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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.