Earlier this spring, reports started coming in from some nearby friends that their internet access prices had been jacked way up. It seems that the local internet near-monopoly (Comcast) had just arbitrarily decided to increase their prices by $10 per month. Offended by this attack on their frugality, these friends naturally turned to Mr. Money Mustache for advice.
Normally, I’d just advise them to use the magic of the free market and vote with their feet. Call Comcast, cancel the internet service while explaining it is because of the price increase, and select one of several other options we have here in my town (including a city-wide wi-fi network).
But in this case, hearing of this the 20% price increase pushed me over the edge. You see, I’ve had a bone to pick with Comcast ever since 2009, when they secretly funded a voter disinformation program called “No Blank Check Longmont”. It was designed to get the citizens of this city to vote against allowing our town council to use the fiber-optic network that the people paid for and own, to offer services for the benefit of the people.
The cable company was afraid of having to compete with a potentially low-cost internet access program from the city, but since that wouldn’t make a very good sales pitch, they did it by lying instead: saying that the city would be spending taxpayer money on the project. It was completely false, and the town council tried their best to fight the lies with editorials in the town newspaper. But in the end, Comcast just out-spent the council by a huge margin and stupidity won the day. In 2011, the fiber optic vote came back on the ballot, and Comcast funded yet another disinformation campaign with the catchy name “Look before we Leap“. Again, they pretended to be “a group of concerned citizens” despite the fact that their entire $300,000 budget came from the cable companies. Luckily, there were enough informed voters the second time around to kick its ass. The citizens got their fiber optic network back, and Comcast gained a few new lifetime enemies, including me.
So with that in mind, today’s article details a fun science project that is purely for informational purposes. If this article becomes popular someday in the future, it may help tilt the balance of power (and the flow of monthly fees) away from the big cable companies and back into the hands of computer-savvy people like you and me.
My friends and I wondered, “If several people all live close together, is it theoretically possible to share a single internet connection, linking multiple homes with long-range wi-fi antennas?”
We all know about wi-fi technology. I’ve been a big fan since it first popped up at the turn of this century, and suddenly laptop computers truly became useful since you could work in a cozy chair without the need to string a network cable across your house. Since then, we’ve gone from 802.11b all the way up to 802.11n, and its speed has gotten about 30 times faster as the price has dropped like a stone. But even now, these technologies are designed with limited range. They can nicely blanket a coffee shop, your house, and even your yard with internet access. But if you walk down the street, you’ll see the signal strength drop off rapidly and you’ll be disconnected within a minute’s walk.
But for this article, we decided to see how far the envelope could be pushed. In my neighborhood, there are quite a few friends within a three minute walk, which works out to about a 900 foot radius when plotted on a map. Specifically, there’s a cluster of nice people directly to the Southwest of me, so we decided to see if we could bring up a reliable high-speed wi-fi connection between my house and theirs. It was a struggle, but feeling the eyes of the Mustachians on me, I could not give up. In the end, we prevailed, and learned a lot in the process. Here’s how I did it:
Step 1: I measured the “as the crow flies” distance between the two houses. I used this handy google maps distance calculator for that step. If your line of sight between houses is obscured by trees, the limit is 1000 feet (about 16 houses worth in a medium-density housing development) . If not, you can shoot for 2000 feet or more.
Step 2: I ordered two long-range wi-fi outdoor access points from amazon. These have a relatively strong 13dbi internal antenna and a power output of 500 milliwatts – apparently the highest legal power output in most countries including the US.
Step 3: Each homeowner found a way to string an Ethernet cable from his roof, through the attic and nicely into his office to be plugged into the existing wi-fi router on each side.
Step 4: The access points arrived and were installed upon the rooftops, pointing exactly at each other through the 900 feet of clear air with occasional tree canopies.
Step 5: Extensive fussing around with network settings on both sides ensued, due to the clunky user interfaces and loosely-translated-from-Chinese instruction manuals. In the end, we succeeded in getting both houses to share the single internet connection.
Update 2016: when I first wrote this article, the available wi-fi access points were not as effective as they are today. But I have updated the link above to point you to the latest technology, which is of course even cheaper than before. The next paragraphs describe an external antenna I added to the older access point to get greater range. You probably won’t need this, but read on…
But the result was not satisfactory. My house has a very fast internet connection (over 10 megabits/sec download speed), yet my friend was unable to get downloads faster than about 1.0 Mbit/sec, and frequently dropped below half of that. This is too slow to watch Netflix movies or even YouTube, so we were disappointed.
I fiddled some more. We tried returning one of the access points to Amazon, thinking it was defective, but the replacement was exactly the same. I brought them both to my house and did some close-range testing and found that the throughput was much faster at close range. That meant that the distance, and especially the trees, were weakening the signal.
We could give up, or we could double down. Since this was an official Money Mustache Laboratories experiment, I decided to Double Down.
So the Laboratory purchased an upgraded antenna for one end of the connection, to really beam that signal with maximum intensity. I found an external “24 dbi” antenna and a connector cable, both from the same TP-link company, and placed the order. Based on the picture and the price, I was expecting a cute little flimsy metal thing about the size of a small toaster oven. But when the big flat box came to my house, I was shocked at the size.
