Wireless Cowboys – Stories from the Wireless Broadband Frontier


It was 7:15am on Saturday morning, when my phone rang. Groggy and tired from being out until 3am at a band gig the night before, I picked up the phone. Monique Ellert, a very sharp co-worker who had been accompanying me on sales visits around the region, was on the line.

The Log Cabin is a rustic, old-school restaurant, located in Gering, Nebraska, sitting astride the original Oregon Trail. The scene that morning was a typical Saturday morning at any rural gathering spot. Farmers and ranchers were sitting at their tables drinking black coffee, talking about the weather and poking at greasy portions of breakfast food.

Smartphones are another example of IOT. Smartphones are constantly collecting data about location, apps used and websites visited, then uploading it to your service provider, phone manufacturer, operating system provider (Google for Android phones and Apple for iPhones) or the app vendor. Location tracking of phones was originally intended for 911 location of phones in emergencies, but it is now used by applications like Google Maps to determine traffic congestion and in many other programs to feed advertising to the phone user based on the user’s location and travel patterns. This data is also collected and sold to companies that use it for market analysis or research. Collection of this data is embedded in smartphones, and the only way to prevent it from being collected is to turn the phone off.

Pages 20 and 21 focus on Fixed Wireless Network Architecture, and as I am the only WISP in the group, it was the portion I was asked to focus on. It is short, but I think it does a good job of describing how WISP networks are put together and the impact differentiation can have on their performance. Members of this list are intimately familiar with how our networks are built, but our methods of deployment are far outside what is considered to be the common practice. This is the first time that a BITAG paper has had a section referring to WISPs, and I am very happy that we were able to get equal billing with all of the other forms of broadband access.

I walked in about 7:45 and spotted Gordie and Monique. Gordie Wilkins was a big man, slightly red-faced and gregarious with a big smile and a welcoming demeanor. Monique was at the table with him, the picture of sharp professionalism, with her hair pulled back and a look of disdain on her face when she saw my condition.

Where fiber really shines is in the delivery of high capacity connections that can be used as the backbone for other networks. A gigabit of Internet connectivity can support hundreds or thousands of end users and tens of thousands of small data collection devices. The proliferation of agricultural devices that will need constant connectivity will grow exponentially over the next few years, but nearly all of these devices will connect wirelessly – not through a fiber network. Right now, the best use of fiber in rural areas is as backbone for wireless networks that deliver the blanket of connectivity needed for remote data collection and delivery to rural homes.

Wireless Cowboys Chapter 4: Wireless Pioneers

The Internet of Things (IOT) is one of the fastest growing trends in technology right now. Put simply, IOT is connectivity for nearly device imaginable and the giant collection of data gathered from all of these devices. Two things have combined to make the Internet of Things possible – inexpensive devices with wifi capability and sensors built into them and widespread Internet connectivity.

I was late.

I went through my litany of problems for a while until Gordie stopped me. He told us about a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer and only had a short time to live. From that perspective, my problems didn’t seem like very much to worry about. “Your problems can be solved,” he said and that finally brought me out of my self-induced pity party. I stopped complaining and talking about my problems and started to ask him questions.

I threw on some clothes, jumped in the car and headed for town.

June 4, 2015 By Matt Larsen 2 Comments

One of the common examples of an IOT devices is a programmable thermostat like the Nest, that enables the user to put together a program that optimizes the temperature within their house, turn it up and down remotely and also track those temperatures over time. I have a home scale that is connected to the wireless access point in my house. Every time I step on it, it collects my weight and BMI and uploads it to a server on the Internet. Using an app on my smartphone, I can track those two numbers over time to determine the ineffectiveness of my diet and exercise plan and try to motivate myself to do better.

