Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Selling Bandwidth to the Block with Althea Networks — Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 420
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast Christopher speaks with Deborah Simpier, CEO of Althea. Althea offers software and tools for communities looking to build and maintain sustainable networks in their own communities.
Althea works by installing custom firmware on the routers of its member-operators, connecting them all together in a fixed wireless, ad hoc network that dynamically responds to the supply and demand of individual users. That network is then linked to a commercial-grade backhaul, and users pay each other for bandwidth while configuring their own connection preferences and needs. Althea’s innovative software and staff help manage the network in real-time. The result is a decentralized, flexible, privacy-focused community of devices. Althea exists in more that three dozen communities around the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Deborah reflects on how she came to the broadband space, and the origins of the first Althea network. Christopher and Deborah discuss what it means to play a central role in empowering communities to help create their own sustainable networks, and watching people put in Internet infrastructure themselves and take ownership. One example is Enfield, North Carolina, a state with some of the most onerous broadband restrictions which have resulted in poor connectivity options for that community.
For related coverage of broadband efforts in North Carolina or mesh networks in action, search those tags at MuniNets.org.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Deborah Simpier: Going to someone's house, setting up a family with 60, 70 megabits per second and at a rate that they can afford, it's really just life-changing.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 420 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today on the podcast, we welcome Deborah Simpier, CEO of Althea. Althea is a company offering services and software to make operating community networks easier. We talk about their approach, including the unique way they route traffic across the network based on changing costs and latencies. Althea networks are starting across the country as well as across the planet, in Africa and South America. Now here's Christopher talking with Deborah Simpier.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Deborah Simpier, the CEO of Althea. Welcome to the show, Deborah.
Deborah Simpier: Thanks so much for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to talk about this approach, which is very interesting. I know I see it popping up in my Twitter feed among people that follow this show and follow our writings. It's something that I know Jane Coffin and others are very excited about an Internet society in terms of how Althea is creating new opportunities in wireless networking, in particular. If we start off really quickly, what is the sort of 30-second pitch for what is Althea?
Deborah Simpier: So Althea, in a nutshell, is software and tools that empower communities to be able to both build quickly and maintain sustainable networks. I think that's kind of the big piece here is that ... missing, is that we oftentimes approach these things with the build and don't look at how we can work together as communities to kind of address that longterm sustainability piece for our low-income and rural communities.
Christopher Mitchell: So we're definitely going to come back to talk about sustainability. I think that's really important. I have to say, looking at you, you look young enough that I'm not sure that you were around participating in the wi-fi bubble of 15 years ago, but sustainability wasn't a successful part of that effort to build wireless networks. I want to come back to sustainability, but for someone who's never heard of Althea, what exactly does it do? So you mentioned its software. So what exactly does it provide?
Deborah Simpier: So the software component of it is really interesting because we sort of look at how we can change and really meet that economic problem. The two caret components of what we do, are what we call a pay for forward model. So that means that instead of one company or one big monopoly owning all of the infrastructure of the network, the towers, the cabling and all of that, many different participants, business owners, a farm high up on the hill or a homeowner in town can make up part of the infrastructure of the network with antennas on the roof or with cables and relay bandwidth for their neighbors and get compensated for being a part of the network, which means we can build networks together in a cost-effective way using private property instead of public right-of-way, which can be cumbersome and expensive or large, expensive 20, $40,000 towers that are overly prohibitive for smaller communities.
Christopher Mitchell: That's heresy, the idea that uncoordinated people could work together to form some kind of working network without some sort of centralization. How would that ever work?
Deborah Simpier: Well, right and I think communities have been doing this for eons, right? They've been building cooperative infrastructure in many different ways, certainly led the rural electrical co-ops are a great example of that.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sorry to jump in, but I'm sometimes just totally ... my dry sense of humor or lack of sense of humor, what you just described is how the Internet works, of course, so there's a very good model for it, at least.
Deborah Simpier: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's it in a nutshell. It's like, "Well, how can we streamline this, right?"
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. So let's come back to that in a second and let me ask you how you got into this?
Deborah Simpier: Well, and I think this is a story that's going to resonate with everyone or at least folks in rural communities, for sure. But, so I've been a small business owner of a managed service and computer repair shop for about the last 15 years in my rural community of about 2,000 people. About five years ago, there was a million dollar grant for this area. They built out some fiber, but watching that kind of story unfold where it really did not meet the needs, we still had people with one megabit per second Internet. The fiber is still in our town is sold in 10 megabit per second packages, so we had this system that even though there was resources to come in and kind of build the initial build, we still did not meet the needs of the roughly 500 households in this area. From that is where we kind of got started working on Althea.
