Thursday, February 5, 2009


Executive Summary: SDWISP is the real deal. If you need high-speed Internet access and you're within SDWISP's service area, call them – their stuff works, it's reasonably priced, and the service is great.

The slightly longer version:

If you live in Lawson Valley, Harbison Canyon, Lee Valley, Peutz Valley, or Dehesa, you've most likely noticed the little signs popping up everywhere promising high-speed Internet access by a company called “SDWISP”. We've seen these signs come and go before, sometimes by satellite Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and sometimes by salespeople for DSL ISPs who didn't know (or care) that DSL couldn't reach out into our valley. So there's good reason to be skeptical of the claims of low-cost, high-speed Internet access.

For almost nine years, up until late December, we had satellite-based Internet access. Years ago it was a very expensive technology by Tachyon that my company paid for; more recentely it's been a reasonably-priced ($79/month) service from WildBlue. Those services worked just fine, and beat the heck out of dial-up – but they suffered from a problem caused by the laws of physics. The problem is that the satellites they use are geosynchronous satellites parked in orbits 24,000 miles overhead. The radio waves from the satellite modem take about a half second to travel from my house to the satellite and back down to Earth. So when we try to browse to a web site, it takes about a half second to tell the web site we want to look at it, and then about a half second before the first bits from the web site come back to us. That slowness (called “latency” in the technical jargon) makes web browsing on satellite connections feel much slower than it does with a nice, high-speed terrestrial connection.

Enter SDWISP (which means San Diego Wireless Internet Service Provider). SDWISP is the brainchild of Eric Williams, a local tech (based in La Mesa) who's an expert on telephones and communications technology. He knew about the existence of relatively low-cost, point-to-point radio-based digital links, and he had the brilliant idea to combine those links with low-cost, high-speed wired access to provide a service for the remote valleys of San Diego County. Here's how it works for little Lawson Valley: Eric has a ground station in Crest that has a high-speed wired connection to the Internet. He put up a high-speed radio link from that Crest location to a location high on a hill on the south side of Lawson Valley (which just happens to be straight uphill from my home!). This location in Lawson Valley has a direct line-of-sight to Crest, so the radios can “see” each other.

The final bit is a short-range radio link between my home and that location on the hill above Lawson Valley. This radio link uses technology very similar to the 802.11 WiFi links that laptops all use these days. So now when we browse the web, our requests travel from our house about a quarter mile up the hill, from there they hop about 10 miles over to Crest, and from there they enter the wired Internet. End result: we're getting broadband, low-latency Internet access that is quite equivalent to what you'd get with a DSL connection down in the big city, and at a very comparable price. SDWISP has a number of pricing plans, depending on your need for speed. We chose a middle-of-the-road plan at $59/month that gives us over a megabit per second of download speed. Very nice!

We've been using SDWISP for about six weeks now, and we are simply delighted with it. Part of the attraction is the obvious one: better Internet connectivity at a lower price is a compelling proposition. But there's another attraction as well: SDWISP is a locally-operated small business operation, run by a local entrepreneur (Eric Williams). Eric has the classic mindset of every successful small businessman: he knows that the key to his success is happy customers, and he works very hard to get them happy and keep them that way.

Here's one example out of my own experience. As you read this, imagine what the same experience might have been like with, say, Cox Cable...

I've had a weather station operating in Lawson Valley for five years. This weather station is located about an eighth mile from my home, and communicates with my computers over a wireless link. In late December the weather station stopped working. I figured the battery died (the thing is solar powered), so I bought and installed a new battery. It was still dead. About that time it dawned on me that the weather station had stopped working right about the same time that we had SDWISP installed – so it occurred to me that the two wireless technologies might be interfering with each other. So I gathered some information about the wireless technology used by the weather station and emailed Eric at SDWISP to ask him whether his equipment might be doing this to me.

In very short order, I had my response: yes, it could be the SDWISP equipment. In fact, it most likely was his equipment, as it was configured to use a very similar frequency as the weather station. Eric offered to change channels on his equipment to one that was not adjacent to the weather station – and he did so that very evening. Presto! My weather station is back up, and my Internet connection is just as great as it was.

To borrow someone else's phrasing, SDWISP has been very, very good to me. I recommend it to you as the first reasonably priced broadband terrestrial Internet connectivity that's ever been available to those of us who live out in the boonies of San Diego County. Now we can enjoy the same Internet technology as those city folks, while living out in the beautiful chaparral...