I opened the box, and saw a beefy metal grid that looked like a BBQ grilling surface. It was huge! But there appeared to be TWO of them in the box.
“Did they accidentally send me two antennas?”, I asked.
“Uhh.. I think you’re supposed to bolt both of those pieces together”, came Mrs. Money Mustache’s voice from over my shoulder.
She was right. I assembled the 24dbi monstrosity, and this is how big it ended up:
RF engineers will note right away that in this picture, I had the shiny receiver part in the center mounted sideways – it needs to be rotated 90 degrees. But I didn’t realize that until several hours later. After climbing back onto my roof, connecting the external antenna, and fiddling yet again with angles and orientations, I couldn’t even get a signal as strong as the smaller internal antenna had been delivering (for reference, I found you need at least 36 db signal strength to get a fast connection – the internal antennas averaged 28 db).
So I gave up and sulked down my ladder, thinking that the experiment had been a failure. I’d have to return all this stuff and probably wouldn’t even bother writing this article. But as I opened the box to get it ready for re-packing, a figure in the instruction manual caught my eye. I realized I had installed the receiver wrong! There was still hope!
To make the rest of this long story short, I reassembled everything, put it back on the roof, and BLAM! The internet connection between the two houses was suddenly blazingly fast! My friend was able to get 10-megabit speeds through his test setup, and the connection was finally rock-solid – good enough to stream movies and music without stuttering.
It was a lot of work. Even after learning from my mistakes, I would not recommend this project for someone who doesn’t know how to, for example, manually set the IP address of a computer, or how to change their wi-fi router so it assigns DHCP LAN addresses on the 192.168.2.x subnet. All of these details could easily be hidden from the user with the right technology, but it doesn’t exist today – so this is not for technophobes.
But if that doesn’t scare you off, here are the benefits:
- Sharing an internet connection with a friend can save each person $300 per year or more.
- Extending your home wi-fi network to include a big swath of your neighborhood allows you to make voice-over-internet phone calls even when not at home. This may allow you to use a lower-level mobile voice plan, data plan, or both.
- It allows you to share files, folders, and even printers between friends as if they were in the same house.
- My phone now connects to my home wi-fi network even when visiting neighbors many houses away. So I can stream my favorite Pandora Internet Radio through the phone, which is fun for parties and also for outdoor construction work, which I do mainly close to home.
- I got in touch with Republic Wireless and am now on their short list to become one of the testers. This is a new $20-per-month unlimited cell phone plan that works best if you’re in wi-fi range a lot of the time. With this new rooftop antenna system, this is definitely the case.
- This antenna/access point combination can also be used to tune into any nearby wi-fi network. There may be public wi-fi available at a library, school, or other facility (even several blocks away) that you can use from home, for free. For light users, this may allow foregoing a paid internet connection entirely. In my city, an outdoor access point is often required to connect to the city’s pay-for-use wifi network. But once you have it set up, you benefit from great-quality internet access at a price much lower than what the bad guys are charging.
Disclaimer: if you plan to do this, check your own internet service rules to make sure it’s allowed. Comcast, for example, tells you in the user agreement that sharing is not allowed (even though this is a silly rule: they already have a montly data limit, so who are they to say how you use the data YOU are paying for??). I’m not a Comcast customer (I switched to another service after the aforementioned hijacking of our town’s elections). I don’t encourage breaking any laws. I just encourage having fun. This post for is for educational purposes only :-)
Update, 18 months later: Voters have scored another body blow on the cable industry, approving a fiber optic connection to every interested home in the city, which will bring us 1,000 megabit/second internet for $49 per month: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/11/06/big-cable-helped-defeat-seattles-mayor-mcginn-but-they-couldnt-stop-this-colorado-project/
Further notes on Comcast: After reading many of the comments below, I realize just how widespread the dislike for this company is. It’s quite amazing, and a bit reassuring, to see that running a company in an unethical way really does get you in trouble with your customers. Eventually, it will surely force the company to drastically improve, or be destroyed.
The funny part is, I remember reading an interview in a big business magazine with the Comcast CEO a few years ago. He sounded all earnest, like he really knew about their bad reputation, and he wanted to improve it.
Well, here’s a tip, besides the obvious of “don’t try to hijack local elections”. How about TELLING PEOPLE THE ACTUAL PRICES OF YOUR GODDAMNED SEVICE PLANS!?!? If you go to comcast.com and look up pricing plans, you get thrown into an awful and tricky maze. First of all, everything is all jumbled up, with talk of archaic services like “TV” and “Voice” even after you click the “Internet” tab.
Secondly, we do NOT give a shit what the fake price is “for the first six months”. Tell us the actual goddamned price! Put the long-term monthly price of all the services on the FRONT PAGE of the website. In huge numbers. If you like, put a tiny footnote about any introductory pricing, which is almost irrelevant to our long-term costs. Better yet, skip the stupid gimmicks and roll the promotion into the overall price, lowering it slightly. Then raise this price about 2% per year at the most, to keep up with inflation. Or better yet, lower it, since communications and tech prices are always dropping. Be honest, and stop trying to fool people into buying more shit than they need.
These are my tips to Comcast as a starter for how to make your customers hate you less.