Deborah Simpier: My personal background is also one who is very interested in net neutrality and freedom of the Internet activism and I got very heavily involved in that when the debate was kind of at its forefront. Just seeing that all unfold, I think, really brought to light that perhaps, the way that we can kind of change and keep it whole, these freedoms, is not necessarily through legislative means or through regulatory means, but perhaps, it is through owning this infrastructure in a decentralized way. So this is kind of what also led me to kind of get involved in this project and where my thinking around things are.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say, "Get involved with a project," do you really mean start the project? I don't really have a sense of where it came from.
Deborah Simpier: Yeah. That's kind of an interesting story, too, and I think one that maybe many startups also can understand. So I had started working on what I called incentivized mesh nets. I thought, "Hey, if we align everybody's incentives, both the consumers and subscribers with the carriers that it could really make a difference." I met Jehan Trembeck and Justin Kilpatrick who were working on actually the very first iteration of Althea and started working together. So that's how we kind of met and started the project they had actually started, What is Althea before for me as kind of from the development perspective and I'm definitely the boots on the ground, ham radio operator. We're working on cell fading antennas and easier to deploy towers and all of those kinds of things, but we ended up being a really great team and brought Althea to where it is today.
Christopher Mitchell: I want to come back to the sustainable element and then we'll get into some of the actual deployments that are out there, but I started about 15 years ago myself in this field and one of the things that I learned, because I came in right as the wi-fi bubble was bursting, is this idea of the sustainable business model for people who weren't familiar in the audience. It was an exciting time where people thought the third pipe was going to come. It was going to be citywide wi-fi networks. The problem was that the vendors oversold what the technology of the day could do. In many cases, you couldn't get a good signal inside the home and it was right also at the beginning of streaming video and so at a time in which the equipment was underperforming, people's expectations were increasing significantly. So there was not anywhere near enough revenue because no one wanted to pay for the level of service that they were getting.
Christopher Mitchell: I shouldn't say no one, but not enough to make a business plan cashflow. Then the business models crumbled and some people use that as an excuse to say that municipal systems are failures, despite the fact that it was a larger business model issue. But the idea of sustainability, I think, is important and there's a lot of people who come into this and they say, "All right, I'm going to embrace wireless because I don't have to deal with the right-of-way, because it's something that I can do low scale and we can build up. So what do you put in to make it more sustainable then, aside from if it was just a group of people that are building a wireless network, how does adding ALthea to that make it more sustainable?
Deborah Simpier: I think to answer that question, we'd have to zoom out a little bit and look at how the Internet is bought and sold right now, right? So right now, Internet is sold on a subscription-based model. So the incentive for a carrier is to provide you basically the worst possible service they can, the least amount of bandwidth for the highest price, right? Then there's no incentive once you're in that contract or once you're kind of siloed into their service for them to add in more capacity or in wireless capacity, you need to change your antennas. There's no incentive for them. It's actually almost a divergent incentive. When we looked at it, we thought, "Why would you do it this way? You don't buy bananas as a subscription. You don't go to the grocery store and buy your banana subscription. You buy bananas by the each."
Deborah Simpier: So when we started to look at how we could treat bandwidth as a commodity and not only charge by the gigabyte, but in our routing protocol, we actually route based on price as well. So as these networks grow and become interconnected, the upstream provider for you and your home is going to change on a second-by-second basis based not only on how good of quality and how much bandwidth you're getting, but also on the cost. I have a really great story about a farmer who watches over his goats, if you don't mind a quick segue way.
Christopher Mitchell: No, go for it.
Deborah Simpier: So we have a slider bar on the router dashboard. So as your kind of dashboard, you can choose quality of connection or cost of connection. The router will weigh which upstream provider is chosen. So we have a farmer, during the day he just wants to monitor his herd of goats, his does that are about ready to kid and so he chooses the best cost for that connection, which is a little higher latency, but probably is fine for watching over kidding does and save some money. Then when he goes home in the evening to watch a movie, wants a little bit better ping or want to play a game, then just slides that over and then the Althea router automatically chooses that better connection.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's assume for a second that I'm a goat herder and I have neighbors who are both using Althea as well. One of them charges more for, perhaps, a higher quality access and my system can choose the route A or B for which one. So in theory, there would be multiple, over time, there's going to be more and more of those. So I'm supposing that those people are also trading off based on how much capacity they're willing to share of their connection because in theory, the more people that are using theirs, then the less they may have available to them for their own use. Is that right?
