Tag Archives: internet

Technology down on the farm…

This is a blog about using technology to make life – business and home – better in rural America.Rural Life - with the Internet

My interest is in networking, and, particularly, wireless networking. I realized some time back that a huge shift has occurred in the way everything is communicated: it is now possible and even desirable to put all communications media onto Internet Protocol (IP) so you have only one communications network. I also realized that wi-fi and other wireless networking is being grossly underutilized, especially in the country.

My specific interests include:

  • Networking – both Local-Area Networks (LAN) and Wide-Area Networks (WAN)
  • Computers – but these days, mostly as communications devices
  • The Internet – all the things you can do with it
  • Wireless Communications – from Ham Radio to SHF, but particularly low-cost wireless IP networking

When I bought a house a few years back, I thought it was kind of “cool” that the previous owner had gone to the expense to set up an Ethernet network in the house, with jacks built in the walls and wires leading to the “networking closet” (also known as the “laundry room”). Today, only one of those jacks is in use (to support my desktop computer and some other “wired” gadgets) because everything else in the house is on Wi-Fi, and that has happened over a span of about 5 years.

As a matter of fact, the only wires running in or out of our house now are (1) Electricity and (2) Internet. We have AT&T U-Verse, so our phone lines run on IP, our TV is IP, and, of course, our Internet access is IP. So, for better or worse, we are committed.

I have a number of projects I am working on to improve our household and business, as well as helping neighbors and friends. What I’d like to do here is share what I learn for the benefit of all.

Getting on the Internet

If you live in the city, it’s very easy to get “high-speed” internet connectivity (meaning always-on, 1 Mbps or faster) – choose from the available (usually several) methods based on cost, speed, and reliability.

In the country, however, it’s not so easy – so let’s review the options:

Old acoustic coupler1.) Dial-up using a modem: not a realistic option. First, it’s not “always on,” it’s only on when you dial up, so there are a lot of things you cannot do. Second, the speed you can achieve is dependent on how far away your local telephone switching station is; maximum modem speed is about 56 kilobits per second, and, practically, you might be lucky to get half that. It’s OK for getting and sending “conversational” emails, but it can take a long time to download a webpage, simple document, or large picture.

Cable Modem2.) Cable or DSL: probably your best bet IF you can get it. You have to be within a certain distance of a telephone or cable TV facility, and most rural residents don’t qualify. Cable and DSL usually provide the fastest speeds and best reliability if you can get it, though.

Fixed Wireless Antenna on home3.) Fixed Wireless (also known as WISP for “Wireless Internet Service Provider”): Next best option, because you can get good speed and reliability without wires. The problems here are that not all WISPs are created equal, and not all places are served by a WISP. What WISPs do is set up towers with radios on them, then install a radio on your house (known as “Customer Premises Equipment” or “CPE”) to “talk” to the radio on the tower. If you are in direct line-of-sight to a nearby  tower, and the tower is operated by a good WISP, this can work very well. If not, it’s not  a good option. There is a coalition of WISPS called WISPA – you can check their website for a WISP near you – see the links to the right.

USB AirCard4.) Cellular (or Mobile Wireless): OK, but can get expensive. Cellular companies sell “Air Cards” – typically USB devices that plug into a laptop computer to provide Internet access via the cellular network. They used to be very slow, but “3G” networks now routinely provide better than 1 Mbps, and new “4G” networks may provide many times that speed. While an Air Card is designed to be plugged into a laptop,  you can also plug them into special routers from NetGear, Kyocera, Cradlepoint, and others to provide a more “normal” Internet connection (one to which you can connect several computers). Some of the cellular companies are selling routers with the Air Card built-in as a way of getting into the home internet market – Clear (the company that provides WiMax connections through Sprint) is one of those companies with their new “Clear Modem.” Several cellular companies (Verizon being the one I’m familiar with) are selling the “MiFi” device that creates a wi-fi hotspot from an internal cellular data card. Unfortunately, the MiFi devices I have seen don’t have an Ethernet port, which limits their usefulness.

Satellite Dish5.) Satellite Internet: OK, but introduces a problem called “latency.” Satellite internet is available anywhere you have a clear view of the southern sky, so it has been the method of choice for rural households for some time. The problem is that the satellite is over 35,000 miles away, and a packet has to go all the way from your computer, 35,000 miles up to the satellite, 35,000 miles back down to the ground, to the server you are “talking to,” and then the response has to travel 35,000 miles back up to the satellite and 35,000 miles back down to you, and all of that takes about a second or more. While a second doesn’t make much difference if you’re just browsing a web page, it makes using Voice over IP applications like Skype or gaming services like Xbox Live impossible.

Once you figure out which option is best for you, the company will set you up and you’re on the Internet. Now the fun begins…

So, where are we going with this?

Laptop in workshopIn the following posts, I’ll be describing things I am doing around my house and the things I have done to make them work. Some of these things are obvious (I hope), and some of them will seem ridiculous (I expect). So it’s a good time to just explain exactly where I’m going with this.

The overall goal is simply this: to build a single communications network that will allow me to (1) access the internet at reasonable speed, and (2) build out systems for security, monitoring, and automation on my homestead.

The first step is to get on the Internet with a good, “always-on” high-speed Internet connection. Speed is good; there are times when you will use all the speed you have and wish for more. However, the “always-on” aspect is much more important, because it allows you to do things on the Internet (like back up your hard drive) automatically, even when you’re asleep. Dial-up is useful for checking email, but not really for anything else. I kept a dial-up account for several years after I got “broadband” internet for use on the road or if the broadband went out, but I never used it. Wi-fi hotspots are widely available, I have a Verizon Air Card for emergencies, so dial-up doesn’t work into my plans.

