A Relay is Born: the Missoula Valley Internet Co-op Grows One Radio Link at a Time

As we’ve discussed in prior articles, and in our previous community call, the success of this community owned and operated network that we are building hinges upon two things:

1.) Active participation from the community itself.

2.) Individuals willing to volunteer to host relays.

These relays are the lifeblood of our network. They allow the service area of our network to grow out from our fiber connected gateways, connecting neighbor to neighbor, and one neighborhood to the next.

During this past week we brought on-line the first sets of relays that bring full coverage to the lower Grant Creek area, and (eventually) the entire Missoula and Bitterroot valleys. With just a few property owners volunteering to host an additional small, inexpensive antenna on their home, our network coverage has expanded, from covering around 75 homes, to over 200.

To provide prospective relay operators with an idea of what the anatomy of a relay looks like we’ll start with some images of our first relay; sending a signal roughly 243 meters up the street, it helps provide more comprehensive coverage to the lower part of the neighborhood.

It starts with the receiving antenna on the customers home:

From this antenna, a cable runs into the customers home, connecting to their router, and connecting the customer to our network. Once that connection is wired up, we’re ready to setup the antenna that will allow other customers to connect to our network through this customer’s relay.

The relay antenna, in this case, is mounted on the front of their home at the top most point, to ensure the signal will travel the furthest possible distance:

This particular antenna, known as a “sector antenna” allows multiple customers to connect to this single relay antenna, delivering fast speeds to the surrounding homes.

While this relay simply connects roughly one block to another, there are other longer-range and higher-performance antennas capable of traveling up to one kilometre (1km) or more.

For our second relay we have an example of one such higher-performance 60GHz radios, capable of performing at fast gigabit speeds, from one point to another, at distances up to 2km:

This antenna sends a signal from lower Prospect all the way up to the upper tier of the neighborhood, roughly 750 meters away. At that distance, this antenna is much too small to see with the naked eye:

With enough time, patience, and skill, we’re able to align these two antennas providing a single high-speed link from one end of the neighborhood to another. The resulting connection produces a high-throughput fiber-quality connection:

The speed and quality of this connection is capable of providing a large number of customers with high speed internet, establishing the foundation needed to begin expanding further up the Grant Creek area, connecting hundreds of homes. Again, at this relay, we have another “sector antenna” that allows nearby homes to connect to the network:

Customers connected to these relays can receive low-latency speeds in excess of 100mb/s symmetric (i.e. equal download and upload speeds), as can be seen from this customer’s speed test:

As additional customers (and other relays) begin to connect to this relay, the owner will begin earning a real-time revenue that will subsidize their usage cost. In the long term, as more and more customers get connected, it is likely this relay will produce enough revenue to entirely pay for this relay-owner’s service cost, and potentially even net a small profit.

As our network grows and more customers opt to host relays, additional antennas can be added to any given relay, utilizing a combination of 60GHz and 5GHz radios, growing our networks size, speeds, and reliability. Ultimately as more customers come on-line and choose to host these relays, the network can scale at an exponential rate, ultimately reducing costs for everyone — relay operators and customers alike.

As you can see, with this model, putting ownership and control of the internet infrastructure we all rely on back into the hands of the community itself, we’re able to create a multi-stakeholder system where everyone benefits equitably from their participation in operation and growth of the network.

With enough time and enough people participating the result will be an expansive mesh network, creating an equitable system that provides a resilient and distributed alternative compared to the traditional system of being effectively held hostage to a small number of incumbent corporate ISP’s. As this network grows and other similar networks come on-line not just across the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys, but in rural communities across Montana and beyond access to this vital broadband service will grow to reach the areas that need it the most. Working together we can provide faster, more affordable, and more reliable broadband access to even the smallest and most remote communities.

We are The Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance, a non-profit foundation dedicated to building fast, affordable, community powered broadband networks.

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