A Nonprofit Builds Community and Connections in Montana

Date: 14 Dec 2021 | posted in: MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A year after a group of local broadband champions got together to see how they could improve Internet access in Missoula, Montana, the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative has successfully raised funds and designed, deployed, and launched a wireless mesh network delivering 150 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service to more than 50 of 550 pre-registered households for, on average, $40-60/month. The community-owned option has injected some welcome competition to a stagnant local broadband market, with a second network already in the planning stages in a community to the north.

Both efforts are being driven by the Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance (PNWRBA), a Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit aiming to build resiliency, local capacity, and expand quality Internet access to the region by making use of a variety of community-oriented business models. The nonprofit serves not only to coordinate grassroots organizing efforts, but provide technical assistance and lead policy engagement with local leaders. It is running a dual mission. First, to bring faster and more affordable Internet access via a community-owned model to the area. And second, to prove out a series of models in the region with the hopes of generating additional community-based approaches to improving broadband in the region and beyond.

Grant Creek

At present, the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative covers Missoula’s (pop. 74,000) Grant Creek neighborhood, a roughly one and a half square-mile area (see right) of 400 households bounded by the Clark Fork River and Highway 90. But the eventual plan is to cover all of Missoula before expanding to cover East Missoula, Bonner, and Clinton, and then head south toward Lolo. The total proposed coverage area (see below) is reminiscent of the shape of the state of Florida, about 30 miles wide and 50 miles long, with the city of Missoula at the northeast corner and including the cities and towns along the T-shape made by Interstate 90 and State Highway 93.

In its first service area the network provides Internet access to 50 users out of a potential of 400 households, with new users connected as word of mouth spreads. Its Phase 1 expansion, due to go live in January 2022, will cover an additional 550 households in Missoula’s North Side neighborhood. 30 households there are already pre-registered, and the network anticipates connecting four premises per week once work there begins.

The Missoula Valley Network is entirely sustained by user fees, though it does help that user support, marketing, and education efforts are sustained by a dedicated and active group of volunteers.

Origins

Talk to Elvis Nuno for more than a handful of minutes and two things become obvious: the first is that he has a tireless energy for getting better Internet access to those who don’t have it. The second is he loves rural Montana. One of the first 500 employees at Clearwire (which built Sprint’s 4G network), he was born and raised in the area. He initially moved to Seattle to work as a Lead Network Engineering Technician, but also worked for the company in the IT Department and in production support before ending up as a Development Operations Engineer for the provider’s e-commerce efforts. When Clearwire was sold to Sprint, Nuno moved back home to Missoula. Today, he serves as the President and Co-founder of the Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance, of which the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative is a part.

The genesis for the Missoula Valley network is familiar to anyone living in the mountain prairie region (and many others) across the U.S. Nuno shared in a recent interview that Charter Spectrum has cable service inside the city limits of Missoula, but it disappears quickly outside of town. There is some DSL service in the area as well, he said, but it’s not great. There are about 49,000 households in Missoula County, and Nuno estimates that as many as 15,000 of those are unserved by connections capable of delivering anything more than 25/3 Mbps.

If true, it’s a particularly striking example of just how bad the FCC Form 477 data is in the region; Charter reports almost total cable coverage in the middle third of the area that the Missoula Valley Network aims to eventually cover, and CenturyLink (now Lumen) claims DSL service over what looks like 80 percent of the area.

Facing these realities, like-minded people in the area equally tired of poor connectivity eventually found each other, and the broadband cooperative was born. Local efforts began to coalesce at the end of 2019, with enough interest driving a pre-registration campaign which kicked off in July 2020. The network was formally launched that December in the Grant Creek area, targeted at the places where Charter Spectrum service ends and residents had few options.

A Wireless Model

After searching for an attainable, sustainable model, the solution the nonprofit landed on was a wireless mesh network. This model gave it the ability to sidestep the slow expansion of a brand-new wireline ISP with no existing infrastructure, like poles or conduit, in the area. And so, instead of taking years, the Missoula Valley Network took just a handful of months to get off the ground in its first service area. It also allowed the cooperative to avoid the millions in up front capital costs required; instead $15,000 seeded the original effort (gathered via private contributions and philanthropic donations) to pay for the gateway hardware (servers, switches, routers) as well as the initial antennas and first couple months of backhaul service. But the beauty of it all, Nuno shared, is that networks like this are sustainable at incredibly low subscriber rates–as low as 20 or 30 households.

To get started, the cooperative created a design plan to locate a collection of potential homes to serve as relay operators capable of acting as a wireless backbone that would also account for the geography and foliage in the area. It directly canvassed those homeowners, while also approaching the local Homeowners Association to get a couple of points of presence in strategic locations. In addition to direct canvassing, cooperative organizers left brochures, while answering residents’ questions about how the network would operate and the benefits they would see.

According to Nuno, the Missoula Valley region lends itself well to the wireless mesh deployment with some planning, with the high ridges and low valleys complementing each other well to bring access to otherwise hard-to-reach homes.

