Friday, February 20, 2009

Cell Phone (EVDO) for Rural Internet Access

The name Western Skies (name of this blog and my consulting company) comes from song "Western Skies" by the late Chris LeDoux where he talks about living out west (Wyoming) rather than in Nashville. Similarly, I choose to live out in the country in Oregon instead of Silicon Valley. On the plus side, I have "watch(ed) an eagle fly" (in town, no less) and listened to "the coyotes call at night." On the minus side, there is no broadband Internet access out here. I've recently switched to Verizon EVDO service, and it's mostly working. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject of using EVDO for our sole Internet service.

Previously, I was using 128Kbit (16 Kbyte) per second ISDN. It cost $85/month, which means it was slow and expensive, but the data amount was unlimited. Also, it was a business service from Qwest, which meant when it went out, they were Johnny on the spot to fix it - they even asked at 9pm if it was OK if they didn't roll a truck until morning or if I needed it fixed that night.

I had been thinking of switching for some time, but Qwest forced my hand when they notified me that they would no longer serve as an ISP for the ISDN line. They still provide ISDN service, but their ISP ( no longer accepts ISDN calls. To add insult to injury, they suggested that I see if DSL was available - if it were, there's no way I'd suffer the indignity of ISDN! I could have changed ISPs, but the ones I found all charged more and/or had usage limits expressed in hours per month (not MB/GB, just hours of connect time).

Since there's no DSL or Cable, the only other contender would be satellite. However, at times, I do a lot of work at the command line via ssh, and the latency of satellite would have been completely impractical. A neighbor of ours has it, and she says she can't even run IM over it very well.

When we first moved out here, there wasn't hardly any cell phone coverage. Mostly our phones just spent their batteries looking for signal. Then, Verizon put up a tower that we can see from our driveway - a pretty clear line-of-sight. Our Sprint cell phones get 4 bars of (roaming) signal, except when they catch wind of 1 bar of Sprint, which they'll chase blindly.

After checking out Verizon's offerings online and talking to a sales rep, I signed up for service and "bought" a UM 175 EVDO modem (free with 2 year contract) at Costco (to save on the activation fee). Verizon offers a 30 day trial, which I figured I'd use to test things out before cancelling the ISDN line. Even though our phones got a strong signal, I wasn't certain that the data signal would work. Of course, you'd think that if a telco bothered to put up a tower (or an antenna on someone's leased tower), they'd provision it with all the latest features (e.g., EVDO), but then again telcos don't always behave rationally.

To make a long story short, it really does seem to work. The bandwidth is much better - I see anywhere from 100KB/sec to 800KBps with 100-300 KBps being common. Not great compared to the fiber in town, but much better than 16KBps. Ping shows the latency being pretty large (150-250ms), but it seemed alright when I tried it over ssh. (I'm no longer working for the client where I was using ssh full-time, so I haven't really put it to a real test.)

However, and this could be huge, the 5GB/month cap is problematic. In theory, our regular email and web surfing fits well within that limit, however that doesn't leave much room for podcasts or video (which I never got into on ISDN, anyway.) The cap works out to ~170MB per day, and many podcast episodes are ~50MB. So, I'm still trying to figure out how to live with the cap - giving up podcasts is not an option.

At some point, I'll post about my experiences setting up the Verizon UM 175 USB modem on a couple of Macs, as well as my new found hobby: Podcast Mule - downloading podcasts (and OS updates) from WiFi access points in town and bringing them home on my laptop.



Thompson said...

It is really important to choose only those devices that are compatible for your residential and business needs. One has to see the highlights of the product specifically as the usb internet phone is sharing computers, wireless mice. It must also be excellent while transmitting the data to the end users with high quality voice.

Charles Anderson said...

Someone emailed me, but I can't reply to her. Here are the high-points of her email:
"There is no fiberoptic cable. I tried dial-up over the phone line I have. If no one ever sent me photos, I could have lived with it, but seems Comcast users forget. I cancelled dial-up. Been looking into satellite. Stumbled onto EVDO and then you.
Do I just wait for cable or EVDO? If not, Given the facts above, what satellite company should I go with?"

It sounds like your only option is to spend money, which you said it tight. I wouldn't wait for Qwest or the cable company. Check all the cell phone carriers - a way to start that is anytime someone with a cell phone visits you, ask if they have signal. If they do, ask which carrier.
Otherwise, your only option is satellite, which can be pricier than cell. For email and web surfing, satellite is good enough. For my work online, satellite is totally impractical. I have no experience with any of the providers. Since you're on DirectTV already, I'd start with their offer.
One final possibility might be a wireless ISP. Try Googling for "wireless broadband olympia washington". It's not an option for me because hill block my view of the towers.

Unknown said...

Sprint now has a phone-as-a-hotspot called the EVO that doesn't have transfer caps.

They do have a pretty stiff roaming limit of 300mb but I set mine to never roam so I avoid the issue.

Charles Anderson said...

Since I started using EVDO for our house internet, I've moved our cell phone service to Verizon. We have Droids that (seem to) have unlimited data. A lot of our data usage (e.g., podcasts) has already moved to the phones.
When Android 2.2 comes out, if Verizon doesn't block tethering, I might move more of our data to the phones if needed.