Aug 11, 2022 9:00 AM
This Man Built His Own ISP. Now He’s Getting $2.6M to Expand It
Jared Mauch, the Michigan man who built a fiber-to-the-home internet provider because he couldn’t get good broadband service from AT&T or Comcast, is expanding with the help of $2.6 million in government money.
When we wrote about Mauch in January 2021, he was providing service to about 30 rural homes, including his own, with his ISP, Washtenaw Fiber Properties LLC. Mauch now has about 70 customers and will extend his network to nearly 600 more properties using money from the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, he told Ars in a phone interview in mid-July.
The US government allocated Washtenaw County $71 million for a variety of infrastructure projects, and the county devoted a portion to broadband. The county conducted a broadband study before the pandemic to identify unserved locations, Mauch said. When the federal government money became available, the county issued a request for proposals (RFP) seeking contractors to wire up addresses “that were known to be unserved or underserved based on the existing survey,” he said.
“They had this gap-filling RFP, and in my own wild stupidity or brilliance, I’m not sure which yet, I bid on the whole project [in my area] and managed to win through that competitive bidding process,” he said. Mauch’s ISP is one of four selected by Washtenaw County to wire up different areas.
Mauch’s network currently has about 14 miles of fiber, and he’ll build another 38 miles to complete the government-funded project, he said. In this sparsely populated rural area, “I have at least two homes where I have to build a half-mile to get to one house,” Mauch said, noting that it will cost “over $30,000 for each of those homes to get served.”
The contract between Mauch and the county was signed in May 2022 and requires him to extend his network to an estimated 417 addresses in Freedom, Lima, Lodi, and Scio Townships. Mauch lives in Scio, which is next to Ann Arbor.
Although the contract requires service to just those 417 locations, Mauch explained that his new fiber routes would pass 596 potential customers. “I’m building past some addresses that are covered by other grant programs, but I’ll very likely be the first mover in building in those areas,” he said.
Under the contract terms, Mauch will provide 100-Mbps symmetrical internet with unlimited data for $55 a month, and 1 Gbps with unlimited data for $79 a month. Mauch said his installation fees are typically $199. Unlike many larger ISPs, Mauch provides simple bills that contain a single line item for internet service and no extra fees.
Mauch also committed to participating in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides subsidies of $30 a month for households that meet income eligibility requirements.
The contract requires all project expenses to be incurred by the end of 2024 and for the project to be completed by the end of 2026. But Mauch aims for a much quicker timeline, telling Ars that his “goal is to build about half of it by the end of this year and the other half by the end of 2023.” The exact funding amount is $2,618,958.03.
Operating an ISP isn’t Mauch’s primary job, as he is still a network architect at Akamai. He started planning to build his own network about five years ago after being unable to get modern service from any of the major ISPs.
As we wrote last year, AT&T offers only DSL with download speeds up to 1.5 Mbps at his home. He said Comcast once told him it would charge $50,000 to extend its cable network to his house—and that he would have gone with Comcast if they wanted only $10,000. Comcast demands those up-front fees for line extensions when customers are outside its network area, even if the rest of the neighborhood already has Comcast service.
Mauch was using a 50-Mbps fixed wireless service before switching over to his own fiber network. In addition to his home internet customers, Mauch told us he provides free 250-Mbps service to a church that was previously having trouble with its Comcast service. Mauch said he also provides fiber backhaul to a couple of cell towers for a major mobile carrier.
Mauch has already hooked up some of the homes on the list of required addresses. Washtenaw County issued a press release after the first home was connected in June, touting a “historic broadband infrastructure investment” to “create a path for every household to access high-speed broadband internet.”
The county said it is investing $15 million in broadband projects by combining the federal funds with money from the county’s general fund. Between Washtenaw Fiber Properties and the other three ISPs selected by local government officials, “over 3,000 Washtenaw County households will be connected as a result of this investment in the next few years,” the press release said.
One of the areas covered by Mauch’s funding is around a lake in Freedom Township, where he plans to begin construction on August 22, he said. “Generally speaking, it’s a lower income area as well as an area that has been without service for a very long time, aside from cellular or wireless,” he said. “The goal is to close the gap on them very quickly.”
As for the other three ISPs, the county was reportedly negotiating with cable giants Comcast and Charter, as well as Midwest Energy and Communications. Those three companies ended up getting the deals with the county, a contractor working on the overall project confirmed to Ars.
Under state law, “Municipalities in Michigan are not simply able to decide to build and operate their own networks, they must first issue an RFP for a private provider to come in and build,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative wrote. “Only if the RFP receives less than three viable offers can a municipality move forward with building and owning the network. There are also additional requirements that municipalities have to follow, such as holding public forums and submitting cost-benefit analysis and feasibility studies.”
The county’s RFP set 25-Mbps download and 3-Mbps upload speeds as the minimum acceptable tier, but stated a strong preference for “at least 100-Mbps download speeds, ideally with symmetrical upload speeds, from wireline technology to accommodate present and future bandwidth-hungry applications.”
Mauch has made some upgrades to his operation. In our previous story, we described how he was renting an air compressor to blow fiber through his conduits. He recently bought an industrial air compressor at a government liquidation auction, spending under $4,000 for equipment that often costs about $20,000, he said. He had previously spent $8,000 on a directional drill machine that installs cables or conduits under driveways and roads without digging giant holes.
Increasing prices have been a problem. Mauch said he used to buy fiber conduit for 32 cents a foot, but that he’s paying more than double now. The handholes that are buried underground at various points throughout Mauch’s network used to cost $300 and are now about $700, he said.
While Mauch built the network using his own money, he said one wealthy family last year wrote a nearly six-figure check to fund a network expansion that let “them and all of their neighbors get internet access.”
When we first wrote about Mauch, he was using a contractor to install most of the fiber conduits and installing the actual fiber cable into the conduits himself. He said he’s using a few contractors now, but he’s still doing some fiber-laying work.
One time last year, Mauch was using the rented air compressor to blow out conduits because they accumulate water. On the other end, over a mile away, “people thought it was smoke coming up from the ground and they called the fire department, and the fire department came out on two successive days because there was a water mist in the air,” he said. “One day they couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. The next day I saw them, and I turned around and I talked to them about it.”
Mauch said network management has been smooth, without any major problems over the past 18 months or so. His network generally uses about 500 Mbps of traffic, and he can ramp up to 4 Gbps as needed, he said.
Mauch also said he has people lined up to handle emergencies “so I can go on vacation”; he took a trip to Europe in March. During his trip, there was an outage at one of the power substations in his area while he was away. Some of his customers lost internet service due to that power outage, but Mauch’s network kept running because of the generator at his house.
“There was no power for about 24 hours, so my house ran on generator for 24 hours, and I could see which customers were out of service,” he said.
Life has changed a bit for Mauch since he became an internet provider. “I'm definitely a lot more well known by all my neighbors … I’m saved in people’s cell phones as ‘fiber cable guy,’” he said. “The world around me has gotten a lot smaller. I’ve gotten to know a lot more people.”
This story originally appeared onArs Technica.
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