, the COG's administrative fee is factored into the grant request.

A Jeffersonian Internet?

Federal broadband stimulus funding is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for local nonprofit organizations -- especially community media centers -- to become Internet service providers (ISP) and begin developing new revenue streams. It's also an historic opportunity for advocates of Internet Freedom. Creating community-based broadband networks would be a huge step toward creating the critical "third pipe" alternative to the cable/telco duopoly. The proliferation of these community-based networks would generate market pressure to force the major carriers to restore “net neutrality” protections for broadband users.

In short, this broadband stimulus opportunity opens the door to the possibility of a new “Jeffersonian Internet” comprised of a “network-of-grassroots-networks” where civil liberties and quality journalism are valued over Wall Street business models.

"Local Network Cookbook: A Recipe for Launching a Local Broadband Wireless Network" is aimed at helping nonprofit organizations -- especially those already using digital technologies -- move quickly to plan and submit a broadband stimulus funding proposal for one of the three application windows.

Why Wireless?

Why wireless? Some advocates believe that fiber-to-the-home should be the goal of U.S. broadband policy. While commendable, this view overlooks two critical factors: First, implementing this policy would take time, especially in rural areas. Wireless, meanwhile, could deliver broadband quickly in many rural and low-income urban areas, while a long-term fiber component is being pursued. Second, broadband is going mobile, which requires a wireless solution. Given these realities, it's clear that the best solutions for community-based networks will be some combination of fiber and wireless deployment. Fiber and wireless also provide symmetrical speeds – where upload and download speeds are roughly the same. By contrast, cable and DSL technologies are asymmetrical, whereby upload is a fraction of the download speed. That's why cable and DSL technologies have a limited future.

It's imperative that community-based groups seize this historic opportunity. The broadband stimulus funding guidelines are written to favor community-based networks; however, where local networks are not forthcoming, Wall Street-controlled, absentee-owned networks could prevail.

The Hidden Costs of Absentee-Owned Networks

Underserved communities and neighborhoods -- both rural and urban -- have suffered long enough under absentee-owned networks. Advances in digital technologies now make it possible for even the smallest community to own and operate a broadband network. Moreover, local networks can build and operate broadband networks more cost-effectively because their designs do not include additional electronics for "deep packet inspection," a controversial digital-snooping technique that allows big carriers to track how customers use the Internet.

Local networks create local jobs, instead of outsourcing jobs overseas. Local networks also bring “social capital” benefits –- a critical ingredient for innovation -- because their IT staff live and work in the communities they serve. These local experts are thereby available to share their knowledge and experience with the community's schools, youth organizations, and local businesses. The social capital impact of local networks on innovation, job-creation, and economic development deserves serious attention from economists and broadband policy analysts.

This recipe is aimed at locally-owned "last-mile" networks to serve homes and businesses. However, some communities start with a "middle-mile" fiber network to help reduce wholesale bandwidth costs for local industry, hospitals, schools and government agencies. Unfortunately, these “institutional” networks leave the last-mile service to commercial providers, who -- by necessity -- cherry-pick the more lucrative business subscribers, leaving low-income neighborhoods underserved.

Some communities or regions – like the mountain region of North Carolina – have created both nonprofit middle-mile fiber infrastructure AND a nonprofit, last-mile wireless network.

This local network recipe was written primarily for community-based groups focused primarily on last-mile broadband using wireless technologies to reach underserved homes and businesses. However, many of the same steps apply to organizing a nonprofit fiber network for middle-mile connectivity. For more information on starting a community-based fiber network, contact the author at: wallyb@main.nc.us .

Now, let's get started with the basic ingredients for starting a local broadband wireless network.

Basic Ingredients

  1. Vision

  2. The Need

  3. IT Team

  4. Upstream Internet Link

  5. Network Design

  6. Network Hardware

  7. Wireless Transmitter Site

  8. Customer Premise Equipment (CPE)

  9. Staffing and Operating Budget

1. The Vision -- Your vision can be simple (we want our own network) or more complex (a hybrid fiber-wireless network to support community journalism, etc). The important thing is to be flexible; let your vision evolve as circumstances and opportunities change. Community-based networks can address multiple problems and opportunities simultaneously. As a general rule, however, keep it simple if you're starting from scratch.

2. The Need -- Rural and urban low-income neighborhoods have the greatest need for affordable broadband. You may want to focus on a single neighborhood or town to start. The selection of your initial service area may be driven by existing assets, such as the location of your community radio station or PEG facility, or a community-owned tower, water tank, or tall building from which to deliver broadband wireless.

3. The IT Team -- Information technology (IT) is a highly technical field which can seem arcane and daunting to many community activists. Paradoxically, this may be the easiest step in building your own network. IT professionals are everywhere: every school system, hospital, community college, and local government has an in-house IT pro. Local computer clubs often have a wealth of IT expertise. IT pros usually have a solid understanding of Internet Freedom issues (digital inclusion, privacy, civil liberties, open-source, high cost of bandwidth, absentee-owned networks, etc). A few phone calls or a public meeting to share your vision is usually all it takes to begin assembling a solid IT team. Linux user groups (LUGs) are also an excellent source for IT talent.

