Off Grid Internet in the Boondocks?

Yes, I know...on being "Unplugged!" from the grid and now we are talking about connecting to the internet.  What's up with that?

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 Wal-mart for their next meal or on the power company for necessities like water (i.e. electric pump in the well).

Off Grid InternetAnd 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 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 hot spot to take care of emails or other business, and its 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 on 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 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 ones 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 which start at 1GB/month for $15 (plus $10 for each additional GB) and range on 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 smart phone 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 land-line 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 direct line of site 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 of 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.

How do you get internet at your rural home?

18 Comments

  • Avatar

    Brian

    Reply Reply August 7, 2015

    Another option: put together a crew and run fiber optic cable. Look up what B4RN is doing in rural England. Expensive, and you need right-of-way everywhere the cable goes, but performance is world-class. For anyone in Michigan I'd find the nearest Merit backbone link and tap into that. Other states may have similar public networks. Put those stolen taxpayer dollars to good use.

    • Avatar

      Dax

      Reply Reply May 11, 2017

      I live 50 miles outside Dallas and 10 miles to nearest municipality. I put up 90 ft rohn 25g tower to get above the trees and low area to get microwave 8 miles away to their antenna. Not cheap 3500 for tower installed.... next time I could totally do that myself. $129 a month for 8x2mbps.

      • Avatar

        Dax

        Reply Reply May 11, 2017

        I thought I would add that I couldn't even get one bar with T-Mobile the using 1700 megahertz signal so I switched to AT&T which is a 900 which travels farther...and through more density. Even with them now I had to put my phone up in the window because I had a metal roof and leave it there and be able to get messages and phone. Once I got the internet I went to AT&T and got their MicroCell which hooks up to the internet... now I have full five bars all the time within about a 150 feet of my house.

  • Avatar

    Carlos Antuna

    Reply Reply August 7, 2015

    Just to add to the local microwave tower option.
    I am not within line of sight. But a neighbor half a mile is. So with his permission I put a solar powered repeater. A single solar panel charges a small 12 v. battery. The battery powers an inverter connected to an UPS. The inverter charges the battery on the UPS that powers the receiver from the commercial internet provider and the transmitter radio for the microwave bridge that sends the signal to our home. I live in North Central Washington at 3000' of elevation. This is not a large financial investment or a complex task, it has survived about 6 winters with low light, and a lot of snow. Our current connection is capable of 7 Mbps with no quotas. I used to be a Hughes Satellite customer.
    Let me know if you want details. Please feel free to edited as you see fit.
    Blessings,
    C.

    • Avatar

      Anonymous

      Reply Reply August 9, 2015

      Cool!
      I am in rural Hawaii, and I loved your explanation;... Even though I don't understand it, I can see it is logical!
      Thank you!
      Patricia Stewart
      (808)333/0458

      • Avatar

        Susan Peters-Chesley

        Reply Reply August 10, 2015

        Aloha Patricia,

        Rural Hawaii also on Big Island. I too am looking for a way to connect off grid, as I run an internet business and will need connection. I'm trying to understand some of the explanations well. If anyone has any less technical ways to explain to a newbie, that would be helpful.

        Mahalo

    • Avatar

      Peter Johnsson

      Reply Reply July 23, 2018

      Hi Carlos! Was just reading your input on this issue. There is a small company in the town I live, he came up and did show and tell at my house, 70/80mbps up down
      Very fast. However there are no houses I can piggyback on so I will have to put a post with solar panel, inverter and all that stuff in the ground. My question to you is how big a panel and how many batteries do you think I need? I live on Oregon coast and sometimes we simply can't see the sun.
      Any information is appreciated.
      Peter in Brookings Or

      • Avatar

        Carlos

        Reply Reply July 23, 2018

        Hi Peter,
        Start with a regular size car battery. Check what you have under the hood. Buy one just like that. You can always add later on....
        Panel size? ... well how many amp/hours will you be drawing from the battery after all the electrical stuff is connected?.
        Based on that make sure that you can recharge your car batteries before the voltage gets too low on the battery. You can glean the usable sunlight hours for your property on the internet.
        Hope this helps...