Deborah Simpier: There's a little bit of nuance in that. In fact, the system itself, we use queuing mechanisms to support almost like a ... so the queuing mechanisms are at the [inaudible 00:11:53] level so that you always have the best possible experience. So when you have things like Zoom calls and go in front of larger downloads that are updates, right? Those kinds of things, but that's also these queuing and traffic shaping things are put network-wide as well, so the total amount of capacity for the entire network or that connection can do will be available and then balanced fairly between users.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I feel like you've just put yourself into a potential box. For instance, if I had Will Reinhart on here, a friend of mine who takes a less supportive view of net neutrality, for instance, he might say that you care a lot about open Internet freedom and yet, I feel like you've just described a non-neutral network. So how do you reconcile that?
Deborah Simpier: The actual content of the network is completely encrypted in our local networks and only actually gets decrypted outside of the physical network itself and in an IX, so an Internet exchange, so none of the actual contents of the network. So we're looking at the types of packets, not necessarily the concept of the networks. So you won't have a situation where Netflix has a greater priority than Comcast or something like that or HBO streaming, right? So the content is very neutral and that's very important to us.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. That's what I was hoping you'd say. [crosstalk 00:13:19] I didn't know the answer to that one.
Deborah Simpier: Absolutely. Well, it's interesting, too, because as we zoom out, some of our emerging markets are very focused on what they can do for caching and allowing some types of content through. I think that there's definitely some interesting opinions around whether it makes us provide free educational content, but I feel like the Internet is so big and amazing and we all get different values from it to sort of box and say, "This is the kind of education that you should have," is very difficult for us to support.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, the way you've described it, when I was first learning about Althea, I wasn't sure if, for instance, I, as a Comcast customer myself, if I could start a local network and I would be the end point and people would use my bandwidth, but that doesn't sound like how you're setting it up.
Deborah Simpier: Right. So Althea networks, or the software is for people setting up community-based networks like local networks, whether that's a small business, an existing ISP can use our software and tools or that's like a community or nonprofit network. Many of our networks are, in fact, signed up as legal cooperatives, which is a structure that works very well, but we envision this or these networks are all set up with wholesale back haul. So you want a dedicated source that's resellable and then within the network itself, that organizes. So if you can kind of imagine that, in fact, the Internet actually should be an entire open access network where people can add capacity and then the balances between that. That's the vision and but we definitely get there through wholesale.
Christopher Mitchell: So I think it's worth noting, I think when we talk about local community networks and things like that, there's a variety of approaches, but your approach really relies on people that have done the legal legwork and, are taking, I don't want to say taking it seriously because I don't want to disrespect people who are very seriously building other types of community networks, but it is an approach that is, I would say, is quite professional. It's not just for a group of neighbors that get together and they want to do something on the spur of a moment.
Deborah Simpier: I think that we all recognize that the Internet is a valuable resource and that it's important for our neighbors to be able to have that kind of reliability and that they expect and that we need. In many cases, this is our access to healthcare. It's our access education. We have a lot of training and support for our communities and our networks to be able to operate these professionally and to install safely and to keep their networks up and running reliably.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about one of the deployments. What's your favorite one?
Deborah Simpier: Well, they're all my children. It's hard to pick my favorite. However, we set up our first network here in my community and being able to see that firsthand and see the transition between just having a network that was less expensive and faster and really met those basic needs to watching people put in infrastructure themselves and to be involved and own and really feel that ownership of the network, was rewarding and amazing. There's really nothing like going to someone's house where they had a megabit per second or no Internet at all, setting up a family with 60, 70 megabits per second and at a rate that they can afford, it's really just life-changing.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, this is something that I would say that I didn't appreciate until I saw one of the Internet Society community networks being built in Hawaii. Tell me a little bit more about that. I feel like you take a family that may or may not have much technical expertise and you tell them, "We're going to put an antenna on your house." It seems like they embrace it and they're enthusiastic about learning the technology in ways that they may not be, if you just say, "I'm going to throw a modem in your basement and just ignore it and you can use the Internet."
Deborah Simpier: Absolutely. One of my favorite stories actually just happened recently another network where they had only Century Link DSL and appreciated what they did have, but it was four megabits per second on a good day. People weren't able to work or do school from home and seeing the local community members build this network, we built incredibly quickly, in four weeks. One of the community members actually was very excited. He was a ham radio operator, already had some understanding of wireless, went out and trenched and put up a 16 foot pole himself. Then he built this, it's a telecom box, but it was like the stone soup of telecom boxes because it was repurposed roofing tiles and hand-steamed wood.
