Off Grid Internet in the Boondocks?

Published by: Nick Meissner

I can’t speak for you, but our intention in becoming unplugged has never been to disconnect from society.  Our goal has been to slow down and restore the important things in life and reclaim the noble independence of our forefathers who didn’t depend on Walmart for their next meal or on the power company for necessities like water (i.e. electric pump in the well).

And let’s face it…unless you are a retiree or are independently wealthy, we all have to make a living.  For most of us who work from home or who work remotely from the office, that type of work is going to require a reliable internet connection.

Working from home...

Working from home opens up many options to homesteaders, such as the potential to live in a remote area that would never be feasible if making a daily commute to town.  And while reliable internet access has been a problem for many rural dwellers, technology is slowly catching up and creeping out to the “nether regions” and now is a good time to start taking advantage of this to improve your potential for making a living.

Yes, I have done my time taking a laptop into town to a wifi hotspot to take care of emails or other business, and it's no fun.  So here are some options that I and others have worked with to solve this problem.  They are in order from what I consider to be the least desirable to the best option.

#3 – Satellite Internet

This used to be the mainstay for most remote homesteads that needed a decent internet connection.  The two big names in this industry have been HughesNet and Wild Blue.  I have used HughesNet for an extended period of time and found it to be certainly better than dial-up service and actually quite workable, as long as there are no obstructions in the line of sight to the satellite.

The dish must be perfectly aligned and never be moved in the slightest or your connection is toast (these are way more sensitive than the receiver-only dishes used to pick up TV from satellite).  And while we didn’t experience this on a frequent basis, there were certainly times when weather impacted the connection.

As far as bandwidth limits, you get what you pay for.  HughesNet offers several plans which range from 10GB/month for $49.99 up to 50 GB/month for $129.99.  As far as speed, they state that it is some ridiculously high rate (25 Mbps) but I would take that with a really really big grain of salt.

Latency, which is the amount of time it takes for your signal to travel out to the satellite and back to earth, can be an issue for some applications such as VOIP (voice over IP like Skype or Vonage).  After having used all three of the options presented in this article, I would personally place this one at the bottom–to be used if the other two are not available.  It is WAY better than dial-up, but less desirable than the next two options.

#2 – Wireless Broadband

Another excellent choice for your internet is a wireless broadband card which operates off of cell phone antennas.  The two main carriers I’ve found to have significant coverage in rural areas are Verizon and AT&T.  Sprint and T-Mobile don’t seem to cover rural areas as well (but it never hurts to check in your area).

Generally, the stronger a signal is, the faster one's speed will be; but be aware that some towers are faster than others.  Low-speed towers can be painfully slow, but their higher-speed counterparts (4G or LTE) can be amazingly fast.

As an example, Verizon Wireless (which happens to cover our area the best) plans start at 1GB/month for $15 (plus $10 for each additional GB) and range up to top-of-the-line contract services with unlimited data for $85/month (if using a wireless internet card, while it is unlimited data, you are limited to 10GB of data at high speed 4G and after that your speed is dropped to slower 3G–there is no such speed reduction if using a smartphone to provide a wireless hot spot).  This unlimited plan can really makes this a good option as long as your tower is not overloaded (read, slow speeds during peak usage times) and as long as you get a strong signal.

While you could use a smartphone to create a wireless hotspot in your home, if this will be your main internet connection then it makes sense to get a wireless internet card that is made for the purpose and can provide internet to multiple computers/devices simultaneously.

If you are in an area with minimal signal strength, be sure to go with an internet card that accepts an external antenna for boosting the signal strength.  I have been in a situation where I was only receiving one bar from a 3G tower so I purchased a directional “Yagi” antenna to help (that link is an affiliate link to the same antenna we used with great success).  Even though this antenna is often used with an expensive signal booster, I used it by itself and the signal improved from one bar of a 3G tower to 3 bars from a 4G tower (I was unable to even pick this tower up before installing the antenna).  I cannot guarantee that will be your experience but I have heard of similar results from others.  So now it is possible to get amazing speed even in a remote area!

Be aware, though, that some towers are overloaded with users and are chronically slow, while other less-used towers are amazingly fast.

#1 – Local Microwave Internet Tower

If available in your area, I consider this option to be the best route for high-speed rural internet.  Basically, a company sets up a tower on a mountain that can cover (line-of-sight) a substantial number of people–enough to warrant the investment.  Then any customer who is within line-of-sight may pay a monthly fee and buy the equipment to connect to that tower.

There are typically no daily or monthly data limits, which makes this type of service the most similar to having a landline high-speed connection.  And latency is similar to a landline so VOIP is very possible.  Weather conditions can impact performance, but in my experience it very seldom does.

The major downside is that your antenna (often called the “radio”) must be line-of-sight to the tower.  But if you and the installer are willing to get creative, it is possible to use this type of service even if your home does not have a direct line of sight to the tower.  This can be done by placing a repeater antenna in a location further uphill where it has a direct view of both the tower and your home.  It then relays the signal between your home and the tower and can work quite well.  It is even possible to power this repeater with a small solar system if it would be difficult to run a power line to it.  As you can see, this opens up LOTS of possibilities.

To find microwave internet services in your area, I’d recommend starting with a Google search and then also asking around at various stores that specialize in wireless communications (2-way radios, cell phones, booster antennas, etc).  Towns that act as resupply points for remote areas will often have a good selection of these kinds of stores because so many folks in those remote places have trouble getting a signal.

And don’t trust any coverage maps these companies might place on their website.  It’s entirely dependent on topography and there is no way a general map can give you accurate results.  Our location was supposed to be way outside of the coverage area, but I used Google Earth to help me locate the mountain where the tower is and realized I could see it just as plain as day.  So do your own homework, and if you convince yourself that you can see the mountain/tower, then insist that an installer come out and at least try to get a signal.


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