It’s worth noting that there are a handful of fixed wireless Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that operate in the area, according to the Form 477 data. Grizzly Broadband operates in both the north and south part of Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative’s proposed service area, with speed tiers ranging from 6 Mbps to 32 Mbps for between $65 and $120/month. Rocky Mountain Internet, Inc. offers 25 Mbps service costing $99.95/month.

Anatomy of a Network

While other community-oriented approaches might look to convince city or county officials to build a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home (ftth) network, Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative is taking a different approach. Instead, it’s building a wireless mesh network on the Althea platform, an open-source framework which provides automated network management and payments from users, to relay operators, to the backhaul point. It does all this, including housing a secure digital wallet for each household, via custom firmware already installed on the in-home routers. Althea takes no money up front, helping instead expand Internet access for dozens of community networks around the world by taking a small fraction of a penny from each network transaction. Nuno shared this point in particular as a central reason for choosing the platform:

Billing and customer management systems are these huge, archaic monstrosities that take development staff, engineering staff, support staff. Althea automates all that.

At the most basic level, the Missoula Valley network begins at a fiber backhaul point, with capacity leased to feed the network and provide sufficient capacity (up to 10 gigabits per second if eventually needed, though today the network uses only a fraction of that) from local and national wholesale providers. At present, backhaul costs the network about $1,000/month.

From the point where the fiber pokes out of the ground, the network goes wireless, with the architecture staying pretty flat after the first wireless gateway. The Althea platform is capable of using off-the-shelf, point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless network hardware (in this case Ubiquiti) run by software loaded onto a router that intelligently manages the network in real time. It directs the flow of bits via routing protocols, and sustains the cost of doing so with blockchain payment technology.

How does it work? The vast majority of users on the network also serve as transmitters, paying to send and receive their own traffic while getting paid by other users – whose data gets sent by the Althea software across the fastest, least-congested route at any given second back to the central node – to pass along that data further up the chain.

It means millions of little transactions every day, with pennies constantly flowing in and out of each user’s digital wallet. The topography of the network is also constantly being redrawn to account for traffic conditions and costs, kind of like Waze does for automobile traffic. The draw is that this effectively decentralizes the data traffic management protocols so that the cooperative can avoid the cost of maintaining an expensive central office that monitors the system.

The end result is a mesh network of users where if any one node goes down or becomes congested, traffic is rerouted automatically. However, there is also the presence of a small collection of relay operators scattered throughout. These central nodes, which can be thought of as the brightest stars in a constellation, host more powerful hardware in strategic geographic locations and get more bandwidth to connect clusters of other end users further down the chain. At the end of the day, this means that users own the hardware on their property, with the cost of repairing, replacing, or upgrading it built into the business model.

Building Community Capacity and Resilience

In pursuing this route, the cooperative is functionally turning it’s greatest weakness (the lack of the large amount of capital needed to build new wireline infrastructure from scratch) into a strength. While some communities do build a grassroots effort (and need to, to succeed), many publicly owned networks don’t require the creation of a tightly knit, active, booster-minded group in order to succeed. You’d certainly be hard pressed to find an active Discord server like the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative’s, with dozens of users offering to host relay nodes, sharing speed tests, solving technical issues, and coordinating organizing campaigns on social media.

It’s truly a community owned and operated network, so the success of it really hinges on community involvement, community participation, and community adoption. – Elvis Nuno, President and Co-founder, Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance

That’s not to say the group hasn’t faced some challenges. Nuno talked about the process of reeducating users who have become accustomed to the monopoly broadband marketplace, with the inevitability of slower speeds (the result of oversubscription) or the need to renegotiate monthly bills each year. The same, he said, is true for customers of mobile carriers, who for years have used data overage charges as a lucrative revenue stream and a way to extract wealth from communities of all income levels.

“[People] know they’ve been cheated by their ISP, they just don’t know how,” Nuno shared in talking about the education efforts they’ve had to undertake. “So they assume that every ISP is there to cheat them. So when we approach them as this nonprofit and say ‘We have this new technology,’ people are mistrustful because they’ve been cheated so many times. So it takes that education. And the moment they experience [the network], they see it.”

Wherever possible, the Missoula Valley Network uses spectrum in the 60 GHz band, complementing it with the 5GHz when there isn’t optimal line of sight. The network’s point-to-point connections use 40MHz to 80MHz slices of spectrum, while the point-to-multipoint connections use either 20MHz or 30MHz slices. Organizers are also looking into supplementing it with spectrum in the 24GHz and 11GHz bands (paying a one-time $1,000 registration fee for the latter) if needed, down the road to tie together geographically separated neighborhoods and in peering future networks together.

A New Model Brings Faster Speeds and Lower Monthly Bills

While the network is a pure broadband cooperative in function, legally and organizationally it lives under the umbrella of the PNWRBA nonprofit. End users own their own hardware and the last mile is technically owned by the gateway operators, but a decision to sell, shut down the network, or make significant operational changes would be made on behalf of the PNWRBA’s Board, Nuno shared.

