Moving back into the country has been on my todo list ever since I left it 10 years ago. A little over a month ago, that goal was achieved when my family and I moved from our suburban home to a house three miles outside of city limits on 11 acres of land. Two of the significant changes with our move are that our neighbors are now quiet, grass-loving cows and our options for internet connections are severely limited. Having limited access to a strong internet connection was a downside I was fully aware of before we committed to purchasing the property, but it was something I was willing to chance for an opportunity to get back into the Kansas sand hills.
My research indicated that there were several rural internet providers that claimed they could provide us with a connection so we assumed we could get a connection, even if it wasn’t all that fast. I was wrong. Prior to moving into the house, we asked the previous home owners which company they used for access and they gave us the provider’s name, their account number, and told us they had a DSL connection. While DSL isn’t nearly as good as the cable connection we had previously in town, it was going to be sufficient. I thought we had our access resolved but I soon found that to not be the case. When I called the provider to establish our connection, I was told there were no available options at my house. This came as a shock to me as I had the previous owners’ account number and a wire box on the back of my house that was clearly stamped with this company’s name. How could it be possible that the previous residents had access to a DSL connection but I didn’t? The cables were run to the house! Turns out that DSL connections have a limited number of slots and once those slots are filled up, new customers cannot be connected unless one of the existing customers discontinues their account. I was not aware of this limitation previously and it took more than 10 hours on the phone with technical support to finally get this as the answer to “why can you not connect my house when the previous owners obviously had a connection with you?“. Every support agent I talked to gave me the blanket answer “we do not provide service to your area“. After finally getting an answer to why we couldn’t get DSL, I moved on to another provider that used a dish receiver to obtain a signal from a far-away tower. The speeds advertised by this provider were actually much better than I expected and I was pleased when the signup process was smooth and easy, and the agent I spoke to on the phone was incredibly pleasant. While setting up the account, he mentioned to me that he had used their service before he worked for the company to get internet to his house in rural Montana. This was encouraging as our new house is just barely remote being just a few miles from city limits. If he could get connected in rural-as-all-get-out Montana, surely this will work great here! Wrong again. The tech came to the house and attempted to install a dish on our roof but was unable to obtain any kind of reliable signal. He suspected the trees surrounding our house were the problem. We were out of luck with this provider. There was still hope, however, as another provider in our area also provided dish-based connections but their broadcast tower was in the opposite direction as the previous provider’s, so it might just work. I registered an account, paid the deposit, and then waited a week for them to send a technician to our house to install the connection. Sadly this provider also could just barely get any signal to our roof, so once again the install failed. At this point we have been at the new house for three weeks and have been unable to obtain an internet connection. Considering the nature of my work, having a connection was a fundamental requirement. It wasn’t all bad news, however. Our new house is located right on the border of LTE coverage from one of the main cellular providers in the US, and they just happened to be the provider our cellphones were already set up through. As a temporary solution, I purchased two mobile hot spots and upgraded our cellular plan to their unlimited data option. This at least gave us a connection in the house, but to say it was “lack luster” would be an extreme understatement. The mobile hot spots were able to give us a reasonably reliable connection but with one significant downside: “unlimited” data. The cellular carrier tries to claim their unlimited plan is truly unlimited, but that’s really a farce. It is unlimited in terms of how much data you are allowed to use but the speed at which you’re allowed to receive data is significantly not unlimited. After just 10 gigs of bandwidth is used, the connections are throttled down to 3G speeds. While 3G can work well for minimal internet usage, it wasn’t even remotely good enough for my daily work. Along with significant throttling, the cellular data connection also had a second severe downside: cost. In order to get access to the “unlimited” data and two mobile hot spots, our monthly bill sky rocketed up towards nearly $400 per month. Throughout this whole three week period, there were two options still open to us:
  1. Buy a satellite internet connection
  2. Pay a local company to run a personal fiber line to our house
The first option was one I wanted to avoid at nearly all costs. In order to get a satellite connection that would meet our needs and wants, we’d need to pay $500+ per month, and that would still come with the significant downsides of satellite connections. The second option was a real possibility but included two severe downsides. First, it would take nine months or more to complete the installation. Second, it would require a five year contract with a $1,500 per month bill. Over the life of the contract, that would be more than $90,000. As much as I would love to have a gigabit fiber line run to my house, that cost was simply too exorbitant. So let’s recap.