The second step is to make the Internet available to all the computers in the house. To do this, I installed a router connected to the DSL modem in the house. Later on, I upgraded to AT&T U-Verse, and they replaced the DSL modem with a new unit with a built-in router. Almost all consumer-grade routers have a 4-port Ethernet switch and a wi-fi access point built-in, so you can connect several computers or other devices to them. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had Ethernet cables running to five rooms of the house (living room, kitchen, my office, my wife’s office, and the bedroom), so I attached a 5-port Ethernet switch to my router to give myself a total of 7 ports (one port on the router and one port on the switch are occupied by the cable connecting them). In my house, 5 ports are connected to the Ethernet cables running in the house (although devices are now only plugged into one of those ports, the one that goes to my office; my wife has gone “all wi-fi” and I never did have anything plugged into the living room, kitchen, or bedroom ports except for testing or for guests to use). One port is connected to an external wi-fi access point, which we’ll talk about later, and one port is used for a “wired” IP camera.

The router serves to make the Internet available to everyone in the house, but it also creates a “Local Area Network” (LAN) in the house, enabling all the devices in the house to talk to each other and to the Internet. It’s not entirely obvious why this is useful until you start to think about all the things you can put on a LAN. To start with, I got a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device so we could back up our computers and store shared files. I then added the IP camera to keep an eye out the front of the house. I got a Lexmark networked printer so we can print from anywhere in the house (haven’t gotten the dog to go fetch the printouts yet, which is probably just as well), and, of course, there are always about 20 “experiments” (currently focusing on automation) attached to the network (usually safely inside my office or the workshop).

The next step was to extend the network out into the outbuildings, particularly our workshop. The wireless router just doesn’t have the “oomph” to reach out to the workshop, never mind beyond that, so I set up an external wi-fi Access Point. I actually set up a “meshing” system with an access point on the house and another one in the workshop, primarily because I thought it was interesting. With this system, I can use either wi-fi or “wired” (Ethernet” devices out in the shop, even though I don’t have an Ethernet cable running from the house to the shop (Ethernet cables are limited to 100 meters, which would reach to my shop, but I really don’t want to run the trench, bury the conduit, etc.) Recently introduced, low-cost meshing wi-fi systems are, I think, a real necessity for folks who live on property, and I’ll explain why later.

The final step (and it’s never going to be “done,” of course) is to use that network to make business easier and make the household safer, more secure, and more fun. I have been messing around with IP and wi-fi cameras for monitoring things on the property, and I have several hooked up for testing as I write this. Most of them are just cheap cameras from Ebay, but I have one little Axis camera (the M1011-W) that has helped me understand the difference between cheap IP cameras and good IP cameras.

My other goal, of course, is to help you do this (whatever parts of it you want to do, or wherever you want to extend my experience) as easily as possible. I’d like to think that I have made every mistake possible; while that’s not true, I have made a lot of mistakes and made a few good decisions. I hope that, by sharing those with you, I can help you avoid the mistakes and frustration that I experienced.

The Rural WiFi Mesh Network

Just a few years ago, mesh networks were considered so esoteric that no one would even think of using one unless you had wads of money and a cadre of geeks at your beck and call. The notion of someone using a mesh network to provide rural WiFi on a farm would have been laughable.

Some years back, though, those clever kids at MIT decided they wanted a mesh network across the campus (and beyond) at the lowest possible cost. The result was RoofNet, which eventually gave rise to a commercial offering from Meraki and, later, Open-Mesh and, eventually, AyrMesh. These mesh networks all use low-cost WiFi radios and the internet in clever ways to provide a very flexible WiFi “cloud.”

What’s a mesh network?

A mesh network uses multiple Access Points (called “nodes” or “hubs”) which communicate with each other via wireless links. WiFi MeshOne or more of these nodes may be connected to the Internet; they are usually called “Gateway” nodes. Nodes at the outer edge of the network are referred to as “Leaf” nodes, and nodes between the Gateway and the Leaf nodes are frequently called “Repeaters.”

The major features of a mesh network are:

  1. Practically unlimited expansion – you can use mesh nodes to extend your network around all kinds of corners: into buildings, around physical obstacles, and, potentially, across large distances
  2. Simple networking – the mesh can present as a single network, so anything in the network across a broad area can be addressed via its IP address
  3. Easy maintenance and administration – modern mesh networks like the ones we are discussing here use a central “dashboard” on the internet to manage the nodes, so you never have to go out and “touch” a node (unless it physically fails).

Of course, while a mesh network can be expanded almost arbitrarily, it requires additional mesh nodes to do so. One of the most extraordinary things about the mesh systems mentioned earlier is that the nodes are quite inexpensive – from less than $100 apiece to a few hundred. Besides requiring enormous technical expertise, previous mesh networks cost thousands of dollars per node.

The upshot is that, while mesh networks were previously only for the military and large companies, they are now perfectly suitable for your farm or homestead.

A mesh network of a single node is, essentially, equivalent to a single access point. You connect it to an internet source and turn it on, and it behaves much like a wireless router. The big difference is that you can simply install more nodes to “repeat” or “relay” the signal to different areas: further away and around obstacles to line-of-sight. You can also use those additional nodes to connect “wired” devices into the network by plugging them into the Ethernet ports of the nodes.

This makes the mesh network an extremely useful and practical tool for building your “Farm-Area Network.” A mesh network may not be the “be-all and end-all,” and you may still want to use point-t0-point links and directional clients to expand your network. But I believe that a mesh network on the farmstead  is the right place to start.