If anyone in the world is qualified to run an ISP, it’s Kenneth Adelman. How many people, when asked by tech support staff if they know how to run a traceroute, can answer, “Look at the traceroute source code – it has my name in it”? Adelman co-founded two internet software companies in the 1990s, sold them and retired in his 30s to devote himself to artistic, athletic and environmental pursuits. Now, in addition, he runs a small ISP in his spare time.
Nearly 20 years ago, when he moved up into the mountains near Santa Cruz, Adelman had a T1 line connected to his house to communicate with Cisco, which had bought his first company, TGV. His neighbors, who were struggling to find internet service, pleaded to share his connection, and he obliged. Then their neighbors started asking. As time went on, he incorporated the business, acquired six more T1 lines and shared service wirelessly with 12 households.
As he began to serve farther-away customers, the load grew, and so did his payments to the telephone company. By 2017, putting up a wireless tower made sense. Cruzio was willing to provide 500 Mbps of wireless backhaul to the tower for less than the cost of T1 service, and Adelman now distributes this bandwidth to 35 customers, using primarily Ubiquiti wireless gear. (One customer actually has a fiber optic connection from the tower.) He charges customers between $130 and $300 per month, depending on speeds. Several customers get discounts for relaying services to others.
Connecting each customer takes a lot of work – way more than what a “real ISP” would do, according to Adelman. For liability reasons, he doesn’t install wireless dishes, but he goes up onto rooftops with his neighbors or their contractors and shows them how to do it, and he often adjusts their Wi-Fi for them. He estimates that this upfront work pays off after a year – and keeps on paying. (He has essentially zero churn.)
“Cruzio was interested in supporting people with my business model,” Adelman says. Cruzio offers not only backhaul but also expertise, helping him select hardware, wiring and so forth. “It’s beneficial for both of us because if I sell to them, they get a network built to spec,” he points out. The other benefit Cruzio would get is a group of happy customers it could acquire without marketing costs.
With 35 customers, Adelman is still able to work in an informal, neighborly way. There are no written contracts. One customer pays him in fresh fish. Another helped him with tower work when he broke his leg. For now, he has plenty of bandwidth, and Cruzio could easily double what it supplies him.
So when will he give up his ISP hobby? Not until it starts to seem like real work, Adelman says. If the business keeps growing, he will eventually have to put in a real billing system and hire someone to help with installation – and then it won’t be fun anymore. At that point, it will be time to start talking with Cruzio about selling the system.
Excepted from Broadband Communities Magazine March/April 2019, By Masha Zager