  • Avatar

    Michael

    Reply Reply May 8, 2017

    Nick, I believe this might be something like what is being described: http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2015/10/how-to-build-a-low-tech-internet.html#more

  • Avatar

    David Bahr

    Reply Reply May 8, 2017

    Do you have any suggestions for making a few bucks on line , at least $2000.per month or more is better.
    Thanks Dave bahr

  • Avatar

    Michael

    Reply Reply May 8, 2017

    By the way, I forgot to mention that I use VerizonWireless out here in the country. Formerly we had only satellite, and that was extremely expensive and of poor quality and slow connection. I tried Frontier/Hughes and Excede.

    I found that I could get a better price by buying a SmoothTalker antennae and a Novatel / Verizon 4G LTE Broadband Router with Voice and was good to go in a marginal area where the tower was over the hill and thru the woods, literally. Ported over my phone number, plugged in my wired phones and all was good. I have noticed some problem with a loss of full duplex on the voice at times.

    Last month it was announced on the national news that Verizon was offering unlimited and I immediately changed my plan to that for $65 per month for my data plan, and that saved a significant amount as well.

    The advantage of cellular over satellite is that storms do not bother it because it is below the clouds. Satellite was always going out and it was always over-sold. (Shame on them.) However, dense fog will cut out 4G, but snow does not seem to.

    I have not yet tried my VOIP ATA device thru it as of yet.

    Now were are getting fiber from the power company in a month or so. Life will be sweet.

  • Avatar

    danny

    Reply Reply May 8, 2017

    Extremely helpful article, I was planning to do something about our internet problem for a while now, it's absurd that in 2017 you have to pay $110 per month to wildblue for limited GB capacity each month.

  • Avatar

    Yvonne

    Reply Reply May 9, 2017

    For income online try Dave Westbrook's Country Living University (just google it) and follow his plan specific to your talents, interests and abilities:)

  • Avatar

    Alex M

    Reply Reply May 10, 2017

    This article certainly explains the options very well!

    About the Verizon unlimited plan though: if you're using a designated hotspot-only device (JetPack, MiFi, etc) on the unlimited plan, you only get 10 GB of full-speed data. After 10 GB, it throttles down that device to 3g speeds. There is no quota, however, on a phone, even if you're tethering it! We use our phones' hotspots more than the jetpack now, and we have a Wilson weBoost Home hooked up to give us 3 bars of 4g in the house.

    • Nick Meissner

      Nick Meissner

      Reply Reply May 10, 2017

      Thanks so much for the additional details, Alex! I just updated the article to reflect that.

  • Avatar

    Theresa

    Reply Reply May 19, 2017

    Good Article

  • Avatar

    Rebecca

    Reply Reply November 20, 2017

    And one more thing. All those other wireless things you're talking about using contaminate the environment with radiation well beyond your home.

  • Avatar

    Brian

    Reply Reply December 5, 2018

    Only Verizon works at my off grid 2nd home and needed unlimited data plan with Wifi plus ethernet ports for Arlo cameras to monitor home remotely. Was using Verizon smart hubs but those could not be switched to unlimited. Tried Jetpack 7730l with wireless extender to get ethernet ports which worked initially but every few weeks would go down. Since driving there to reset is not an option I looked for router that supports Verizon usb730l 4G USB stick. Cradlepoint looked promising but must update firmware to support usb730l which cost $$ for support contract. Finally found Peplink SOHO router, did free firmware update, and it works! Every few weeks it also stopped working so added low tech xmas type timer to reset router and Arlo base every few days. That did the trick! A nice extra is Peplink SOHO router has bandwidth throttling option which found useful to slow down Netflix and Youtube from gobbling up data plan too fast.

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