Because of the size and geographic makeup of the US and Canada, a great number of people living in suburban and rural areas have limited and subpar options for ISPs. Among these options include HughesNet, a satellite internet service with high ping times and restrictive data caps; Cambium Networks ePMP, a terrestrial radio system that solves the ping times of HughesNet, but still requires hardware mounted on the customer's home; and LTE tethering, which — unless users receive a government subsidy, or are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan — is extremely costly, with bandwidth prices up to $10 per gigabyte. Similarly, the future of WiMax is in doubt, with Sprint set to deactivate its WiMax network in November 2015.
This issue is what has motivated the creation of High Speed Country, an organization that includes, among others, retired military engineers with experience in creating complex radio transmitters for defense and research purposes, as well as owners and managers of radio stations in the American Midwest. Unsatisfied with the current options for connectivity, they designed a new standard for connecting users in underserved areas.
Uses off-the-shelf parts, though unlike anything else
The test deployment by High Speed Country uses a custom designed transmitter and off-the-shelf, mid-grade home consumer equipment. The broadcast station sits 205 feet above average terrain (Elk Mound Hill in Wisconsin), with the custom transmitter, an ASUS AC1750 802.11ac router, a 400w power inverter, and a 12-volt booster pack.
The mobile hardware that connected to this hardware in the test deployment is a 2014 13" MacBook Pro, with a USB-connected ASUS AC1300 Wi-Fi adapter. In essence, the High Speed Country transmitter design takes the existing 802.11ac protocol and extends the useful range far beyond the intended purpose. The limiting factor in this equation is antenna design, mainly, the antenna design of many existing devices like the aluminum MacBook Pro. Aluminum is a very effective shield against radiation, including the radio waves through which Wi-Fi works. For this test, the internal Wi-Fi radio was bypassed in favor of the external adapter.
According to the test deployment by High Speed Country, placing the laptop at a distance of one mile from the transmitter, the average ping time was 3.869 milliseconds, with minimum and maximum at 1.706 and 11.231, respectively, and no packet loss. At three miles, the average was 52.787, with minimum and maximum at 1.810 and 266.067, respectively. Some packet loss was experienced at 6.7 miles away from the transmitter, though transmission was still possible. Anecdotally, for comparison, the ping times for the satellite-based HughesNet service appear to be around 680ms on average.
Notably, the test deployment still has a variety of limitations. The transmitter was not mounted to a solid object, which makes it susceptible to interference from wind vibrations. Additionally, the transmitter isn't quite high enough for broadcasting — according to Jonathon Robinson of High Speed Country, line of sight is easier to achieve if installed at 300 feet. To that end, this test was only of 2.4 GHz with omnidirectional broadcasting — further revisions will allow for transmission on 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, with distances for directional broadcasting reaching 26 miles from the transmitter possible, according to concept designer Dave Barrett.
In addition, currently deployed devices, such as the MacBook Pro used in testing, are not designed around the ability to send data back to the access point at these distances, primarily because receiving data from these distances was not previously possible. These devices will need better antennas, which Barrett notes in some cases can be as simple as an extra lead, which can be added for pennies per device at the manufacturing stage.
What type of use cases?
The team at High Speed Country intends for this technology to be used for the benefit of people living in suburban or rural areas not presently served by traditional ISPs, where the available internet options are subpar and expensive, if they exist at all. Accordingly, Barrett notes the importance of the stewardship of technology — deploying this where the need is greatest, such as Native American reservations, is important. As such, the High Speed Country team — who is looking to sell this technology to a responsible buyer — is waiting for a buyer who shares their dedication and ideals.
Theoretically, this technology could be used in place of enterprise Wi-Fi deployments, such as universities, where poor and uneven provisioning in mismanaged deployments can create connectivity dead zones. It is also a suitable replacement for WiMax use cases, such as at Northern Michigan University, where they have deployed a WiMax network that covers the entire town of Marquette, Michigan.
What about you?
What's your take on long-range Wi-Fi? Is there a particular use case you have in mind for this type of technology? Are you in an area that is unserved or underserved by traditional ISPs? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.