4. Upstream Link -- Your local IT pros can determine the cost and availability of the "fat pipe" you need to link your local broadband network to the Internet (more details below). Typical sources of this wholesale bandwidth (sometimes called the "middle-mile" or "backhaul" link) are the local phone or cable companies, or a "competitive local exchange carrier" (CLEC, one of the few good things to come out of the 1996 Telecom Act). Of course, the high cost of this wholesale bandwidth in rural areas is one of the great challenges we face, which is why some rural communities are building "middle-mile" fiber networks before tackling "last-mile" broadband service to homes and businesses. These community-based fiber networks typically start with a coalition of institutional users, such as hospitals, schools, government agencies, and major industries. Two examples of these nonprofit fiber networks are PANGAEA and ERC Broadband.

5. Wireless Access Point -- This is typically a telecommunications tower, forest service fire tower, water tank, or roof of a tall building -- basically, any location which gives your wireless transmitter/antenna array an optimal viewshed of the area you want to serve. Rental fees for commercial cell towers are usually cost-prohibitive, while publically-owned structures can often be leased at low cost, or no cost in a barter arrangement.

6. Network Design -- Your IT team will draft a preliminary network design based on the area you plan to serve and the availability of the upstream link. The location of existing facilities (e.g. PEG studios or radio station) may also be key in your network design. Designing a network is like connecting the dots. Your existing assets, upstream link availability, and service area may limit you to a single network design. Or, your IT team may find several possible network configurations.

One of the most promising new 'last-mile' technologies is "mesh" wireless. This network topology consists of very low-power radios -- called nodes -- strategically placed throughout a neighborhood. These nodes, in effect, can “talk” to each other to create a create a grassroots sub-network. These interconnected nodes enable more efficient bandwidth-sharing and higher network performance. Each node creates a giant Wi-Fi hotspot -- many times larger than a coffeehouse hotspot. Anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop in a "mesh" neighborhood can connect to the Internet. Roughly one-in-four of these nodes requires a direct connection to the Internet, providing a more cost-effective way of extending affordable broadband access to underserved areas.

NOTE: Technology changes fast. If you're applying for a grant to build your own network, remember that funders are open to your changing the network design if a better option becomes available. Also, network hardware vendors are usually willing to give a free critique of your network design; their feedback can be very valuable. Just keep in mind their inherent bias toward their specific hardware solution.

7. Network Hardware -- Once your IT team has settled on a basic network design, you're ready to begin selecting your network hardware. If you're applying for a grant, it's usually OK to specify a particular hardware manufacturer, model and pricing (Motorola transmitter, etc) in order to flesh out your budget. However, as noted above, funders are generally open to your amending the budget if you find a more cost-effective solution between the time of your application and project implementation.

8. Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) -- This is the equipment which terminates your "last-mile" network at your subscriber's home or business. For wireless broadband networks, the CPE is typically a modem which can receive your network's wireless signal. This modem-receiver has a standard cable which plugs into a desktop computer or laptop (or Wi-Fi router for subscribers with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops). In most cases, the installation of the CPE will require a site-visit by your staff. However, adding mesh technology to your network reduces the number of these modems you need to deploy, thereby reducing your labor and hardware costs while boosting network efficiency.

9. Staffing & Operating Costs -- Designing, budgeting, and obtaining capital to build your network is the critical first step. The next step is calculating the ongoing operating costs of your network, which will also determine what you charge for broadband access. Some small wireless networks are two-person operations serving up to 500 subscribers. Their staff handles tech-support calls via their mobile phones while in the field installing a new subscriber. A $200-a-year online accounting package allows them to sign-up new subscribers from their laptops in the field.

A more complex model is the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, N.C. MAIN has four full-time technical staff (network director, assistant ND, webmaster, and tech support) and several part-time wireless installers who work as needed. This tech staff is supported by a part-time receptionist and part-time billing/bookkeeper, and full-time executive director (who is mainly focused on policy advocacy and fundraising). This staff supports about 500 wireless subscribers over a four-county network (three rural counties plus the city of Asheville and environs). This staff also support 1,200 local and national dial-up subscribers, more than 400 webhosting clients, and a low-power FM radio station. The LPFM station has a full-time manager who receives IT support from our network staff and financial management/fundraising support from non-technical staff.

Four Basic Steps for Network Implementation

Once you have funding or financing to build your network, there are three basic steps for implementing your network plan.

Step One

Re-visit your IT team's plan for “upstream' bandwidth, as pricing and availability do change. This is the big “fat pipe” that takes all of your subscribers' traffic – in the aggregate -- to the Internet. (It's also called the “middle-mile” or “backhaul” link.) Upstream bandwidth is usually leased from a phone, cable, or other 'middle-mile' provider. This wholesale bandwidth comes in two forms -- or measurements -- based on speed and/or capacity:

  1. The T-1 line provides 1.5 megabits-per-second (mbps) and is usually leased from the local phone company. Individual T-1 lines can be "bundled" to increase upstream capacity. For example, to create upstream capacity of 3 mbps, you would have the provider “bundle” two T-1 lines.

