A DIY approach to rural broadband

Making sure broadband reaches all is a concern these days, and a question that many in the government as well as in the industry are asking themselves. But one company, Althea, has decided to answer it by ...

Apr 15th, 2019
A DIY approach to rural broadband
A DIY approach to rural broadband

Making sure broadband reaches all is a concern these days, and a question that many in the government as well as in the industry are asking themselves. But one company, Althea, has decided to answer it by putting the solution in the hands of the communities themselves.

Althea uses a combination of wired and wireless technology that enables routers to pay each other for bandwidth, which means that communities can build and maintain their own decentralized Internet infrastructure. Althea has a protocol that takes quality and price into account when selecting the path through the network. Cryptocurrency is used to process payments.

The company compares it to the Airbnb model where users receive the service and make money by being a relay and providing it to their neighbors.

The system has launched in Clatskanie, a small city in Oregon, with fewer than 2,000 people in the area. The small population has not enticed traditional Internet service providers (ISPs) to invest in the region. With Althea, residents can get 50 to 60 Mbps at less than $40 per month, compared to $150 per month for speeds as slow as 1 Mbps.

"A lot of people think a service like ours is primarily needed in the developing world, but the fact is, nearly 40% of rural America lacks access to high-speed broadband, so it's a huge problem that needs solving in the U.S., too," said Deborah Simpier, co-founder of Althea.

"Althea makes it easy enough technically for communities to hook themselves up. Software manages the networking and configuration and such," said Jehan Tremback, Althea co-founder and lead protocol designer. "We are giving the hosting people a return that enables a double incentive. They want to bring better Internet to their community, to their home and their neighbors' homes. If they are putting in the effort of the time and money into installing the relay, they are being rewarded fairly as well."

Tremback explained that security is a top priority. It all works similarly to a virtual private network (VPN). If a neighbor relays the traffic, they can see encrypted packets going to the exit node. It is not necessarily physically in the network, but possibly in a regional data center.

The setup encourages equipment upgrades, Simpier said. If a certain relay or gateway is at capacity, it means that there is more traffic available than it is able to handle, and the owner is selling less data than it could be. If the seller upgrades the equipment, they will make more money.

"In a traditional ISP, with unlimited data … they might get away with not upgrading as long as possible," Simpier said, noting that if their profit will not increase, the incentive might not be there.

As for reliability, the ultimate goal is to have multiple relays up and running, so it will be unlikely for both routes to be down at once. The organizer should look at houses with certain qualifications, like line of site to at least 10 other homes, Simpier said. "Then they will be earning enough money to take it seriously."

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