There is no doubt that fiber optic networks have a tremendous amount of capacity and are the logical choice when it comes to delivering broadband in densely populated areas. But the story changes considerably when it comes to sparsely populated and rural areas. In a densely populated area, it typically costs $2000 to $3000 per location to install fiber. In rural areas, the average cost jumps to $6000 per location and can even jump into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as the example near Ceresco illustrates. Even with the fiber installed, the cost of service and speeds offered are comparable to those available through wireless and cable networks that cost as little as $300 per location to bring online. Why spend 20 times as much money on a fiber network when other alternatives can provide the same utility?

March 8, 2016 By Matt Larsen Leave a Comment

Weather also plays a part in Internet usage. During the winter, people spend more time inside using their computer and Internet connection. On snow days, when kids are often home from school, Internet usage goes up even more. During the spring and summer, people spend less time on their computers and more time doing things outdoors.

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Back in the days of dialup Internet, the most important factor to look at for an Internet Service Provider was the number of modems available for each customer. The ratio of modems per customer was called the oversubscription ratio. On average, a good Internet provider would have five customers for each phone line. This worked because not everyone used Internet all of the time, and it helped to keep the cost of Internet subscriptions down. Typically, there were plenty of open modems until about 5pm. When people got home, they would get online between 7 and 10pm to use the Internet. This is called peak usage time. As the Internet became more popular and people spent more time online, the providers had to install more phone lines so that customers would not get busy signals during peak usage times.

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All of us at Vistabeam send you wishes for a great Holiday Season!

BITAG released its latest report on “Differentiated Treatment of Internet Traffic”, which goes into intense detail on how network traffic differentiation works and what its impacts are on network performance and management. Here is a link to the report:

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Stories from the Wireless Broadband Frontier


When it comes to agriculture, the Internet of Things holds tremendous potential. Farm equipment is using this type of functionality to notify owners about system problems, service intervals and recalls or upgrades available. GPS enabled “smart” tractors combine geolocation and soil data to optimize planting and fertilizer application. Connected security systems and cameras can be used to monitor remote locations and check crop progress. Small, connected sensors gathering information about rainfall, soil temperatures, humidity, ph and many other data points can be utilized to put together optimal growing profiles for fertilizer application, irrigation planning and determining the best time to plant or harvest. Agriculture is primed for an information overhaul, helping farmers and ranchers optimize their productivity and be more efficient with their resources.

Some of the biggest drivers behind fiber networks are companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook that sell services that work better with higher speed connections. Many new applications are “moving to the cloud” – which means that your files no longer live on your home computer or devices, they are in data centers and server farms. When your files live in the cloud, the only way to access them is through a high speed connection, and the higher the speed the better. Having high capacity, bidirectional network connectivity is critical for the operation of cloud based computing, and that is part of the motivation Google has for implementing Google Fiber and prodding service providers to deliver more fiber and higher speeds to end users.

BTW, special thanks go to WISPA for helping sponsor my participation in BITAG.

October 8, 2015 By Matt Larsen Leave a Comment

It is still in progress, but I finally broke the six months of writers block and got in a solid three hours of writing tonight to catch up with the book timeline and fill in a few things I had bypassed.

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There is a lot of good material in here. To be honest, a lot of it is over my head, but I learned in the process of putting this document together and you will too if you take some time to read it.

Just to show that I have actually written something, here is an excerpt. Thanks for reading!

The meeting was in late 1999, and I was not in a good place. I felt like I was on the wrong side of several trends. Our base of dialup customers was still growing, but the growth rate had tapered off as Sprint and Qwest started to turn up DSL service in our service areas. We did have a few DSL customers in three towns in our service area, but Qwest blocked us from their territory and Sprint had recently sent me notice that they were going to disconnect the copper circuits we had been using to deliver DSL service. Their prices for DSL also looked like a death sentence for dialup. Not very many people were going to want to spend $50/month for a phone line and $20/month for a 56kbs dialup account when they could get 384kbps DSL for the same price. What had started out as a great relationship between the ISPs and telephone companies was about to take a big turn against the ISPs, and my business was in a bad position.

