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These Guys Plan to Beam High-Speed Internet to Los Angeles From the Top of a Nearby Hill

The Los Angeles Community Broadband Project plans to use advances in wireless tech to compete with big telecom and connect the masses.

by Troy Farah
Feb 26 2018, 4:00pm

Image: Troy Farah

In late 2013, Los Angeles City Council began a push for a citywide Wi-Fi network at no cost to citizens. It would bring internet access to the estimated 30 percent of Angelenos lacking reliable high-speed internet connection, giving many low-income residents a boost up in the economy. But the project, called CityLinkLA, never materialized.

Perhaps it was because the city offered no financial investments to developers, although it did vaguely promise “considerable and valuable assets and services to leverage such an investment.” Or maybe it was because the major local internet providers—which includes AT&T, Frontier, Cox, and Time Warner Spectrum—saw little point in building a communication network that would give away a service they already profit from.

Whatever the case, the request for proposal was never met with a proposition that satisfied Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who began the initiative. Meanwhile, internet in the area continues to be expensive and unreliable, while giant corporations don’t compete with each other and lobby against consumer rights.

But Josh Shapiro, a 29-year old 3D modeling producer, has a plan to help upset the status quo. He’s building the Los Angeles Community Broadband Project (LACBP), a wireless internet service provider that would beam affordable high-speed internet from Culver City to the Hollywood Hills.

Building fiber infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming—but advances in radio communications tech is making it easier to bypass much of the construction and bureaucracy involved in connecting the masses. LACBP also hopes to safeguard net neutrality for users and undermine the corporate stranglehold major ISPs have on the market.

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Image: Troy Farah

I met Shapiro atop Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, a southside park overlooking the valley. A light rain broke just as I pulled in, the January morning breeze erasing the smoggy haze across the ridge of skyscrapers forming downtown Los Angeles. The fragrance of wet sagebrush swelled with the hum of subtropical birds and a nearby construction crew. This 500-foot peak directly overlooks Los Angeles’ District 10 and Culver City, a blob-shaped city of a little less than 40,000 people.

Following a winding path of cyclone fencing and revegetation signposts, I found Shapiro setting up his equipment: a 5 gigahertz Mimosa C5c radio running via Cat 6 cable to a cheap router powered by a portable battery, and a fat, white 30-decibel RocketDish antenna, about the size of an extra large pizza, wedged on top of a tripod. This is the kind of gear, which costs roughly $550 per link, that LACBP hopes to install on its clients’ rooftops.

Image: Troy Farah

On the receiving end, approximately 5.25 miles away in West Hollywood, was JP Castel, LACBP’s director of finance, who was on the roof of his condo with an identical setup. Shapiro put him on speakerphone as they tweaked their coordinates.

“I'm gonna go a little more left here,” Shapiro said, nudging the antenna ever-so-slightly. With this kind of link, even a centimeter adjustment could alter the connection quality. “Give it a sec to stabilize and we'll take a look.”

This simple point-to-point link was a “torture test,” pushing this entry-level equipment to the limit to see how well it would hold up in a worst-case scenario. Due to high interference—it is, after all, the second largest metropolitan area in the country—the team expected this test to fail, achieving little or no signal.

“Hey JP, how are we doing?” Shapiro said.

“We are basically hitting 100 megs total now,” Castel said.

“Oh really?” Shapiro responded. “Wow!”

Checking signal strength for the test. Image: Troy Farah

After running diagnostics, the team got a maximum aggregate throughput of 119 megabits per second (Mbps) with 88Mbps down and 31Mbps up, “which is pretty incredible for that type of antenna,” Castel said, especially at that distance.

While studying a bandwidth readout on his phone, Shapiro pointed out the tall radio tower behind us that LACBP hopes to someday use to broadcast internet 360 degrees from the hill. They’re in talks with the city to share it, as it’s maintained by the Culver City Fire Department, but it could still pose some setbacks.