Deborah Simpier: It's beautiful. It has this feet that's off the ground. It was repurposed from all community members bringing ... They had maybe some chains and this person had the roofing tiles. Then it's like a little router house that was built from the community coming together, bringing materials together and built that. Then he's now getting 120 megabits per seconds, like 50 megabits per second up. So it definitely changed it, his world and he was also very excited to be giving back to the community. He's one of our key relays there.
Christopher Mitchell: So how does this work then? Let's say that I want to do this in St. Paul and I want to use Althea, how do I go about interfacing with you, getting the wholesale and figuring out what role different people have? How does all that work?
Deborah Simpier: That's a really great question and I think what I want to just quickly highlight that there are only 1600 ISPs in all of the U.S.. That seems like a big number, but there are 9,000 Boost Mobile stores, which speaks to me that it's much more difficult to run an ISP than it is to just start up a mobile phone store. We really have tried to eliminate much of the friction of all of the pieces of running a network.
Christopher Mitchell: If you don't mind me saying, even at the height of ISPs in the late '90s, I think we were at like 7,500. So the Boost store still would have outnumbered the number of ISPs in the height of the '90s [crosstalk 00:19:59] which was a long time ago when we had a lot of competition at that time.
Deborah Simpier: Absolutely. So we recognize that there was a lot of friction points around the technical pieces of operating a network, and so we took a lot of that complexity and basically offer full service consulting show. We help you with your RF design. We can help you get that sort of DIA or back haul, which is its whole other nuanced process. Then we have our network operations center that's always available for tier one support. So really through that, and we also have supply line, we can help you get your gear.
Deborah Simpier: Then we have a customer CRM funnel, marketing materials that are standardized that you can use and a really great supportive community where we have ongoing support and calls that help with the outreach process and all of that. So really, all of the kind of technical complexity and things that would really be a friction point to local networks, we're there to help through that whole process. So first of all, we have folks fill out a proposal and then from there, we can kind of take and help you design and build your network.
Christopher Mitchell: If I did that, then you might say, "Okay, well in St. Paul, we know that you can get good wholesale at these locations and here's recommendations on where you put your antennas," and things like that and sort of walk me through it. Now one of the things that seems like a fairly standard consultant kind of package role, but one of the things that's unique about your approach is that then also any customers or people that are subscribers that are using it, they themselves, then can get credits. So how does that come together in terms of how they get credits for the storing forward and things like that, not storing forward, but the forwarding?
Deborah Simpier: So that all happens automatically. So essentially, as the routing protocol chooses its routes, we have a billing program that's built in called RITA that automatically counts how many gigabytes that you forwarded to neighboring clients. Again, remember, this is all encrypted, so there's no place there where anyone can man in the middle or see any of your data. Then those credits are automatically paid to you so that we use a digital stable currency called X Dive that is pegged to the dollar. So basically, some of our clients who have maybe 10 or 15 or so, or relays, I have 10 or 15 maybe subscribers downstream, they usually get about anywhere between 50 to $70 worth of X Dive a month.
Christopher Mitchell: So the reason for that is, in part then, so you have people who are willing to put up relays to extend the network, right?
Deborah Simpier: Yeah, and I think one of the things too, is as important about our model is that we also do have a monthly subscription fee that comes out not only just to pay for you, so that pays for your local, well, we call them operators. But if that is your local cooperative or your small business, for example, in Enfield, it's Wave 7 Communications and they help the relays. They come with crew members to install your relay for you and help you with all that technical support. So relays don't have to be technically knowledgeable nor do they necessarily have to contribute any of their own resources, although they often do.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. You just mentioned Enfield, which is in North Carolina, one of the Althea networks.
Deborah Simpier: Yeah. That's a really exciting story, too. That area has been, I think, suffering from lack of proper Internet access for a long time. We just recently deployed our beginning infrastructure there to starting at, well we call it the gateway. That's where the fiber comes in and where you have antennas that broadcast to the rest of the community and that's right there at the Enfield Library. With support, we use the bucket trucks from the local community. I think that's either the city or the utility district there. Then we have free park and access wi-fi there, right at there at the library. Then we're supporting the library with free Internet access, so to see the community support around this model is really exciting.
Christopher Mitchell: Is it attracting a certain type of person? Is it like a more technical person, entrepreneurial person, or is this just people who are like, "Look, I just need to solve this problem." What unites your clients?