New installations cost between $285 and $650 (whether one is a basic user or opts to be a relay operator). It requires no credit checks, and takes just a couple of hours. The process is made easier by the plug-and-play nature of the Althea firmware already loaded onto the routers. Antennas are placed and connections are made by volunteers. The first $50 is loaded into users’ digital wallets (where payments are processed and funds are held) for free.

Contrary to traditional subscriber services, Missoula Valley Network users don’t pay based on speed tiers. Every user is guaranteed a speed of at least 100 Mbps symmetrical, though many get more. Instead, they pay based solely on data usage.

While the majority of us have been conditioned by our mobile operators and wireline ISPs to assume that this would lead to astronomical bills, Nuno shared that most average users on the Missoula Valley Network actually pay about half of the average broadband bill in the United States today.

He said that “light user” households – those hitting between 150-200 gigabytes per month – spend from $25-35 for their connection, including the $10 maintenance fee. Medium users (typically two adults and maybe one child working and learning from home) use between 400 and 550 gigabytes per month and pay from $50-60/month. Heavy users (Nuno gave the example of a household with five or six children and parents working from home) use around a terabyte and pay from $90-100 per month. By comparison, Nuno said, he pays about $140/month to Charter Spectrum for its 400/20 Mbps service.

Relay operators, who serve as centralized nodes, defray the costs of their own connection via the Althea framework while also benefiting from faster speeds. While others get symmetrical 150 Mbps connections, relay operators average 500 Mbps symmetrical connections. Monthly costs are reduced between $8 and $35/month as well, Nuno shared, because more traffic passes through those points on the way back to the Internet at large.

End users also have complete control over their monthly costs, and can adjust household connections in their Althea portal according to their needs. For example, if a user wants to lower their speeds or self-impose a bandwidth cap, their bill will trend downward accordingly.

A $10 maintenance fee is built into monthly bills, but the network never cuts off a user for failure to pay. Once a user’s router wallet goes empty, their connection is throttled down to 25/3 Mbps, allowing them to do basic web surfing.

Today, the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative is self-sustaining, and even turning a small profit. Extra funds are going towards expansion efforts, but the network is also looking at creating an endowment fund to subsidize low-income connections on the network. While its focus is on residential users, it has fielded some interest from businesses and nonprofits as well, with local conservation group Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation hosting a relay on its facilities.

Anderson Island Internet Cooperative

The Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative is just one of three connectivity projects being pursued by the Pacific Northwest Broadband Alliance. If you hop on Internet 90 and drive 530 miles directly west, then kayak across two miles of water from the city of Steilacoom across the Puget Sound, you’ll hit Anderson Island. The eight square-mile community in Pierce County is home to just over 1,000 people, though the summer months see tourists grow that number four-fold.

Anderson Island was, in fact, an original focus of the PNWRBA, though progress has been a little slower than in Missoula Valley because it “turned out to be a heavier lift than anticipated.” Nuno cited geography and dense foliage as one of the early obstacles, but organizers are also missing a local broadband champion and the strong community work that has made the Montana project successful so far. They look forward to investing more time and effort there in the near future, with hopes of growing.

Lake County Internet Cooperative

Another future expansion area for PNWRBA is in Lake County, Montana, located just north of Missoula. Lake County is home to just under 29,000 people, and its county seat is the city of Polson (pop. 5,100). After traction began in Missoula Valley, the PNWRBA started getting calls from citizens in Lake County who saw what was happening to the south and wanted to improve connectivity there as well.

There, the Mission Valley Internet Cooperative is planned to be roughly the same size as the Missoula Valley network, but because it’s set in a low, wide valley, organizers believe deployment there will be a little easier.

Hopes for the Future

The Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance, running all of these efforts to improve local connectivity, also has its eyes set on a larger goal. It hopes that via the Missoula Valley, Anderson Island, and Mission Valley networks, it can prove out a series of community-owned models that can match a wide variety of local conditions and improve Internet access in as many communities as possible. While one city might only need the group’s technical assistance to get an Althea-baed, wireless mesh network off the ground, another might join the PNWRBA to build and operate the network in its entirety. In still other communities, a local wireline ISP might take advantage of the model to extend its network to hard to reach areas. The resulting additional choices – ideally community-owned, but not necessarily – would go towards increasing competition in a national marketplace long dominated by cable and telephone monopolies.

The Missoula Valley Network, though not a legally instantiated cooperative, shows what happens when a dedicated, community-minded group of broadband champions gets together and do the hard work of addressing all the steps that it takes to go from conception to connection.

There aren’t a large number of pure broadband cooperatives operating in form or function around the country today, and Missoula Valley hopes in part to change that. To learn more about the governance model, listen to episode 440 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, where Christopher talks with representatives from RS Fiber, a broadband cooperative united a series of communities and operating in two rural counties in southern Minnesota.

Listen to more about how the Althea Networks platform works below:

Header image via Wikimedia Commons user Prizrak 2084, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Originally published on MuniNetworks.org. Read the original here
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Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Ry is a Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. He is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine.