How I Do Cellular Internet In The Boonies of Alaska

Where I live, basically at the edge of north American civilization, internet is not something you can just go buy.

There are no wires that come to my house that can provide that good, sweet internet.

So, I had to craft a different way.  This page is about how, as a network engineer, I deliver internet services to my rural homestead in the interior of Alaska.

The Reality Of Internet At The Edge Of Civilization

Put simply, when I purchased my house, I knew there was no viable option to get internet.  That was a truly terrifying time in my life.  I wanted so bad to live out in the boonies, but at what cost?

Being a network engineer and not having internet are entirely incompatible.

I figured, though, that if anyone could figure out a way to “make it work” – it was me.

So, I signed the contact on the house and immediately got to work testing the various cellular providers.  AT&T and Verizon were quickly eliminated, their systems were simply overwhelmed.  I am fortunate to be served fairly decent internet from a local Alaskan LTE provider.

Nonetheless, that internet could barely pass as broadband at times.  Often times, it is below broadband standards.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all.  I have spent countless hours following OneWeb, SpaceX, Aurora IV and any other next-gen satellite based internet companies.

I Want Real Internet, I Don’t Want To Hotspot

For what it’s worth, creating a hot spot on my phone was not an option for me.  Don’t get me wrong, it would probably work for my needs, but it’s a pain in the ass.

I wanted something that was fed into a basic home router, just like a regular internet connection.  I wanted several clients to be able to connect to the internet, all at the same time.  I didn’t want to move my hotspot if I went elsewhere and needed internet.

I sort of did this for awhile.  I would hotspot off my phone and then feed that into a WiFi to Ethernet adapter.

It worked OK, but I needed a more permanent and reliable solution.

There Is No “Legit” Home Based Cellular Internet Plan

Here’s the deal.  Almost every cellular internet provider out there does not want to provide general household internet.

For the prices of an additional line from your cell company, the preposition of delivering “unlimited” internet for $20 to $40 a month is just not realistic.  I know that’s what the people want, but for a good many (really good) reasons, trying to go down this route will be met with difficulty.

What’s frustrating, though, is that there is almost no attempt whatsoever for cellular companies to try to deliver such a product.  Even if money were no object, I could not get a true, unlimited cellular based home internet plan.

I am aware of reseller plans that supposedly offer “unlimited” home internet from the major carriers.  If you’ve watched that industry for any period of time, you’ve seen providers come and go.  I don’t want to base a solution of something that can just go away tomorrow.

Getting Around The Limitations Of Cellular Internet

While I won’t go into public detail about the various hackery that I’ve put together, I will share some of the concepts that I use.

I know that on an average month, I need about 80 to 120GB of data.  It’s less than ideal for me, but I can get by with that.

So, what that means is I need enough lines from a given provider to reach roughly that amount.  I can buy 34GB plans from a local provider all day long.  But, I don’t want to go about switching things in and out every time I hit my cap.

So, what to do?  Load balance!

I use a load balancer to “roughly” equalize my traffic across multiple lines.  The goal isn’t getting higher throughput, as it often is with load balancers, but rather to spread my usage out over multiple lines.

My system can support up to five different “WAN” or cellular connections.  I use four of them to load balance the connections so I can operate without being “capped” by my cellular provider.

Turning Cellular Data Into A Regular Internet Connection

This was the real trick.  I use two different methodologies to simulate a normal internet connection with my home router.

In the early days, I used a Wifi to Ethernet adapter to convert a spare cellular phone into a connection I can use with my router.  Those days were relatively short lived as it was relatively unreliable, but it did work.

I then added a Netgear LB1120 cellular router into the mix.  This proved to be quite reliable overall and quickly became my go to solution.  I quickly added enough to make the connection generally reliable for an entire month.

I wasn’t done there, though.  Eventually, I graduated to a “hack” that utilized a spare cellular phone’s USB port, connected to a small mini-PC.  I can then use what is called “Internet Connection Sharing” in Windows to share that cell phone’s internet with my load balancer.

That’s about where my public admittance of what I’ve done to deliver internet ends.  There is a bit more to it, but any good hacker is going to figure out the rest of the puzzle.

Reliability Is Not A Term That Comes To Mind

The above solutions require a fair bit of care and feeding.  I wouldn’t recommend it to the average user that just wants something to work.  If you want basic and reliable, the Netgear LB1120’s are the way to go.

On average, I have a major outage at least once a month.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.

The system is complex enough that I can’t fix it remotely.

Several Years Later, Still On The Net

This set up overall has worked well for the last several years.

I am working through various solutions to try and get actual public internet into my homestead.  By that I mean actually having things directly accessible at my homestead from the internet.  That’s easier said than done.

The solution I have in place has at least three levels of NAT (network address translation) involved.  This makes the above task not an easy one to figure out.  That said, I have had other solutions for that that have worked well.  I will discuss these in another post.

Like every other rural person out there, I have of course signed up for Starlink.  Whenever that actually becomes available in Alaska.  While I don’t believe this is the mecca of internet reliability, I would sure love some actual broadband.

Heck, I’d be happy with a reliable 50mbit connection.  Still not there yet.

 

 

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