“There are some things with towers, especially ones owned by the city, that you have to be just specially certified to climb them and to rig equipment to them,” Shapiro said. “There could be other access barriers, so we're looking into technologies that either don't require a tower…or working with the city to have a cemented pole put up…We’re making slow strides and talking to the right people.”

For the second test, they set up their rigs on the edge of the overlook above a baseball field and scouted out the street to aim their connection. On the hills behind us, pumpjacks humped the ground for oil amongst more radio towers and chain-link fencing. When ready, we swung down Duquesne Ave in Shapiro’s SUV, pulling the antenna from the car and setting up near the street. We could barely see Castel waving atop the overlook.

The test. Image: Troy Farah

The second test would measure the street level interference in the area from a distance of about 1,000 feet. They have to consider their Fresnel zone, a cigar-shaped space between a transmitting antenna and the receiving antenna. When taking into account the strength of radio waves streaming from one end to another, the Fresnel zone gives a good indication of how to avoid interference. In other words, with all the nearby trees, houses blasting Wi-Fi signal and other potential interference, it could get pretty noisy and cause a loss of signal.

“This short of a distance, the Fresnel zone won't be very large, it may only be a couple feet,” Shapiro explained. “But we can get an idea of what our spectrum looks like…Oftentimes, as it gets more congested, you'll want to step down [the bandwidth.]…But if you half the bandwidth, you're going to reduce your speed… It’s sort of a balance of how much data you need going to a location versus how many different locations need a service.”

There’s no fiber backhaul on these tests, so they can’t be used to check Facebook or anything quite yet. To do that, they’ll eventually need to plug into what’s called a Tier 2 network, which “peers” with other networks, allowing access to the rest of the internet. There are a few different solutions LACBP is looking into, but the best and perhaps cheapest option, they say, is using the municipal fiber that's being built in either Culver City or West Hollywood.

A map that generated for by a WISP distributor to show signal strength based on distance and line of sight. Yellow represents roughly 120 Mbps, and red is roughly 600 Mbps for a point to point link.

When the connection was made, this link also surprised the team, giving a max aggregate throughput of 632Mbps—475 Mbps down and 157 Mbps up. That’s pretty fast, faster than these radio manufacturers say you can expect with this kind of gear, which are rated for about 500Mbps.

“Shit,” Shapiro said. “That’s looking great.”

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If LACBP gets off the ground, it won’t be the first WISP in Los Angeles County, but others are less community-driven, generally only offering services to businesses or large, luxury condos. “We're talking about providing service to single-family homes and multi-family dwellings that have five apartments,” Shapiro says.

The other WISPs are also for-profit, while LACBP is what’s called a benefit corporation. For taxation purposes, there’s no difference between a benefit corporation and a typical C corporation, but benefit corps have greater accountability and transparency embedded in their business model.

"We turn away at this point more customers than we sign up because of our inability to sign them up in a timely manner"

Other WISPs—both for-profit and community run—have existed around the country since the early ‘90s, although the tech wasn’t quite where it is today. One WISP that inspired Shapiro and made him feel like this project was actually possible was Au Wireless in Golden, Colorado.

Home of Coors Brewing, Golden is a small Denver suburb with a population of about 20,000. Au Wireless has existed for around three years and serves nearly 200 customers.

Image: AU Wireless

Chadwick Wachs started the network, set up the initial hardware, and with assistance from a few volunteers, continues handling the backend while working a fulltime job as a firefighter. Au Wireless does no advertising, but lately its been swamped with signup requests, especially in the fallout from the FCC’s decision on net neutrality last fall.

“We turn away at this point more customers than we sign up because of our inability to sign them up in a timely manner,” Wachs told me in a phone call. “We also are very careful about loading the system too much. Unlike a Comcast or a Time Warner, we will turn away customers when certain nodes become what we call ‘saturated.’”

