Common Networks

Those who have been following along here (or on Twitter) might recall all the strange issues we were having with Comcast’s internet service, specifically abysmal performance during the late evenings. For most of that time, and it was over a year I was trying to get them to fix the issue, they were sadly the only option we had for internet access. They had previously priced our city owned cable TV & ISP out of business, and then bought the customers. While that was happening, AT&T decided to simply drop out of providing internet service to the almost 500 homes in our neighborhood.

Then one day a friend posted information about a new wireless ISP starting up here in Alameda: Common Networks. I signed up to be on their waiting list immediately. Not long afterwards I was surprised by the email requesting information & selection of a date to install. They were still in beta at the time and suggested I keep Comcast as a backup for a little while, but with just one brief outage in the first two months they were easily more reliable than Comcast. Not to mention being faster. Here’s a speed test result from my phone:

Latterly with Comcast I was paying the same as Common charges, but getting max 25Mbps down and 5Mbps up.

Installation

The initial installation on our house was a small mast with two dishes on it. One larger one for the link to their data center in Oakland (we were the first house in the neighborhood, so we got one of the links to the data center), the second a smaller dish to connect the next house into the mesh. Common Networks is a building a mesh network across Alameda, so houses link into each other to get connectivity and also to provide redundancy. Inside the house, a small plastic box and a Ubiquity access point complete the hardware. There is a Ethernet jack under the Ubiquity for connecting another device, such as a router, into (or you can remove the Ubiquity & connect into the box – just make sure not to use the PoE outlet unless your router can handle that).

A little while after the initial install, the second dish on our mast was swapped for an omni, allowing more of our neighbors to connect through our link. Also planned is another local internet connection, which will add even more redundancy to the mesh. I have seen an increasing number of houses now with the antenna set fitted on the roof & several have the larger dish pointing at Oakland, so even without the local drop in Alameda we have increasing redundancy in the mesh.

Support

My initial contacts with their support team were a bit mixed. That turned out not to be the people, but an issue with the support ticketing software they were getting set up. Once that was resolved, support has been fantastic. Even surprising me one day by calling me as I was writing them an email to ask about a drop in performance. The call was to apologize that they’d seen a drop in performance on my link and their remote restart hadn’t fixed it, but they thought a power cycle from my end would (and it did). But I don’t recall Comcast ever proactively calling me to let me know my link was not performing at full speed. I always had to call them.

Overall

We are extremely happy with the service so far, and as the mesh has built out it has been getting better and better. It also feels great to be supporting a local company who are trying to do something technically clever, instead of Comcast. Wireless mesh networks, and Wi-Fi (which is the radio technology they’re using, of course) over long distances is not trivial, but it beats having to run cables!

At Devicescape (when it was still Instant802 Networks) we helped some folks tweak the Wi-Fi timing parameters in our stack to enable long distance point-to-point links (for connecting villages to the internet in Africa). We also watched the annual Wi-Fi shootout contest at DEFCON with interest; in the early 2000s – where one team managed to set up an 802.11b link over 125 miles. Wi-Fi wasn’t designed for long distances, but with some tuning it can be used that way, especially in a point-to-point configuration.

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