Deborah Simpier: I think it's a little bit of a mix. We definitely have seen, since COVID, more municipalities, county commissioners and sometimes, tribal governments looking at this model, especially since some of those communities maybe you have where we helped to deploy late summer, in this community called Plush [inaudible 00:24:51] There's a hundred households tops, where this is a really great model, even for municipalities. So then there's the entrepreneurial folks that are also community-minded. One of the kind of big keys here is the social capital. So it's much easier to deploy a community network and who are a part of your community.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. You may not get along with all your neighbors, but at least you have a sense of what you can trust them to do and you do have a sense that you're all in it together, I'm sure.
Deborah Simpier: I think in every community, there are this maybe a person who is a natural community leader, whether they're president of the rotary club or they're involved in their church or maybe it's a city mayor or whatever. We have these kinds of broadband champions who can help coalesce and bring people together and support these projects.
Christopher Mitchell: Is this something that is only in the United States?
Deborah Simpier: No. I'm so excited. So the Internet doesn't have borders, so and our software doesn't either. It's just really exciting. So we have-
Christopher Mitchell: Hence, the cryptocurrency, right?
Deborah Simpier: Yeah. That's exactly why. So people always say, "Well why are you doing it weird? Why are you using digital blockchain based currency instead of Stripe or something like that?" But we do envision that this platform will be used universally and the Internet doesn't have borders, so why should our payment protocol? We currently have networks in Nigeria. We have a small pilot in Ghana, but we have another new network going there pretty soon. We have someone on the way to Kampala Uganda next week, who's bringing down and setting a new network there. We have deployed some pilots in South America as well and are looking forward to working actually with Kea Labs in Columbia here in the next couple months as well. So, definitely we have a lot more international prospects, many emerging markets, or at least in the African spaces, a lot of them are mobile-based, right? So in the U.S., we have a lot of fixed wireless. So we have Internet to the home with a router and that kind of thing, but there's primarily-
Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's often building off of existing infrastructure, right? It's wires that were put in a 100 years ago or something like that or poles that we're putting in a hundred years ago, so definitely different opportunities in places that haven't had that level of infrastructure investment yet.
Deborah Simpier: Yeah. It's part of the reason why it's exciting is if we can take this green field and build something in a community- based model and sustainability, too. There's some other pieces of that, that come into this. So our routers also all have the ability to be hotspots, right? Xfinity has kind of a similar model. You can do their Xfinity wireless, I believe, where you get the app on your phone and then you can roam around with it. So we have a similar model in Africa. So people get an app on their phone and then they can utilize these mobile hotspots or anyone who has a fixed router in their home.
Deborah Simpier: So what's exciting here is we have an economic model where a business owner there can get Internet to their home or their business, pay the money for the equipment and then basically, in the kind of a micro lending way, start their Internet cafe or even webbing within their home. What's also exciting is that it empowers many, many women who want to start their own kind of Internet cafes within their home or put a hotspot out near the school or whatever that looks like.
Christopher Mitchell: That would work by their neighbors would then come over and pay them to access it, or that others would build a new antenna and both those things, or ... ?
Deborah Simpier: Yeah, they operate as a fixed wireless type of node where they're either cable to other houses or they operate as just a wi-fi hotspot, either open air or something where you have a marketplace or sometimes we have one around a mosque so people can gather there at the mosque and use the Internet on their mobile phones. These kind of outdoor wi-fi hotspots, or you have it where homeowners nearby can use their mobile phones if the signal is good enough.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow. I had no idea. I was joking earlier that I was a little more by the seat of my pants here, but I had no idea of the international reach of it. So I'm glad we went down that rabbit hole.
Deborah Simpier: There's some interesting things around power sustainability, especially in Nigeria. It's very inconsistent power. So what we're working on right now is that kind of full package of sustainable energy, along with that kind of, "So you're not an Internet hub, then you also are sustainable power to keep that Internet up and running in a clean way. Actually many of the cellular towers and that kind of thing there are powered with diesel generators that you just see they're walking through the streets and you see these black clouds and loud generators, and then you come in the Althea neighborhood and the Althea neighborhood has these solar panels and community members, so a much different approach to how we provide Internet access. I'm excited that we could maybe have a solid footing and ...
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for your time today. It's an interesting model and I'm looking forward to see how it develops both in the United States and outside of it.
Deborah Simpier: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Deborah Simpier. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcastatmuninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including building local power, local energy rules and the composting for community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest report and research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support, in any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Comments. This was episode 420 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.