The Farm and the Internet

I live on a farm just beyond the city limits of
an Oregon university town.
I've been seeking good Internet
connectivity since 1994.

I have worked as a software engineer from home since the 1990s, significantly predating the current pandemic trend. Leveraging my skills in software, in 1999 I opened an online nursery specializing in roses. The Internet has been a key technology to make my living.

Especially in the nineties, we were unusually tech heavy for a small agricultural operation. I strung ethernet cable from tree to tree between the buildings on the farm: the old farmhouse, the barn, the greenhouses, and the yurt. It evolved over the years from 10Mb, to 100Mb and then eventually I trenched in gigabit.

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Connecting that network the the wider world has always been the worst problem. Of course, we initially started with just dial-up with my workstation serving as a the router to share the connection with other computers.

Due to a quirk in the routing of phone lines and our proximity to the city limits, we found ourselves eligible for DSL soon after the turn of the century. The phone line serving our farm house, came from across the river. We were the only customer on this side. Honestly, it looked like the wires were the original installation from the 1920s. Perhaps the phone company tried valiantly to push DSL down those lines. They had brief windows of success, occassionaly almost up to 700kb, certianly better than dial-up, but it never lasted. One day we got a letter from the phone company saying that we were no longer in their service area and DSL abruptly ended.

The 2004 attempt with a
wireless carrier.

Then came our first experience with wireless Internet and that was successful enough to sustain our small business. It was a wireless system run by an entrepreneurial guy out of a downtown store front. I was impressed with his network knowledge, but not his customer service. Over the years technical problems put reliability in the low 80 percent range; for twenty unpredictable and, likely, non-contiguous, minutes of every hour, there would be no throughput.

By 2007, a new subdivision became well established about a half mile West. We hoped to be close enough to get cable Internet. However, with a starting installation price of over $15,000, not including trenching and permit applications, it was not to happen. The trench would have to cross a wetlands restoration project. A permit for trenching was not likely. We abandoned that idea.

In 2007, I became my own
wireless carrier.

I discussed our connectivity problem with colleague that happened to work at wireless equipment manufacturer in Silicon Valley. He gifted me some equipment and a gracious neighbor in the new subdivision gave us a homebase. For $1 per year, I rented a shelf in their garage and got Comcast Business Class cable Internet service connected to it. From there, we aimed a dish across the big empty field where we could just barely spot our receiving dish.

The system was cobbled together, as the necessity of unobstructed line of sight meant that the receiving dish had to be in the middle of our one acre rose garden. The cable from the receiving dish to our wired network snaked through the rose garden in disused irrigation pipes, along the benches in a sales inventory greenhouse and over to the propagation greenhouse. From there one line split south to the yurt the other west to the farmhouse.

By 2020, growing trees made
line of sight into a
race to the sky.

My Internet connection had two weak points: the microwave dishes and Comcast. While the first pair of dishes died about seven years after their initial installation, their replacements, an order of magnitude cheaper, did not last. Microwave relay dishes, like microwave ovens, have become subscription appliances. They must be purchased over and over as the devices die early deaths and standards change seemingly every few minutes.

Our most recent failure of the relay system was not caused by a hardware failure. Our line of sight has degraded. When originally set up, there was just a bare former farm field between the two endpoints. Now there is a protected but neglected wet land that is growing a forest of invasive hawthorn trees.

I've had to move my endpoint higher and higher. It is a race to the sky that I cannot win. The sky, however, has suddenly led me to a new solution.

My next blog post will detail how I migrated my Internet connection to space with the Starlink Beta Program. The yurt has entered the satellite era.