DIY broadband: how one remote not-spot went wireless

BT’s fibre rollout has helped boost speeds across the UK – but many areas have been dubbed too remote to get an upgrade.

Software developer Bill Buchan lives in Marykirk, a rural village in Angus, Scotland. Though idyllic, Marykirk is one of many remote areas written off by commercial broadband providers as being too difficult to reach – leaving around 150 households stuck on connections as slow as 0.2Mbits/sec.

After a failed campaign to get BT to upgrade Marykirk with fibre-to-the-cabinet – even offering to dig the trenches himself – Buchan took matters into his own hands and set up his a wireless ISP with a friend.

Live since the beginning of September and powered by a friend’s ADSL connection in a nearby village, Buchan’s service now provides wireless connections with speeds up to 30Mbits/sec to seven local households, with another further ten to follow.

We spoke to Buchan to find out how he did it.

Q. What was your broadband like before this project?

A.I wrote to BT’s chairman in Scotland and asked about its plans for giving us decent broadband, and… it said it was too expensive, it didn’t know how to upgrade our exchange because it’s so old, and it isn’t even on the BT fibre network itself. Our local exchange, if we’re lucky, gets us 2Mbits/sec.

Q. How did you set up your own service?

A. The nearest town with decent internet provision is Montrose, seven miles away, and our main ADSL link is in a friend’s flat there. I’ve replaced her existing line and ADSL contract with a far more robust, wireless ISP-friendly one from Zen. The friend gets phone and internet free using a normal ASDL router. Our wireless system is then plugged in and connects that router to the rest of our network.

Q. How does the wireless system work?

A. I found a US supplier called Ubiquity which sells the NanoStation M – little white boxes weighing a few hundred grams and costing less than a few hundred pounds. You cable-tie them onto a TV mast, point them in the right direction, and they sustain a link over 20 miles, running at 300Mbits/sec. That’s faster than most people’s Wi-Fi.

I thought I’d ask a guy at the local pub, an aerial installation genius, to tie the devices onto people’s masts to see if we could get internet to our houses. We found it was very easy.

Q. How do you hook up people’s homes?

A. We put the devices on people’s TV masts, or we put a mast up for them. Our first one, where the ADSL router is, is on our friend’s roof in Montrose. We put a cable out of her window and onto her roof, tied the device to a TV pole and pointed it roughly in the right direction using Google Maps as a compass.

There’s a computer in the device as well as antennae, so you plug an Ethernet cable into the bottom and sneak it back into the house. You plug that into a power-over-ethernet injector, and then into the wall to power the device. Then you plug that into, say a PC, configure it and off you go. It’s like setting up a home ADSL router, but far nicer.

[IMG ID=199981F]Ubiquity wireless devices[/IMG]

Q. How do you connect hard-to-reach houses?

A. We’ve got some houses that are in a glen. We have to bounce signals off another station, so we route round it. For example, we couldn’t see our village directly from Montrose, but we could see a friend’s cow shed at the very top of the hill. And in this shed, he had a shipping container with power, so we put a TV mast up with two of the wireless devices and wired them to the container.

We had one pointing at Montrose where we get the ADSL and one pointing to another village called Craigo. Even from the cow shed we couldn’t see our home town, because there were trees in the way. That whizzes to Craigo, then we put more devices on a roof there – one pointing at our village, and another pointing back at the cow shed, and off we go.

Q. Is it secure?

A. The Wi-Fi’s stuff easy. But all of the equipment has given us a bridged Ethernet, so everyone can see everything. That’s not a commercial service.

We have little white routers supplied by Mikrotik in each house, which do the same job as your ADSL router, but over wireless. What you do with ADSL is when you plug it in, it does a PPP [point-to-point protocol] connection to your provider with login/password. We do the same, but over Ethernet, then we have a large router at the core of the network.

Our Wi-Fi devices encrypt everything they see with AES encryption. Our routers also encrypt, so there’s several levels of security. We’re confident you wouldn’t be able to steal anything from the network itself.

Q. How have you funded the setup?

A. I’ve funded it to the tune of about £4,500 so far to get seven houses online. The infrastructure’s there to add another ten in the coming weeks, including an extra 80Mbits/sec link we’re installing in the next few weeks.

I’m now sending people invoices for the service, and if I don’t get any additional council funding, then I’ll break even in two years.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. We’re broken into three bands – £20, £25 and £35 a month, depending on the bandwidth and download limit you want. And it’s a flat £75 [installation] fee.

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