Starting a wireless internet service provider (WISP) takes a lot of work, time, and money. Able to reach remote distances with high speed and reliable connectivity, many people are investigating wireless as a means to bring high speed internet to a remote location. To do this, some basic knowledge of how a wireless ISP network is run is necessary.

A wireless internet network is shaped like a tree. At the trunk of the tree, usually at the main office, there needs to be a wired access to the internet, usually through a T1 or something similar. Like the trunk, it is going to need to bear the weight of all of the leaves and branches for the tree, which are your customers and access points. After this will be several access points (APs), or points of presence (POPs). These form the branches of the tree. They support the users (leaves), but are independent of each other. This is a location where all of your subscribers will connect to the system. Each one of these will also be connected back to base by what is known as a backhaul. This can either be a high speed wireless link or a wired link back to the main location. This connection will serve all of your customers that are attached to that specific access point, so, while it won't need to have as much bandwidth as the main connection, it will need to have significantly more bandwidth than is provided to each user. Finally, the leaves of the tree are the subscribers. This unit is usually a small outdoor antenna and low power radio that only has to reach the closest access point. The connection speed will be slower, as well, usually controlled by a bandwidth controller that limits the amount of traffic a single connection can generate. Each leaf only has a tiny little stem, which feeds into the branch, which feeds into the trunk, which finally connects the leaves to the rest of the earth.

Choosing equipment is the next major decision in planning a wireless network. Generally speaking, there are three main types of wireless connections available. These all exist in FCC unregulated spectrums. Read the FCC Part 15 rules for more information. They are 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.3/5.8 GHz. (toalight has informed me that 900 MHz is reserved for GSM phones outside of the US) Each band has different strengths and weaknesses and deciding on which one to use isn't always easy. As the frequency increases, so does the carrying speed. 900 MHz is limited to about 3 Mbps, 2.4 is capped at 11, and 5.3/5.8 can get as high as 100. However, line of sight must also be considered when deciding on equipment. 5.3/5.8 equipment is basically dependent on line of sight. Without LOS, no link is possible. Also, it is expensive, so it usually isn't used for anything except point to point links, like a backhaul. 2.4 really needs line of sight to work well, but is much cheaper than 5.3/5.8 while still providing good speeds. It is used for any purpose, either between users and access points (point to multipoint) or as a backhaul link (point to point). 900 Mhz gear is the cheapest of the three, and also some of the easiest gear to get working. It will shoot through almost anything, at least for a short distance, and still provides enough speed to make it a viable choice for point to multipoint applications. However, using it for a backhaul is not a good idea, as it will be quickly swamped by more than a few customers. It is also the shortest range gear of the three, with 5.3/5.8 the longest.

Now that you know a little about the available technology, it's time to start laying out your network. The best location for a base station is going to be one where high speed wired access is available. By high speed, you're not going to be able to run this off of a cable modem. Expect at least one T1 or other high bandwidth fixed pipe. A tower or other high structure nearby, or at least clear line of sight to one is also necessary, if you plan on using wireless backhauls for your network backbone. For example, an office building or storefront a few blocks from the telephone company with a 30-50' TV antenna tower on the roof would probably work just fine. However, before you decide where to place the base, you need to figure out where APs should be placed.

Access points need to be placed on high structures relatively free of interference. Towers are obviously ideal, but you can also utilize grain elevators, tall buildings, chimneys, water towers, or anything else over one hundred feet. An AP should be placed according to demand in an area. The top of a three story building downtown might not be the most visible location for an AP, but if the twenty businesses in the surrounding 3 blocks want wireless, it'll probably be a better choice than the 150' tower 4 miles away. Also, you need to figure out how many customers you are expecting on each AP. This will help you decide how to roll out equipment and where to spend the most money. Each AP should also be checked for lines of sight back to the base station, or at least to another AP. Each site will also need electrical power, a secure location to house your equipment, proper grounding to ensure the safety of your equipment, and plenty of security features such as fences and locks to keep your equipment safe.

Once your sites are all selected, you're ready to start rolling out equipment. I cannot stress this enough: Get professional installation help. It's not worth blowing thousands of dollars on equipment to skimp on the pros who know how to make it all work. Making wireless internet gear work without knowing anything about it is like trying to rebuild an engine with a dictionary and a pickaxe. You won't know what you're doing and you don't have the right tools even if you could figure it out. However, once the pros are there, stick by their side. Make sure you know exactly what equipment is in each location, what its capabilities are, how it was installed, any problems they know about with the equipment, and that they are making accurate documentation as the gear is installed. Also, get strength numbers for each link, data specs on the equipment, and know how to monitor your system. While the guys are in town, also get them to train your staff. Ask them if they offer any training seminars for your people in new technology. Pick their brains for anything you don't know, because, believe me, you'll be wanting to know soon enough.

Ok, so you've spent several thousand dollars hanging antennas and plugging in radios. You've got a wireless network of access points all linking back to the main office. Now what? Now you start home installs. For home installs, you're going to need employees. At least two people are going to be required for each install. It's never safe to be on rooftops or up towers alone, and having that extra set of hands is always helpful. A lot of the technical stuff as far as home installs is going to depend on the equipment you decided on. For 900 gear, it's going to be a lot easier to connect people. You'll just mount an antenna on their house, point it in the direction of the AP, and see if it works. Eventually, you'll get to the point where you can tell if a link will work just by driving to someone's house and climbing up on their roof. Most products designed to be mounted on someone's home will use power over ethernet (POE), so the cabling to the outdoor unit will be a small CAT5 cable that will have to be run inside to a power injector near an outlet, usually by the user's computer.

Customers bring with them all of the joys of running a high tech ISP. These include, but are not limited to, being threatened with lawsuits by the RIAA, being threatened with nonpayment by your customers, callouts, blackouts, burnouts, just plain outs, and a whole list of other problems leaving you worn out. Your phone bills will start looking like social security numbers and your profits will start looking like lotto numbers. However, if you're lucky and people actually want the service, you'll be able to stay up long enough to make the T1 payments and get your equipment paid off, and eventually start turning a profit. Good luck, and don't fall off of anything.

One unfortunate problem with starting a Wireless ISP is that it costs money.

Here's one way around that little issue.

You can get the Federal Government (tm) to help pay the bills. There are several programs for grants and loans specifically targeted towards getting broadband Internet access to markets that are not currently served. The downside is that you need to fill out more paperwork than you thought existed.

Another caveat to the fed program is that you have to provide a space with several computers for general public use at no cost. Suggested locations include small-town libraries, granges, and other public buildings - or, pad your monetary request and get a building by buying or leasing. Some programs allow it.

The best known program is run by the US Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov). They want to drive rural development and get broadband to the farmers. A good starting point for the program is available from the USDA website or a PDF located at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rd/BBbrochure.pdf for your reading pleasure.

Remember me when you're the ISP King (or Queen) of Roosterpoot, Arkansas.

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