Off the Grid Internet
It seems a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it – living ‘off the grid’ but still wishing to be connected to the biggest grid of them all – the internet.
But, contradiction or not, for many of us an internet connection is close to essential, and is the best way of keeping in touch with the rest of the world – for business, for personal, and for security reasons. The problem comes when we find ourselves choosing a retreat location that has no internet service routed to it.
Note that your interest in the internet probably relates primarily to prior to WTSHTF. There is little chance the internet will continue in full operation (or even in partial operation) after a major social disruption. We discuss the reasons why the internet will almost surely fail after TSHTF here.
There are five main options for you to consider when seeking internet connectivity at a location that doesn’t have ‘normal’ cable or DSL type internet already routed to the property. Of course, the first thing to do is to confirm that there is absolutely zero internet currently available. Some areas have internet provided by the utility company, as well as by phone companies and cable companies.
If you truly are scoring zero for current connectivity options, find out from the cable and phone companies how close they get to your property. Then see how many neighbors you have, both close at hand and between you and the current end of the internet service – maybe you can all group together to bring some pressure to bear, and possibly even share in some of the costs of getting internet deployed closer to you.
If none of this is feasible, then it becomes time to consider your various other ways of connecting to the internet. Some of these are relatively trivial, and not all will be practical for everyone, but we include them all for the sake of completeness.
1. Dial Up via Landline Phone
It is years since we’ve last used a dial-up connection to access the internet, and frankly we hope we’ll never need to again. The internet has become so bandwidth intensive that dial-up really struggles to provide any sort of connectivity at all. Even ‘ordinary’ email can now consume huge chunks of data due to the propensity of people to email not just short unformatted text messages, but rich text emails with huge attached images and video clips, too. At probably 4 – 5 minutes per megabyte of data downloaded, dial-up speeds are slow, slow, slow.
With a maximum speed of 56 kbps and typical speeds appreciably lower (mid 30s – mid 40s perhaps), plus (as best we recall) moderately slow latency, dial-up is probably the least desirable means of connecting to the internet these days. But if you have landline phone service, it probably can be pressed into service for dial-up connectivity if all else fails.
2. T1 or Other Dedicated Data Line
There was a time when a T1 data line was the ‘gold standard’ – it was something we all dreamed of, but couldn’t afford, and frankly, it was so unimaginably fast that we didn’t need that much bandwidth either.
These days, a T1 seems slow – it offers bidirectional data flow at 1.536 Mbps, albeit happily with very short/fast latency. Typical alternate forms of broadband internet connection are much faster, and are available at trivially inconsequential low prices.
A T1 circuit typically involves using regular phone lines. So if you have phone service to your retreat, and if there are spare cable pairs, you should check to see how much a T1 loop would cost. It might be expensive, but it might be something you can justify, particularly if sharing the connection with some other families too (but not too many, because it is, after all, only 1.536 Mbps!).
3. 3G or 4G Wireless Data
If you have cell phone service at your retreat, and if it provides 3G or 4G connectivity, then you could use this as your internet access path.
If the signal strength is weak or marginal, you could add a repeater and external antenna which would massively improve the quality of the signal (and probably the internet connection speed as a result). We have used products from Wilson Electronics in the past and with good results.
You can retransmit the wireless data service as a local Wi-Fi hotspot to allow other devices in addition to your mobile phone to access and share the data, although some wireless service providers may charge extra if you do this (and, yes, these days they are able to know if you are sharing your data service between multiple devices, so you probably can’t do it unofficially).
Data rates vary, depending on how many other people are also using the same tower’s data capacity at the same time, and in our experience are never anywhere close to the promised potential maximum data rates the wireless companies claim of their services. But you can probably expect 500kbps – 1 Mbps, and moderately slow latency.
This is an option that was once both popular and practical, but as internet bandwidth needs increased, it became less popular and less practical.
However, the latest generation of satellites have impressive bandwidth capabilities (especially the new Wild Blue satellite), and for some people, satellite based internet has become a viable choice again.
As far as we can tell, there are three primary satellite services in the US, although many other companies repackage and rebrand service from these three and sell the service under their own brand name instead. This desire by companies to act as though they have their own satellites, even though all they are doing is repackaging and rebranding someone else’s satellite service, makes it hard to know who you are dealing with, and if you are reviewing satellite data services, you should be sure to ask them if they use their own satellites or, if not, which satellites they do use.
Note that all three services have limits on the amount of data you can download (either per day or per month) and all three are quoting ‘theoretical maximum’ data rates rather than guaranteed rates. Actually, just about every service quotes theoretical maximums rather than guaranteed rates, but the difference is sometimes more relevant with satellite service.
The other significant thing about satellite service is you have very long latency, due to the 45,000 mile ‘bounce’ that signals have to travel from your retreat to the satellite and then back to the earth – this unavoidably adds another quarter second of latency for every data exchange. If you are downloading a complicated webpage with maybe ten ‘dependencies’ on it – ie, things that wait for other things to download before they are then downloaded, that can present as another 2.5 seconds or more of waiting time for the page to display.
You need to have a clear view of the southern sky to be able to point your antenna at wherever the satellite is located, and the further north you get, the lower the line of sight to the satellite, making you more and more sensitive to obstructions that might block or interfere with your signal.
We’ve also heard that weather can sometimes create issues with satellite service – rain and snow in particular seem capable of weakening the signal strength.
HughesNet is well established and well regarded, offering download speeds of up to 2 Mbps.
Wild Blue/Excede launched a new satellite in October 2011 which has massively increased their bandwidth capabilities. Depending on your location, you might get up to 5 Mbps or, if lucky, up to 12 Mbps speed on downloads.
Starband/Spacenet is the third, and offers packages similar to Hughes.
The good news is that for about $100/month, you’ve got ‘the next best thing’ to regular fast cable/fiber/DSL type internet access.
5. Long Distance Wi-Fi to a Neighbor
Here’s an interesting option – we saved the best for last. If a neighbor has fast internet access, and if you have line of sight between your residence and his (well, a few trees inbetween are probably okay, but no hills/mountains blocking) then you could probably set up a directional Wi-Fi repeater service and piggy-back off his internet connection.
Although you probably think of Wi-Fi as something that sometimes even struggles to go from one end of your house to the other, and which at best reaches from one or two neighbors over and to your place, and while it is true that the official design and specification for Wi-Fi anticipates it as a short-range service (to reduce congestion), it is possible to use more powerful Wi-Fi transmitters combined with extremely directional and sensitive antennas to send and receive Wi-Fi over astonishingly long distances – at least ten miles, and according to this website, as far as 125 miles.
The type of connection speed you’d experience in such a case is probably limited primarily by the speed of the internet connection your neighbor has, with a bit of extra latency added.
If you are fortunate to be able to establish a line of sight contact with a cooperative neighbor who in turn gets good fast internet at his residence, this would likely be your best solution, and it is well worth offering to generously compensate your neighbor for a share of his internet service.
Living off the grid is a great concept, but it is a very different thing to be disconnected from services such as power and water than it is to be disconnected from the news and information flow that the internet offers.
While your plan for the future should assume the internet will fail during a Level 2/3 event, you definitely need to have internet access at your retreat to keep you in the essential information and communication loop which the internet these days is, both prior to any possible future failure and of course subsequent to its eventual restoration again, too.