Fed up with ISPs, a Michigan man launched his own fiber broadband service: NPR
Long before the pandemic forced many office workers to rely on their home internet, Jared Mauch had been working from home for about two decades.
When he moved to Scio Township in 2002, a rural Michigan area not far from Ann Arbor, his employer provided him with an excellent home internet connection – many of his neighbors at the time were still blocked by a slow connection.
After a while, however, his bandwidth couldn’t keep up with his job as a technician and his growing family.
But when he started shopping, he wasn’t happy with his options. AT&T internet speeds were extremely slow. Comcast wanted to charge him an upfront fee of $50,000 to extend the service to his home. He opted for a third way.
Rather than shell out that kind of money just to depend on the whims of an internet service provider, the 46-year-old decided to start his own fiber ISP.
“I had every reason to believe that I would be able to perform and perform a lot of these elements, and that I would probably be better able to provide the service to the community than, you know, a large business,” he told NPR. . “I saw it as a great opportunity both to expand the service and something I’m passionate about.”
He created the company in 2017 and obtained the permits in 2019 to start construction the following year. In August 2020, he was officially in business. Just in time for her children to start virtual school during the pandemic.
“It was great,” he recalls. “I had a domestic streak that I controlled and the ability to sort of control my own destiny going forward.”
Along the way, it also connected its neighbors to its high-speed fiber lines. His business has grown to serve 71 customers with a reliable internet connection.
With the help of contractors, he has already laid 14 miles of cable across the county. Sometimes it takes half a mile of cable to hook up a single house in a rural area.
Now Mauch is receiving $2.6 million in federal funds to continue his work. Last year, a COVID-19 relief program allocated $15 million to Washtenaw County, where Mauch lives and where many residents lack internet service.
He was one of four ISPs to receive federal funds to expand fiber optic Internet service in the county.
With this money, Mauch plans to connect 600 additional households. He told Ars Technica, which first reported on Mauch’s ISP business, that he planned to lay an additional 38 miles of cable for the project.
The first step to wiring the neighborhood: mapping where service is lacking
That’s about a quarter of the work that needs to be done to ensure Washtenaw County has 100% reliable internet, says Chris Scharrer, founder and CEO of DCS Technology Design, the county-hired telecommunications engineering firm. to oversee its broadband. project.
Scharrer inventoried broadband access in underserved areas as part of a countywide mapping project needed to secure federal funding. It identified some 8,000 homes in Washtenaw County without reliable broadband in 2020.
About 2,800 of those homes identified by Scharrer were previously incorrectly reported as having service coverage. This is a known issue due to inaccurate FCC mapping nationwide.
“I actually find a lot of gaps, where they think they have service when they don’t,” he said. “We find that this error rate can be up to 50% overestimated in some regions where it is supposed to be served by a large ISP.”
In reality, he said, cable companies stop on the road, where the connection might not go beyond long driveways, for example, or it might be prohibitively expensive for the owner to pay installation fees.
“It takes people like us to go out who aren’t limited by anything and can go out and just visually map everything, find out where it is and put it on paper,” he said.
Scharrer hopes that, by the end of 2024, the entire county will be served by broadband.
Fiber Mavericks Help Bridge the Broadband Divide
The federal government has invested billions in fiber infrastructure in recent years, especially in unserved rural areas – where experts say big telecommunications companies such as Comcast and AT&T often don’t expand because they don’t see a return on investment. With many rural homes separated by acres of land, Scharrer said, “there’s a pretty significant cost per mile to build these systems and we just have to find ways to make it work.”
About 42 million Americans don’t have broadband access, according to BroadbandNow. And the pandemic has brought the critical need for broadband to the forefront, says Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, a trade organization that advocates for the deployment of fiber networks in North and South America.
“Broadband means jobs, economic development. It means online schooling and distance health care capacity, public safety,” he said.
He says people like Mauch aren’t waiting for governments to get the money to get a decent internet.
“We certainly see some people who I call mavericks taking action with their own hands,” Bolton said. “A lot of private citizens have actually been able to do this without a lot of federal funding.”
Now that government funds are starting to roll in, Bolton said, there will be many more opportunities for small businesses and community co-ops to bridge the digital divide. Rural electric cooperatives, which operate as non-profit organizations and are owned by their members, are the largest and fastest growing segment of broadband.
But during this fiber gold rush, Bolton said the bar would be set high for which companies would get the money to expand broadband services.
“We want to make sure that the funding goes to sustainable networks,” Bolton said, and “that any provider that gets the money has the means to stay there for the long term. We wouldn’t want, you know, that networks get funded that are just going to be taken down by people just trying to make money.”
Building your own ISP is not easy
In a presentation he uploaded to YouTube, Mauch offers a kind of how-to guide on how he built an ISP for his community. But he warns that not everyone is cut out for it.
“It’s totally something people can do. But I have a really unique skill set that I think would make it incredibly difficult for someone else to do this without having two or three different people,” did he declare.
Before embarking on this DIY adventure, Mauch already knew the inner workings of ISPs. By day, he’s a network architect at Akamai Technologies, where he helps companies deliver content like streaming video to their customers faster.
Building an ISP that would allow him these same services in his own home was an ambitious side project – an expensive project to boot.
In all, Mauch says he spent around $300,000 out of his own pocket to build his service. But he says he has registered enough customers at this point to break even.
“My goal wasn’t necessarily to make a lot of money doing this, but to be able to connect people who really needed it,” he said.
At the national level, access remains the primary challenge. FBA’s Bolton says next hurdle is making good internet affordable in the US
As for Mauch, he typically charges around $200 for installation, with monthly rates starting at $65, according to his company’s website. Although inflation has driven up the cost of materials, he says he tries to keep his prices fair. For now, he seems to be pleasing his neighbors.
“I haven’t lost any customers so far,” he said.