Delivering internet access to underserved and unserved markets is an endeavor that sees a relatively high number of well-intentioned — yet expensive — plans that ultimately never come to fruition. The much-publicized Facebook plan to deploy satellite internet has been scuttled, which makes the satellite internet arena a match between two teams: Google is working with SpaceX, and OneWeb, backed by Virgin Galactic. OneWeb owns the spectrum rights from the Teledesic project, which "failed spectacularly," according to a 2001 interview with one of the major investors.
The currently deployed satellite internet services that serve the US are lacking — they require expensive equipment to be installed at the subscriber's residence, have restrictive data caps, have ping times between 680 and 1000 ms, and actually fail to meet the FCC's new definition of Broadband Internet of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. WildBlue and HughesNet are two providers of satellite internet in the US advertise a maximum of 15 Mbps download speeds.
Internet without a round-trip into space
The team behind High Speed Country has taken a different approach to delivering wireless internet access. Instead of relying on proprietary equipment for the end user, its new transmitter — the Wireless Universal Network (WUN) — is a Class-A amplifier that does not suffer from the characteristic flaws of low-power amplifiers. When used in conjunction with an off-the-shelf router, the WUN allows for broadcasting a standard Wi-Fi signal for miles, and handles solid concrete with ease.
This is the second-generation WUN, which removes 7 of the 13 connectors from the original model. This has greatly improved the transmitter's performance, reducing signal noise and increasing the distance and bandwidth/throughput by about 22%, when compared to the previously covered test deployments of the original model.
Broadcasting to your street
For testing broadcast distance, the High Speed Country team deploys the WUN from Elk Mound Hill in Wisconsin from a height of 205 feet. For a fixed deployment, the optimal broadcast height is 305 feet — this would increase the broadcast range. The upper limit of the broadcast distance of the WUN using an optimal broadcast height is a radius of 26 miles from a single transmitter, though up to three transmitters can be deployed to extend the network range. In contrast to mobile phone network deployments, each WUN transmitter in a group operates on the same frequency, working effectively as one single unit, a design strategy that allows for self-healing. (Note: High Speed Country hasn't been able to do a test deployment for the 26 miles radius, because it's really difficult to build a temporary structure for the necessary height. From a math standpoint, I believe this claim that would hold up to scrutiny.)
The test deployment (PDF) of the first-generation WUN produced results that beat the performance and ping times of satellite internet. Using a 2014 13" MacBook Pro and a USB-connected external Wi-Fi adapter, the average ping time from one mile was 3.869 milliseconds, with the average ping becoming 52.787 ms at three miles, and packet loss being experienced at 6.7 miles from the transmitter. While these rates are several times better than the ping times of satellite services, there was still room for improvement.
The second-generation WUN produced results that add very little observable overhead over a home Wi-Fi deployment. According to the test deployment report (PDF), the same MacBook Pro experienced an average latency of 22.542 ms from two miles. While this is an improvement over the first generation, part of the issue is the aluminum construction of the MacBook — wrapping any other laptop in aluminum foil would undoubtedly create substantial interference with a wireless signal.
Swapping the MacBook for this test with an HP Pavilion dv7t, the ping times lowered dramatically — from four miles, the average ping was 10 ms, with the average ping time from 6.7 miles 8 ms. (From four miles, an outlier of 334 ms occurred on one ping — removing this produces an average of 5 ms.) No packet loss occurred in the test of the second-generation WUN.
Broadcasting through concrete floors
The latest round of stress testing (PDF) by High Speed Country was at The Lismore, a hotel in Eau Claire, WI currently undergoing extensive renovations. With a test deployment in the hotel to demonstrate how the WUN handles broadcasting through concrete floors, the same MacBook Pro was used to test the signal strength from the top of the hotel. According to High Speed Country, "The floor itself is approximately 10 inches thick with additional support being approximately 16 inches thick. ...The signal was sent diagonally through the extra concrete support. Each floor down will be approximately 16 inches."
Surprisingly, despite earlier problems with distance and the aluminum body of the system, the internal antenna from the system held out for the first five floors, with single-digit ping times. For the sixth floor, using the same USB Wi-Fi adapter struggled to work, with an average ping of 124 ms and 8.1% packet loss. For the seventh and eighth floors, an ALFA AWUS036NHV 5000mw USB external Wi-Fi adapter was used. For the seventh floor, an average ping time of 7.7 ms was reported, though on the eighth floor — through about 138 inches of concrete — the ping times slowed to 43 ms, which is still roughly 16 times faster than the ping times of satellite internet.
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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.