  • No major internet providers offered service in our area
  • The local dish-based provider could not establish a connection
  • The national dish-based provider could not establish a connection
  • Satellite connections were available but were terribly suited for our needs
  • A fiber connection was possible but was astronomically expensive and required nine or more months to be turned on
  • Cellular hot spots were excessively expensive and severely lackluster in the connection provided
At this point, I suspect most reasonable people would resign themselves to paying for a satellite connection. While I typically consider myself a reasonable person, it simply isn’t in my nature to permit poor signal strength or crappy providers to beat me. I was going to get a good connection. Period. The questions to be answered were simply how and when. Going back to the dish-based providers, we assessed the problem was likely due to the trees on our property or perhaps the trees between us and the city limits. The broadcast tower was between five and seven miles away downhill. Thanks to elevation changes, our property is located a few dozen (or a hundred) feet above city limits, so this should mean all we needed to do was get our dish above the tree line. After confirming with the provider that they could install the receiver on the top of a tower, I began going about acquiring an antenna tower and erecting it. I had never purchased nor setup a tower before but neither could be too terribly difficult, right? Challenge accepted. In terms of purchasing a tower, I was in luck. I reached out to a friend that had been installing weather-monitoring systems on towers for wind chargers for the past year and asked if he knew where I might find a tower for sale. Turns out his wife’s grand parents just happened to have a 60ft tower sitting disassembled behind a barn on their property. Sweet! I was thrilled with my good fortune and immediately set up a time to go look at it with him. The tower wasn’t in the best of shape as the previous owners and carelessly cut the guy wires and allowed it to topple when taking it down and then cut it into pieces instead of unbolting each section. I took it home anyhow and stashed it in my shop for a few days while I contemplated how to repair it. My father knew a local welder that did quality work so we reached out to him to see if he could repair the damaged tower. Sure enough, it’d be a pretty easy job for him. After two weeks and a $1,200 bill, the tower was ready to be picked up! I couldn’t contain my excitement and anxiousness. This tower was literally my last hope for a good connection that did not require nine additional months of waiting and a $1,500/month bill. We picked the tower up, drove it home, and immediately began planning how to erect it. Growing up on my family’s farm, we had taken on a lot of large projects before and this wasn’t all that different. Sure it was a different kind of process to stand it up, but ultimately it was simple: put it together on the ground, tie ropes and a winch to it, then stand it up without dropping it on anyone. Simple, right? You know, in principal it really was simple. It was really just a puzzle involving geometry, trigonometry, and physics. In reality, it was a pretty challenging process, but we succeeded! The photos below show some of the process. It took a complete afternoon and the help of a few friends, but we successfully stood up the tower and secured it. The view from the top was pretty sweet and, thankfully, showed that we had indeed risen above the tree line and had a clear line of sight to city limits where the broadcast tower was located. There was hope! At this point, however, we still did not know for certain if the tower would work, we just knew that mounting the receiver on the top of the tower was more likely to succeed than mounting it on the roof. We had no way of knowing for sure, however, until we actually attempted the receiver installation again. Once the tower was up, I immediately scheduled a new appointment with the service provider and then waited anxiously. The technician came the following day and over the course of a couple of hours was able to mount the receiver on the tower and confirm we had a good signal. I was elated! Finally we had a piece of good news regarding our internet connection. It took another hour to get the cable run into the house and connected to a router but once that was done we did indeed have an internet connection, and a faster one than I expected. Thanks to our sixty two foot tower, we now have an internet connection in a rural area that is nearly as good as many of the connections available inside city limits. It may have taken a six weeks, $2,500, excessive stress levels, careful planning, and a lot of determination, but we succeeded and I couldn’t be happier. I was not willing to resign myself to bad internet just because I enjoy the peaceful privacy of trees and open land around me. It just took a really big tower.