There are no data caps or hidden fees, and some subscribers get as high as 250Mbps connections. A “Full Throttle” package, with no “speed limits” costs about $90 a month, while a 25Mbps package is $40.

Au Wireless didn’t set out to be a gold standard for local WISPs, but Wachs has made it a point to make all his proprietary information public, most of which is on Au Wireless’s website. “I wanted to give it all away…When I was starting up none of that was available and it was frustrating to try to get that information,” he said, adding that he wants to be like a “WISP-in-a-box” for downloading instructions on how to start your own community broadband project.

“We have a vested interest in being a part of this community,” Wachs said. “We have no desire to grow outside of the city limits of Golden. We just want to be part of this community and give back to it.”

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After the tests, I sat down with Shapiro and Castel near the fountains outside Culver City Hall to discuss LACBP’s plans for the future. The two friends met in high school in Reno, Nevada at a robotics club and Shapiro taught Castel how to build a computer. They both moved to L.A. independently and began working in film and production.

In early November 2017, Shapiro, frustrated with his shitty internet connection and the FCC’s plans to undo net neutrality protections, looked up at a certain tower on a certain scenic overlook and got an idea. He had researched WISPs before and recalled that the two things you need most are connection to fiber and a tower.

Examples of coverage areas and lines of sight from the backhaul. Image: LACBP

“We're doing all we can to raise enough funding for us to do the testing that will give us answers,” Castel explained. “How can we scale, where can we scale, what does it cost, what does it cost per user, and then that will inform us on what our potential tiering strategy could be.”

Through campaigning on social media, they raised enough money to purchase the radios and antennas, around $2,500 so far. They hope to roll out a test pilot to around thirty or fifty customers by late summer. Now their biggest obstacle, besides capital, is getting the city to work with them. Luckily, the city seems to be cooperative.

LACBP has been talking closely with Michele Williams, the CIO of Culver City’s Information Technology Department, who Shapiro says is doing all she can to open doors for them. Williams is part of Culver Connect, the city’s municipal fiber program, which intends to bring high-speed internet to local businesses this spring. But when it comes to residential areas—the so-called “last mile”—an organization like LACBP could step in.

“There's a huge market for this,” Castel said. “There's people that want a different product, they want competition, they want reliability and privacy, net neutrality from their ISP. So we're trying to take a step and understand what is the business structure, what is the cost, what's how can we expand, how can we create access points across the city. So that's the process we're at.”

“Communication is so key and we're lagging so behind in comparison to other countries,” Castel added. “If we can create a movement where people can actively get involved to upgrade their connection to the Internet I think I think everyone can get behind that.”

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A few weeks after the tests, Castel had to step down from his position as director of finance to focus on his career in film financing. It was an amicable split.

But since then, the LACBP team has only grown. It now includes Marley Jaffe (Chief Technical Officer), Roman Tatarnikov (Chief Information Officer), Craig Duffy (Director of Outreach), Matthew Vitale (Outreach Coordinator), and Gabriel Olson (Strategic Business Adviser.)

Last week, Shapiro and several other team members met with Culver City Council officials, including Williams, to discuss how the city could help. Shapiro says John Nachbar, the city manager, and Charles Herbertson, the head of public works are both very supportive, as well as MOX Networks, which is building the Culver Connect municipal network.

“The primary focus of this meeting was to talk to the city and MOX Networks about our needs so they can start to form pricing and start to figure out how much are all this will cost,” Shapiro said. “The next step is then figuring out how the city can reduce those costs for us.”

On Tuesday, LACBP shared their vision during a 30-minute presentation at Google’s Venice office. They raised a little bit of money, which will help them purchase the equipment needed for a tech demo next month and, according to Shapiro, two Google employees expressed interest in donating their time and professional expertise to the venture.

As the project grows, the idea of “consumer first” internet in Los Angeles seems like it could become a reality.

Follow Troy Farah on Twitter.