  2. Upstream bandwidth from other landline providers – such as a cable or fiber network (wireless on rare occasions) -- is usually measured and priced by the megabit. For example, MAIN's Asheville POP (telecom jargon for 'point of presence') has a capacity of 6.5 mbps. Our bandwidth is provided by local nonprofit fiber networks at a cost of approximately $100 per megabit.

How much bandwidth is enough? The 6.5 megabits our Asheville network consumes each month serves:

Because all subscribers will not be downloading 3 mbps simultaneously, a single 3 mbps upstream link can support a large number of subscribers (150-200 or more), depending on time of day and types of usage (e.g. a relatively small number of "gamers" can quickly "soak" an upstream link).

The correct subscribers-to-megabit ratio is a subject of passionate debate among network staff. There is no hard and fast rule. Therefore, "networking monitoring" is standard operating procedure so that spikes in usage can be tracked and upstream capacity increased as needed. Some upstream providers will allow your usage to "burst" above the contracted limit; you simply pay the overage, thereby ensuring consistent network performance. "Traffic-shaping" tools are also available to optimize upstream capacity.

Step Two

Set up your network hardware, which will terminate your upstream connection and form your broadband service platform, including email, hosting, etc.

Basic network hardware components are routers and servers.

Router -- The T-1 or fiber/cable upstream link connects to your core router. By using the open-source Linux operating system (OS), a core router can cost less than $1,000.

Servers -- For less than $2,000, these high-speed, high-capacity computers provide three basic services:

Many ISPs outsource these services with their upstream provider or with a third-party provider -- for as little as $300 a month for a complete package.

At MAIN, we "feed-and-water" our own servers because we are fortunate to employ a "Uber-geek" -- our webmaster -- who performs magic on these servers and is a terrific resource for local web-designers and our hosting clients.

Step Three

Set up your "last-mile" network to deliver broadband service to the home or business -- the end user.

Because independent ISPs cannot resell cable or DSL broadband access (due to "Brand X" court and FCC rulings in 2005), the only practical solution for covering the "last mile" is unlicensed wireless.

As we await the unlicensed "white spaces" technology, the existing unlicensed frequencies -- 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, and 900 MHz -- are the most common wireless technologies. A new "lite-licensed" frequency -- 3.65 GHz -- promises far greater speeds and range (20 mbps with 20-mile range). The "lite license" simply means that the geo-location of the transmitter must be registered with the FCC via a simple online process.

When MAIN launched a wireless broadband service in 2003, 900 MHz was the best "last mile" option, as this lower-frequency signal can "bend" to a small degree around buildings and ridges and penetrate foliage at close range (under two miles). Wireless broadband via 900 MHz, therefore, is sometimes called “non-line-of-sight” (NLOS). The two higher frequencies -- 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz -- require strict "line of sight" (LOS) but can deliver a viable signal up to 20 miles or more, depending on power levels and signal concentration. The latest versions of these unlicensed technologies offer subscriber speeds up to 4-8 mbps.

These wireless technologies are usually employed in three ways:

We are currently testing the 3.65 GHz "lite-licensed" technology, whose higher-power signal and superior capacity can support higher speeds, greater distances, and more subscribers. We believe this will be a good backhaul solution for our mesh "Wi-Fi City" network in densely-populated city neighborhoods, but it is still a strict LOS technology not suitable in our more rural, mountainous service area.

A single wireless broadband transmission array, or wireless access point (WAP), is typically located on a municipal telecom tower, forest service fire tower, water tank or rooftop. The WAP consists of the following components:

Step Four

Hooking up the subscriber to your network. Strength-of-signal is the determining factor here. Avoid hooking-up subs with marginal signals, no matter how bad they want the service. They are at risk for disappointment – and can make life miserable for you and your staff.

As noted in item #8 above (“Customer Premise Equipment”), your subscriber will need either a modem to receive your wireless signal, or a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop if the sub is in range of one of your “mesh” nodes.

Modems are installed by hand and can sometimes require an additional outdoor antenna to get a sufficient signal. This type of installation can run $800 ($400 for the modem plus $400 for antenna, cabling, and labor).

Where the signal is stronger, an indoor modem can be placed near a window aimed toward the wireless access point (WAP). A cable is then run to plug into a desktop computer. Total cost: $500 (modem, cabling, and labor).

With mesh networking, a low-power node is added to either of the two installations described above. The node then broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal up to several thousand feet. That signal can then be picked up by anyone in the neighborhood with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop.

Finding the optimum mix of modem and mesh subscribers is the goal of an efficient and high-performance wireless broadband network using current unlicensed frequencies.

The field of wireless broadband technology using unlicensed frequencies is evolving fast. This summary is intended to provide a general and current snapshot of wireless broadband's costs, performance, and potential.

EDITOR'S NOTE: “Local Network Cookbook” is a work-in-progress. Your feedback will help guide and refine it. Please send comments and questions to: localnetworks@main.nc.us

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