Gordie had been referred to me as someone who knew a lot about wireless technology, long range microwave connections in particular. He was a microwave tech at KN Energy, an energy company that maintained a massive gas pipeline structure across the Western United States. In addition to their pipelines, they also had a very sophisticated telecommunications network that ran on microwave connections and was not dependent on wireline or cellular telephone networks. Early on, KN had approached the phone companies to deliver 56k and T1 facilities to their pipeline stations, but the cost of lines to the remote locations was very high and the service was so unreliable that KN made the decision to build their own network.

“I am sitting here at the Log Cabin with Gordie, and we are wondering if you are planning to join us.”

I had completely blown off the meeting. Thankfully, I had asked Monique to come along and she was making up for my failures at the moment.

In my desperation to find something other than DSL that could deliver high speed Internet to our customers, I had come across the ISP-Wireless mailing list, which was populated by people who were experimenting with wireless Internet. On a whim, I called one of the most active in the group, a fellow by the name of Marlon Schaefer, and asked him a few questions. He basically said to get some equipment and try it out and recommended a vendor called Teletronics. A couple of weeks before the meeting with Gordie, I had received a box that contained a 2.4ghz 802.11 access point, a couple of PCMCIA wireless cards an omni antenna and a grid antenna. I set it up and it was pretty cool to connect up to my network at 1Mbps speeds without a wire, but my excitement was short lived. I left the building with my laptop and wireless card to see how far away I could get and the signal was gone once I got a few feet outside of the building. I just couldn’t see how I could build a business model around this technology. I was frustrated, and that is why I had setup this meeting with Gordie in the first place.

Monique gave me a couple of Excedrin and I started to feel better. We finished up breakfast and went to my office to look at the equipment and draw on the white board. Gordie gave me a very basic primer on how microwave works, and Monique and I started to sketch out some ideas on how we might be able to use this technology to deliver high speed Internet to our customers.

A few years ago, I was invited to serve on BITAG – the Broadband Infrastructure Technology Advisory Group. BITAG (www.bitag.org) is a group of engineers from multiple technology companies, carriers, public interest groups and educational institutions. The primary purpose of BITAG is to produce very detailed documents about complex issues in broadband that can then be used to educate policy makers about technical considerations.

Over time, dialup was replaced by broadband connections through cable, dsl, fiber and wireless. Broadband is always connected, and the oversubscription ratio shifted from the number of modems to the amount of bandwidth available for each user. Ten years ago, an oversubscription ratio of 10:1 was acceptable. This meant that for every one megabyte of capacity available, the provider could sell ten megabytes worth of connectivity. Between downloading webpages and emails, the Internet connection would sit empty. The peak usage timing was very similar to dialup, with the most usage happening between 7pm and 11pm. The busiest days of the week were Sunday through Wednesday, with less usage on Thursday through Saturday as people spent more time doing other things during the weekend.

When it comes to broadband access, there is a “fever for fiber” that has been overwhelming all other types of Internet access. Lately it seems that fiber networks make headline news for providing 1 Gigabit or even 10 Gigabit speed services to customers inside of their footprint. Near Ceresco, Nebraska, a farmer paid over $40,000 just to get a fiber connection to his farm – a perceived bargain compared to the $380,000+ that another phone company was going to charge him. What is the drive behind all of this?

KN had microwave towers at many of their pipeline stations and at strategic points between stations, and the segment that passed through Gering ended up in Casper, Wyoming on one side and Denver on the other. Typically the towers were 25-30 miles apart, as going longer distances made it harder to maintain a reliable connection. Gordie was an old-timer, a veteran who had been taking care of the systems since they first came online, climbing towers when needed and doing the repair work and equipment swaps as needed to keep the network operational.

