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Jared Mauch didn’t have good broadband—so he built his own fiber ISP

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https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2021/01/jared-mauch-didnt-have-good-broadband-so-he-built-his-own-fiber-isp/

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“I had to start a telephone company to get [high-speed] Internet access.”

JON BRODKIN – 1/12/2021, 7:30 AM

The old saying “if you want something done right, do it yourself” usually isn’t helpful when your problem is not having good Internet service. But for one man in rural Michigan named Jared Mauch, who happens to be a network architect, the solution to not having good broadband at home was in fact building his own fiber-Internet service provider.

“I had to start a telephone company to get [high-speed] Internet access at my house,” Mauch explained in a recent presentation about his new ISP that serves his own home in Scio Township, which is next to Ann Arbor, as well as a few dozen other homes in Washtenaw County.

Mauch, a senior network architect at Akamai in his day job, moved into his house in 2002. At that point, he got a T1 line when 1.5Mbps was “a really great Internet connection,” he said. As broadband technology advanced, Mauch expected that an ISP would eventually wire up his house with cable or fiber. It never happened.

Jared Mauch
Enlarge / Jared MauchJared Mauch

He eventually switched to a wireless Internet service provider that delivered about 50Mbps. Mauch at one point contacted Comcast, which told him it would charge $50,000 to extend its cable network to his house. “If they had priced it at $10,000, I would have written them a check,” Mauch told Ars. “It was so high at $50,000 that it made me consider if this is worthwhile. Why would I pay them to expand their network if I get nothing back out of it?”

AT&T, the incumbent phone company, finally offered DSL to Mauch about five years ago, he said. However, AT&T’s advertised plans for his neighborhood topped out at a measly 1.5Mbps—a good speed in 2002, not in 2020. AT&T stopped offering basic DSL to new customers in October and hasn’t upgraded many rural areas to modern replacements, leaving users like Mauch without any great options.

But about four years ago, Mauch started planning to build his own provider that now offers fiber-to-the-home broadband in parts of Scio Township and Lima Township. Mauch has installed five miles of fiber so far and began hooking up his first customers a few months ago. As of early January, Mauch told us he had connected 30 homes and had about 10 more homes to wire up. He initially figured he’d get about 35 percent of potential customers to buy service, but it’s been about 70 percent in reality. The customers that Mauch has not yet hooked up are generally relying on cellular service, he said.Advertisement

Washtenaw Fiber Properties LLC

The name of Mauch’s company is Washtenaw Fiber Properties LLC, and it’s registered as a competitive access provider with the Michigan state government. While technically a phone company, Mauch provides only Internet service without any phone or TV offerings.

“My tariff is really funny,” Mauch said, explaining that the document he was required to file with the state explains that his company provides services only on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Mauch said he has spent about $145,000, of which $95,000 went to the contractor that installed most of the fiber conduits. The fiber lines are generally about six feet underground and in some cases 10 or 20 feet underground to avoid gas pipes and other obstacles.

  • Mauch received a stop-work order from the county because he hadn’t installed enough stakes along the right of way. Jared Mauch
  • At customer homes, Mauch installs a Mikrotik RBFTC11 media converter (the white box ont he left) with a Ubiquiti PON-to-Ethernet module. The gray box on the right is a splice enclosure where fiber wires connect to the home. Jared Mauch
  • Control panel for a fusion splicer, which is used to splice fiber wires together. Jared Mauch
  • An Arista Router at Mauch’s home connects to his own customers and to Mauch’s bandwidth supplier. Jared Mauch
  • A flier advertising Mauch’s ISP.
  • A fiber distribution panel at Mauch’s house. Each wire is a strand of fiber that goes to a customer or to Mauch’s bandwidth provider. Jared Mauch
  • The inside of a splice tray that holds spliced fibers; there are numerous splice trays spread throughout the network. Jared Mauch
  • An official Washtenaw Fiber Properties pickup truck. Jared Mauch

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The biggest construction phase began in March 2020. Mauch had the contractor install two sets of conduits running side by side because it didn’t cost much more than installing one set of conduits. Having the extra, currently empty conduit gives Mauch the option of adding more fiber later; he could also lease or sell the empty conduit to another phone company down the line.

Installing the actual fiber cables into the conduits was a task that Mauch did himself. A fiber blower can cost over $26,000, but Mauch said he built one using a rented air compressor and about $50 worth of parts from a hardware store. Mauch said he also spent $8,000 on a directional drill machine that installs cables or conduit under driveways and roads without digging giant holes.

Mauch buys Internet connectivity and bandwidth for his ISP from ACD.net, a large network provider, but ACD.net hasn’t deployed fiber lines to Mauch’s neighborhood. Mauch thus installed two miles of fiber from his home to ACD.net’s closest underground cable vaults, where he connected his fiber to their network. Bandwidth supplied by ACD.net now travels to a fiber distribution panel at Mauch’s property, allowing Mauch’s house to act as the hub that provides connectivity to his customers. Mauch also bought a backup connection from 123Net to provide redundancy. If Mauch ever sells his house, he said he plans to grant himself an easement to access certain ISP-related equipment on the property.Advertisement

The ISP gear at Mauch’s home includes an Arista router for talking to ACD.net; a Ubiquiti optical line terminal; an Intel NUC server for network monitoring, graphing, and customer speed tests; a Mac Mini for backups; and a Raspberry Pi 4 that serves as a backup DHCP server. He also has a whole-home backup generator, though his customers can still lose connectivity when their power goes out.

