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An 802.11 ISP on Maine's Rocky Coast

by Glenn Fleishman
10/12/2001

In the late 1700s, optical telegraphs were all the rage. In France, Britain, and other western European countries, a series of line-of-sight towers using a common semaphore language could relay a message across hundreds of miles in a few minutes.

Today, the coast of Maine is experiencing a bandwidth rebirth through the use of the modern equivalent of these early information beacons.

An Internet service provider on the state's rocky coast offers topographically enabled customers up to 3 megabits per second through point-to-point wireless IEEE 802.11 networking using a series of bridged line-of-sight transmitters. (Lose your "b" prejudice, as "802.11" is no typo.)

Maine's midcoast region stretches 100 or so miles from Belfast in the north down to Rockland and the peninsulas in the south. There are plenty of towns and villages with a few hundred to several thousand people, but the large population centers like Portland, Augusta, and Bangor are an hour or two away.

Midcoast isn't on the way to anywhere, unless you're vacationing. Thousands of strands of fiber don't criss-cross it, as the Midwestern states are checkerboarded, and a weak analog cell signal is about the best you'll get after you surmount any of the modest coastal hills and hit the shore. Those of us used to digital service are surprised to see our dual- or tri-mode phones "pass out" with dead batteries after just a few hours.

When I lived in Camden, the jewel of the Midcoast for tourists and a nice town year-round, I was lucky to exceed 14.4 Kbps through a dial-up connection (to AppleLink, of all things, one of AOL's side operations). That was in 1993, but eight years later, many residents of that area can still only connect at two to three times that speed.

It's not impossible to buy bandwidth up there. If you happen to have loose change in the neighborhood of several hundred to a couple thousand dollars a month, you can get long-haul T1 -- as a big bundle of wires -- or ISDN. But DSL is not widely available and cable modem service is, by all reports, erratic.

An ISP discovers the ether

Enter into this void an enterprising college student named Jason Philbrook, who started Midcoast Internet Solutions (MIS) in 1995 in a basement in Owl's Head.

MIS has grown steadily, but the costs of moving data around even short distances on the coast are substantial. Owl's Head is small even by Midcoast standards, and in 1997 the company wanted to locate offices in nearby Rockland. The rub? Its T1s and other lines all terminated in Owl's Head, and the cost of running another T1 to its new Rockland location could cost $1,000 to $1,500 a month.

Graphic of Maine islands map with indicators as to whom is connected

Midcoast Internet Service's customer base is scattered around the coastal inlets and islands of Maine's rocky midcoast region.

MIS had heard about using 802.11 point-to-point unlicensed wireless, and in 1997 began testing equipment from Breezecom. Breezecom, which has since merged with another firm to become Alvarion, specializes in ISP and enterprise-style equipment that would allow no-fuss, (almost) zero-administration, high-speed links.

The 802.11 standard predates 802.11b, and uses frequency hopping (FH) to offer about 3 Mbps (or 1.9 Mbps of throughput) in Breezecom's implementation. Because of the lower data rate and the method by which frequency hopping distributes signals across the 2.4-GHz band, you can locate many overlapping access points in the same directional space, and deploy them at a distance over 30 miles. (For more details on spread spectrum technologies, including frequency hopping, see Jim Geier's white paper, Spread Spectrum: Frequency Hopping vs. Direct Sequence.)

One of MIS's earliest (and continuing) customers is Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, who has featured MIS in several of his "From the Ether" columns in InfoWorld.

Charles Jones, MIS's wireless Internet manager, says of its initial link, "It worked perfectly" -- a phrase we don't often hear in the technology world. Jones says the company started thinking right away "how easy it would be to offer access to customers who needed high-speed access." It would also bypass local wiring limitations and costs, and reduce their reliance on their local carrier, Verizon, which they have to wait on to provide more circuits.

MIS put BreezeNET devices on a tower at a high point near Owl's Head, and its new business began. MIS uses a variety of BreezeNET devices:

  • client devices called Station Adapters (SA) that plug into Ethernet LANs,
  • more or less standard access points (AP), and
  • wireless bridges (WB), which connect repeater stations with MIS's Internet feed.

In a typical end-user installation, MIS brings out a station adapter and an antenna and performs all the wiring necessary to bring an Ethernet connection to the right drop spot. The company sites new locations with either a view to an access point on one of its towers or mountain sites, or pointing at businesses that host repeating stations.

One of the repeaters is located on Ragged Mountain at the Camden Snow Bowl, where other broadcasters have located towers because the site is already wired: They need electricity for the ski lifts.

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