(Note:  I am writing a column for a local newsletter about technology, and decided to share what I write on the blog.   This is one of the first columns. – Matt)

The capabilities of IOT are also enabling more efficient use and tracking of natural resources. My company, Vistabeam, is working on a project with the North Platte Natural Resources District to collect information on water consumption in Western Nebraska. Currently, NPNRD collects water consumption data once a year by sending employees into the field to read water meters. It takes a considerable amount of time and manpower to read over 2000 meters and this only provides one data point over 12 months. Under the new project, smart meters are installed at the wells and upload several times a day to servers through the Vistabeam network. This allows the NRD to track water consumption data on a daily basis and they are developing apps that will allow producers to track this same data to use for irrigation planning. Tracking this data will enable the NRD and agricultural users to be more efficient users of water and can serve as the basis for improved agricultural practices in the future.

December 9, 2015 By Matt Larsen Leave a Comment

Over the last few years, the growing popularity of online video services like Netflix has forced major changes in how Internet providers build their networks. Video uses the entire Internet connection and stays connected for a long time. Average data usage has skyrocketed and is on pace to double every twelve months. Our target oversubscription ratio is now 4:1 or less. The shift from TV time to Internet video time in many households has also shifted peak usage. Peak hours run from 4pm to midnight, and Friday through Monday nights are now the peak days.

October 22, 2015 By Matt Larsen Leave a Comment

Internet of Things is just beginning to gain popularity, and it has a tremendous amount of potential to impact how we live and work, even in our rural, agricultural areas.

The longest day of the year for Internet providers is Christmas Day. This is the day when the Internet hits the highest traffic point of the year. Christmas Day is the perfect storm of Internet usage – cold weather, kids are home from school, there is nothing to watch on TV and the house is full of new electronic devices and video games that need to download updates from the Internet. The usage peak from Christmas typically isn’t seen again for a few months, but it serves as the measuring point for how well a network handles heavy loads.

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Fiber and wireless networks will provide connectivity for many years to come. The “fever for fiber” is raging hot right now, but the prescription calls for fiber in core areas, and utilization with fixed and mobile wireless networks to deliver the ubiquitous connectivity rural areas need now.

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Hi all,

Another reason for the focus on fiber is because it plays into the strengths of many of the established network providers, especially in rural areas. Fiber is expensive, so companies that install fiber in rural areas are heavily subsidized through government programs, and those subsidies are designed to only support one recipient in a service area. Subsidization and very high take rates among potential customers are needed to keep rural fiber networks sustainable, and leads to a monopoly on Internet service for the local phone company in many rural areas. Many alternative providers are able to maintain sustainable business models in rural areas without subsidies or high take rates and provide badly needed competition but they are typically not using fiber.

Over the last twenty years of working with Internet and related networks, I have observed many different usage patterns along with some interesting shifts in how people utilize their Internet connections. There are many peaks and valleys during the days and throughout the week, and one day of the year stands above all the rest when it comes to Internet usage. Here are some of my observations and a little bit of insight into what the future holds for Internet usage.

KN was also partnered up with Metricom to offer the Ricochet wireless service. Although the consumer side of the Ricochet system was appealing and inexpensive, the back end technology was cumbersome and costly, funneling all user traffic back through a series of gateways and backbone connections to a single access gateway in Silicon Valley. For all of its limitations, the Ricochet system was pretty cool and people in Western Nebraska liked it. It made me think that maybe there was another way to use wireless to deliver Internet to end users. The phone companies were going to take away our ability to offer DSL and it was a matter of time before they took away our dialup customers. Was there a way to bypass the phone companies and offer something affordable and fast enough to compete with DSL?

I was a wreck. I was wearing wrinkled clothes picked up off the floor, my hair was an unruly mop and I smelled like a combination of stale beer and cigarettes. I had a splitting headache and sad-sack attitude to go along with my disheveled appearance. As I sat down and took off my battered black leather jacket, Gordie chuckled and made light of my sad condition. I grabbed a cup of coffee and did my best to pull things together.

“Tell him I will get there as soon as I can.”