At customer homes, Mauch installs a Mikrotik RBFTC11 media converter with a Ubiquiti PON-to-Ethernet module. Customers can supply their own wireless routers or buy one from Mauch at cost—he doesn’t do router rentals, which is generally a bad deal for customers anyway.

Costly construction

Mauch originally estimated the project would cost $60,000, but it ended up being more than twice that. Some customers spent $5,000 up front to help offset building costs and will receive service credits for multiple years in exchange now that the network is built. Based on the amount Mauch invested and his expected revenue, he estimates he’ll break even within 42 months.

“I copied a prepay model from an existing ISP who had experience with it,” Mauch said, noting that he learned from the experiences of several ISPs. One of the ISPs Mauch learned from is Vergennes Broadband in Michigan, a provider we wrote about in 2015. Now that Mauch has built an ISP, he said he’s provided advice to several other people who are working on their own, similar projects.

FURTHER READING

When AT&T promises broadband—but delivers only 300kbps

Construction wasn’t a breeze. Mauch received one stop-work order from the county because he hadn’t installed enough stakes along the right of way. Mauch also ran into confusion over a requirement to provide 48 hours notice before work—he said he didn’t realize he needed to provide that notice each time his crew did work. “Permitting agencies are not always very clear about what their requirements are… and this is a barrier of entry for newer providers like me,” Mauch told us.

There was another snag when a machine was stolen from one of Mauch’s work sites. “We actually found it for sale on Facebook and we managed to recover it as well due to diligent work on the part of the police and our own research,” he said.

The pandemic helped Mauch a bit because there was less road traffic and people were generally at home, making it easier to run fiber to their houses, he said. The pandemic also helped local residents realize just how important broadband access is, which may have boosted the sign-up rate for Mauch’s service.

Mauch charges $65 a month for symmetrical 50Mbps service, $75 for 250Mbps, and $99 for 500Mbps, with an installation fee of $199. If a house is more than 200 feet from the road, he charges an extra 45 cents per foot to extend the cable.

No customer complaints

In addition to exchanging numerous emails over the past few months, I spoke with Mauch on the phone once in mid-September and again in late November after he had made more progress hooking up customers. “The service seems to be working well,” he said in November. “I’m not getting customer complaints, which is probably the primary thing.” In a followup email last week, he confirmed that things are still going smoothly, with “no customer issues other than the normal small-scale problems of a small Wi-Fi router [that] does not cover the entire home.”

While Mauch’s network has 10Gbps in total bandwidth, he said his customers rarely use more than 200Mbps combined at any given time unless they’re running speed tests. “The high-usage events are usually driven by my children downloading games, because my teenage boys figured out if they plug into the Ethernet they can get gig,” Mauch said.

Officially, Mauch doesn’t provide speeds above 500Mbps. But the real speeds are close to 1Gbps because “the equipment I selected is cheap and so the rate limiters [on higher speed tiers] don’t work,” he said. “If you plug in and speed test, you should get like 900Mbps or something.” (He plans to install different equipment for future customers.)

FURTHER READING

FCC data fails to count 21 million people without broadband, study finds

For Mauch’s customers, the Washtenaw Fiber network addresses a problem repeated throughout the US, especially in rural areas—a lack of modern home-Internet providers. Federal Communications Commission data says that 17.3 percent of the roughly 65 million people in rural America have no access to fixed, non-satellite broadband with download speeds of at least 25Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3Mbps. About 33 percent of rural Americans lack access to 100/10Mbps service and 44 percent lack access to 250/25Mbps speeds. The real number of rural people without broadband access at those speeds may be significantly higher as FCC data overcounts actual coverage, and services are often prohibitively expensive because of a lack of competition.Advertisement

Future expansions

There are many more people who want Mauch’s service, having heard about it via word-of-mouth and local Facebook groups. “I have another about 150 people who have contacted me,” Mauch said.

While Mauch won’t be providing service to all of them, he is in talks with people in other communities to replicate what he’s done. “I have two areas I’m looking at expanding into,” he said. One of them is Freedom Township, another small community in Washtenaw County.

“They’ve got a lake that has about 180 homes around it,” Mauch said. “I’m currently talking with them about basically repeating my project with them at a larger scale.”

The network building would be performed by contractors, with Mauch overseeing the project. “Somebody is trying to bring me a pre-packaged project with funding and everything. They just want somebody who knows how to execute it, and I’ve proven I can execute,” Mauch said.

