My Review Of Mountain Beam, A Fairbanks, Alaska WISP

About two years ago now, I was finally able to get “real” internet at my homestead.

A small company called FAI5G at the time, had been operating around the Fairbanks area for a couple years at that point.  They largely serviced areas in town and those that could visibly see Moose Mountain or Ester Dome.

The company provided what are called WISP services, or a wireless internet service provider.

It was a pretty small outfit, but I thought it was great that they were providing services in our difficult to serve area.

I kept my eye on them, but I was clearly out of their service area at the time.

Well, they did a little bit of expansion in 2021, which happened to put one of their towers square in my sights.

The Initial Experience With Mountain Beam

Mountain Beam doesn’t operate like most businesses do.  Even other WISP’s.

It’s what I would describe a peculiar company.  Not shady.  Not bad.  Peculiar.

They highly depend on customers being savvy enough to do their own self-installations.  In some cases they do provide assistance, but Mountain Beam is really just a one man show.

Now, myself being a network engineer, this was obviously right up my alley.  I could mount and sight in a long-shot antenna with zero difficulty.  I could easily run my own cabling.

I followed their guides, got my equipment up and contacted them to start service.  Response was very quick and I had internet in fairly short order.

For me, it was a great experience.  I didn’t have to pay a bunch of installation fees, deal with scheduling or any of that nonsense.

Shortly after my installation, FAI5G rebranded to a company now called Mountain Beam (aka mtnbeam).  I thought this was a smart move myself as FAI5G wasn’t exactly descriptive for an internet company and also confused cellular technology.

The Service Experience With Mountain Beam

Overall, my experience over the last two years has been quite good.

There have been a LOT of outages, with the majority being power failure driven.  A few related to other kinds of problems,

That’s honestly kind of what I expect out here in the boonies.  It’s difficult to provide 99.99% reliability in the conditions that Fairbanks can sometimes bring.

Some of the outages are due to snowstorms and heavy rainfall.  At least where I’m at, they use a 60Ghz backhaul via Ubiquiti air fiber.  Those conditions cause signal sometime fades out, this is completely expected.  They do have 5Ghz backup technology, but it can be intermittent when conditions vary a lot.  They have improved it from day one, though.

Their justification, and maybe rightfully so, is that Fairbanks is considered a subarctic desert.  But still, it rains and snows here, sometimes heavily.

Personally, I think it’s the company’s resistance to do it “right” and get into proper, licensed technologies like 11GHz that are more immune to these problems.  These technologies could offer greater backhaul bandwidths and more reliability, but require a “hefty” investment into FCC licensing requirements.

These things increase cost of network operation, so it might be worth it if Mountain Beam can continue to drive down connection prices.

Sometimes I don’t get anything close to my rated speeds.  As a network engineer, I know what’s going on with the back end.  And the technical limitations of the equipment they use.  As well as the misbehaved when it comes to network fair use.

Most of the time, I can get near my rated speed, though.  As usual, when the slowdowns do occur, they are experienced during peak usage times.

Latency to much of the lower 48 is typically around 60-80 milliseconds, pretty consistently.  East coast easily exceeds 120 milliseconds and sometimes suffers bad throughput due to poor downstream carrier peering.  To be clear, that peering is entirely outside of the control of the local network provider.

They are peered with AT&T and are thus homed from Alaska to the Lower-48 out of San Jose, California.  I would have preferred to see GCI and ACS level peering, providing direct access into the Pacific Northwest.  This would have allowed possible GCI<->ACS peering out of Anchorage, an extreme latency improvement for Alaskans working in Alaska.

While that’s “bad” for some Alaskans, requiring a 120+ millisecond round-trips, it does get one’s traffic into major carrier meet-me’s on the western coast.

Despite these comments, I’d expect it to be fully capable of online gaming across the US.  (I don’t do a lot of that, so can’t really comment.)

Overall, though, I would describe the service as reliable and generally pretty stable.

They also now offer static IP address, which is a huge plus.  I do currently pay for one, but I also have advanced, technical alternatives that are just as good.  I may or may not continue it into the future, but it has been helpful while I learned how to do certain things.

Also, the general response to problems is generally pretty quick.  They put up notices when they have extended troubles, from extended periods without power to failed equipment.

Honestly, you’ll get nothing close to that kind of notification with companies like ACS or GCI.

I am sometimes annoyed that they don’t appear to operate directly as a customer with GVEA, our power company.  As a consequence, they have asked customers in the area to request power outage repairs.

Like I said, peculiar.

The Controversies Of Mountain Beam

I won’t link to them here, but there has been at least one controversy in the Fairbanks community over the company.

It wasn’t a really bad thing.  It was just a poor handling of a customer service situation that could have been handled much better.

From my read, it was largely related to a misunderstanding about some billing & service cost policies that the company had.  My guess is they’d received a lot of questions and confusion, maybe reaching a breaking point.

The company has backed away from almost all of those “strange” policies since then, anyway.

I only bring it up because I’ve been pounded on social media for “defending” the company and its owner.  Some people won’t let it go.  So be it.  I live and let live.

On the scale of “doing good for the community” and “doing bad for the community,” Mountain Beam is much more oriented towards doing good.

My Critique Of Mountain Beam’s Pricing

The offerings from Mountain Beam have changed several times while I’ve been a customer.

I’ve seen some price increases.  And also major price reductions, by way of offering more service for the same amount of money.  The available plans have changed, too.

In the theme of “peculiar,” one thing I’d note is that pricing is not 100% static.  It’s not $99.99 (or whatever), every single month.  They use some mysterious cost of operation model, although admittedly the prices don’t fluctuate much.

Their lower end plans are incredibly affordable, probably some of the cheapest internet you can get in all of Fairbanks.  I love that they go this low, it’s great for anyone that needs to reduce expenses.

The medium range plans are mostly reasonable.  Especially when your alternative is shitty, oversubscribed cellular internet and hack jobs to make it work.

Their higher end plans are borderline ridiculous, though.  $200 a month for a mere 48mbps is atrocious.  I could afford that, but won’t purely on principle.  It’d be one thing if it were 100 to 150mbps for that price, but that feels like intentionally dropping a bar of soap in prison.

Future Competition & The Future Of Mountain Beam

Recently, we’ve seen a fervor around Fairbanks with the Homer, Alaska based company, SpitwSpots starting to service the Fairbanks area.

Mountain Beam is getting some competition!

In my humble opinion, this is a good thing!

I’ve spent a fair bit of time reviewing SpitwSpots’ general network plan.  Since they are using licensed equipment, unlike Mountain Beam, one can review their entire network game plan.

Put simply, it’s fairly obvious that SpitwSpots is better funded and is capable of a much more advanced network implementation.  They provide higher internet speeds, but also at a higher cost.

They are also going to be servicing my area as well, so I’ve been interacting with them since late 2021.

They’ve experienced some issues with their general deployment.  Much of the implementation is now delayed by almost a year.  Their customer service folks don’t seem to have a clue what’s going on.

You can also tell they aren’t used to working in Fairbanks.  I don’t think they realize they don’t want to be climbing on my roof when there is feet of snow on it.  There’s a time for outdoor work in Fairbanks and it’s not during the winter!

It’s very likely I’ll have both services, eventually.  I have a general network plan to integrate both services, as well as retain my current cellular internet backup options.

At the end of the day, I want both companies to succeed.  They are changing the landscape of internet access in Fairbanks, thus are dear to my heart!

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