Since he has a full-time job in addition to running his ISP, he needs to set limits. “I can’t personally do it all myself, it’s too big to take on,” Mauch said. “But I can teach other people how to do this and I can share information and pool resources and help make that happen.”

In addition to the potential projects where he would oversee construction, Mauch said he has already helped three other service providers “in similar projects where they’ve either built fiber or are in the process of building fiber to their community.”

While Mauch himself learned how to start an ISP in part by talking to people who had already done it, he said he has now become the “fiber/small ISP whisperer” who advises others in his county.

Two ISPs help each other

In addition to his residential customers, Mauch is also selling bandwidth to a friend of his who runs the wireless ISP that Mauch used to get service from. The founder of that wireless ISP spoke to Ars but asked us not to name him or his business in this article for competitive reasons.Advertisement

The wireless ISP has about 100 home-Internet customers, and it was having trouble getting enough upload bandwidth until connecting to Mauch’s fiber network. Upload demand has skyrocketed during the pandemic, the wireless-ISP founder told Ars. With fiber, he can provide symmetrical upload and download speeds.

“AT&T and Comcast both have fiber in this area,” but purchasing bandwidth from either would be too expensive to be cost-effective, he said. He’s paying Mauch $150 a month for 100Mbps total and can scale up as needed at a cost of $1.50 per megabit per second, he said.

The low population density of Washtenaw County helps explain the lack of big ISPs deploying fiber-to-the-home, the wireless-ISP founder said. “There are stretches of road where you drive down the road a mile and you pass two houses,” he said.

The wireless ISP is also laying fiber, and 16 of its 100 customers are on fiber instead of wireless, he said. But there’s no fierce competition between the wireless ISP and Mauch; instead they’re helping each other expand their networks.

“We share equipment for getting fiber in the ground,” he said. “He has a [directional] drill. I have cable plows.” (A cable plow uses a vibrating blade to cut into the surface and drags fiber cables or fiber conduits through the ground, he said.) “At any given time we’ll use his drill to help me with something or he uses my cable plows to do his stuff. Whatever it takes, we’re helping each other out.”

Broadband desperation

Going forward, Mauch plans to continue working at Akamai despite running an ISP. “I think it’s going to take probably 8 to 10 hours per month [to run the ISP] once I have everybody connected,” he said.

While Mauch previously aimed to get all his initial customers on the network by the end of December, the process has extended into early 2021. For rural residents getting fiber-to-the-home for the first time, it can’t come soon enough.

“I have been surprised at how desperate people are for broadband,” Mauch told Ars. “I’ve always known that this was an issue. But most people don’t have either the technical wherewithal or the financial wherewithal to execute a project like this and I was lucky to have the capability to do both.”

Listing image by Jared Mauch

Promoted Comments

  • photoneffect Smack-Fu Master, in trainingJUMP TO POSTIt took me 2 years of endless phone calls and email to Verizon, but I basically did a similar thing to serve my house on the outskirts of town. The agreement was that if I got fiber to their closet terminal, they would supply me service. It was about 2 miles and I dug and placed about half the conduit. The other half I paid the same contractors that Verizon does to dig along the roadway and under driveways so I didn’t need to get my own permits. I did shorter distances between the pull boxes so I used a ShopVac to pull the pull rope and the fiber could be hand pulled. I am only serving myself since there’s no one else to hookup along the way, but it was much cheaper so the cost didn’t hurt that bad. I saved a ton by just wearing everyone down, but it was worth it.2 posts | registered 2/15/2020
  • acadiel Smack-Fu Master, in training et SubscriptorJUMP TO POSTTons of respect for this guy – he managed to conquer many complex things:

    – Local regulations, laws, permits, you name it (which can be quite complex)
    – Tariffs related to telecom (also quite complex)
    – The hardest part – getting the cable underground and to the customer site (without breaking anything)
    – Fiber splicing (I’ve never done it – so I’m sure the equipment and learning curve took a little bit)

    Definitely took some planning and dedication on his behalf – and I could see this model working with other areas that don’t have fiber internet. Totally impressed by what he did!68 posts | registered 1/12/2010
  • shimonmor Seniorius LurkiusJUMP TO POSTReminds me of a similar article from Ars back in Nov 2015: https://arstechnica.com/information-tec … t-service/

    These articles, as well as similar cases all over the US, are glaring examples of the failure of deregulated capitalism. Capitalism can only work when heavily regulated otherwise its core principle–greed–drives all decisions.

    “I have been surprised at how desperate people are for broadband,” Mauch told Ars.

    No surprise…high-speed Internet service is a necessity which is why it needs to be regulated as such.

    Those proponents of deregulation in the name of “progress” and “efficiency” are liars and thieves. The only way to keep those thieves in check is through effective government regulation. Yes, it makes running a business more difficult, but it’s the only way to prevent the current, pathetic and monopolistic broadband landscape in the US.15 posts | registered 9/15/2014

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JON BRODKINJon is Ars Technica’s senior IT reporter, covering the FCC and broadband, telecommunications, tech policy, and more.EMAIL[email protected] // TWITTER@JBrodkinAdvertisement