Hackernoon logoHow I Built My Own Internet 5 Times Cheaper than My Expensive ISP by@romanzharenkov

How I Built My Own Internet 5 Times Cheaper than My Expensive ISP

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Roman Zharenkov Hacker Noon profile picture

@romanzharenkovRoman Zharenkov

CEO at summator.me/en

I will tell you how I suffered from expensive cable internet in the office and decided to make my own internet that is 5 times cheaper. As a result, my team and I have created summator.me startup. It's a device that combines the traffic from several 4G/LTE modems and provides a fast and reliable internet connection.

Dealing with the slow internet in the office

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When we moved to our new office, we were surprised by the internet bill. We would have to pay roughly around $800 per month for a basic 100 Mbit/s cable connection. We asked other entrepreneurs about their internet bills, and they confirmed that they were too expensive.

The reason is that facility owners often let only 1-3 internet service providers to serve the building and thus office renters suffer from the internet monopoly there.

Couldn’t find good alternatives to cable/fiber

We looked into several alternatives to the cable internet, but couldn't find anything we'd be satisfied with.

1. Tried simple 4G/LTE USB modems and smartphone hotspots

Pros: It works pretty much anywhere and with any carriers that allow sharing internet with other devices.

Cons: Doesn't work well for a team, also quite slow. The connection gets interrupted easily, especially if the weather is bad, or at noon when the cell tower serves too many subscribers at the same time.

This option works well for a team of one or two people.

2. We tried connecting an outdoor antenna to the 4G/LTE modem to boost the signal

Pros: You can get a really high-speed connection, as long as the antenna is facing the tower properly.

Cons: Doesn't do much if you are already getting a strong LTE signal, i.e. in the center of the city. Didn't work for us either because of the particular cell tower being quite unstable. Sometimes the connection would get interrupted. The problem with the overcrowded cell tower wasn't solved either.

This option would rather suit suburban/rural areas or an office that doesn't depend much on the stable connection.

3. There are some legitimately good and expensive LTE Cat 6/9/12/19 modems (Huawei, TP-Link, ZTE, Mikrotik, etc). By the way, LTE cat6+ chips can already be found in most modern smartphones.

Pros: Carrier aggregation. This means that you can get separate data streams on different frequency bands from the same tower as if you had 2 or 3 modems, each working on their own frequency.

Cons: Still unstable, depends on one particular cell tower. Moreover, these modems work to their fullest only with the networks that support carrier aggregation. Even the cell networks in the largest cities around the world do not fully support carrier aggregation or support it partially. In most cases, modern cat6/9/12 modems work as a simple cat4 modem.

This option works best in the city centers near the cell station supporting carrier aggregation.

Anyways, after considering all other options we preferred paying for a cable. We managed to negotiate the price down to $400 a month but still weren't happy.

Discovered "internet bonding" and decided to try that out

During the pandemic outbreak, our CPO Alex found the article about combining separate internet connections into one fast and stable connection. We were very excited to try that ourselves and see if we could combine the traffic from 4 different 4G modems.

First of all, we decided to try out an existing solution, OpenMPTCPRouter. It is an OpenWRT-based solution that proxies the traffic into a single Multipath TCP connection. Besides MultiPath TCP this solution supports all different sorts of software, including Glorytun, which also enables inverse multiplexing.

The massive set of features makes OpenMPTCPRouter not the easiest one to set up, but it seemed good enough to start with. Nevertheless, we have built our own aggregation software too that enables not only high speed but the reliability of the connection.

Prototype, MVP, and off it goes

Initially, we supposed that we wouldn't be the only people in the world who could use such a device, so we had extra motivation to throw together a prototype.

We have bought a couple of Raspberry Pi computers, LTE USB dongles, SIM-cards from different carriers, and got down to work. It took us about two weeks to build a fully functional device.

This is what it originally looked like:

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The internet turned out to be fast and stable, as the device used the power of 4 mobile operators simultaneously. If one or two mobile connections got slow or interrupted, the traffic would get distributed among other connections.

If one modem provided us with 20 Mbit/s speed, the prototype with 4 modems provided 70 Mbit/s connection.

Hi, Netflix in 4K!

As soon as we have built the prototype for ourselves, we decided to make several devices for our friends. We picked a pretty basic design - a black box with an external power supply and an Ethernet cable sticking out. Pretty simple and minimalistic.

The device turned out to be portable and could be used even in the car.

The second version of the device:

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Dealing with the hardware, software, server-side and SIM-card issues

We didn't need much to make the prototype work properly... Just a power socket, LTE coverage, and our CTO, WHO ALWAYS HAD TO FIX EVERYTHING.

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We faced tons of hardware, software, and data plan-related issues. All of those had to be fixed in order to make the device work smoothly without human intervention.

We got to see our buddies who are running a smart-drone startup to have them teach us the basics of hardware engineering. For instance, the Raspberry and the USB hub had separate power supplies, but we wanted them to share one power supply. It was really difficult to sort out even that kind of issue, as we had never worked with hardware before.

We have been soldering 5A/6A power adapters so that the device had enough power both for the Raspberry and for an active USB hub; we had to work out the memory card corruption issue; had to add some additional fans and heat sinks so that the system wouldn't overheat. To be fair, additional cooling fans cause minor white noise, but you can't really hear it from 1 meter away.

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Then we had to spend some time picking right 4G/LTE modems, doing some research on their firmware to make them work anywhere and with any SIM card. Turned out that LTE modems were the most expensive part of the whole system, which might come surprising as the device also contained memory cards, a Raspberry Pi computer, a USB hub, a power supply, various cables, fans, heat sinks, and the case.

Then we designed a remote access system for remote troubleshooting, a watchdog system to monitor alerts and perform basic remote control. Next, we figured out how to analyze the cell tower signal, data plans and how to figure out the best bands (carrier frequencies) for our modems to run on.

Firmware installation on the scale:

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The whole process of buying components is noteworthy too. It takes really long to get all the electronic components, modems, Raspberries, USB hubs to get delivered to your office/warehouse, and sadly you can hardly ever pick the right components for your device on the first try. Quite often you don't get your items at all due to mistakes at shipping facilities. We ended up spending twice as much time as planned on assembling the first 5 devices.

The device works. We decided to launch summator.me product

Finally having fixed all the newbie mistakes and having the first five devices assembled, we gave them to our friends — our first users.

We called the device Summator.

Summator works well. In the daytime the average speed is around 50 Mbit/s, by the evening it goes up to 80-100 Mbit/s. One device can work using 4-8 SIM-cards. It is easy to use, all you have to do is to plug it into the socket and plug the ethernet cable into any Wi-Fi router.

Huawei Cat4 modem based model looks like this - we have already 40 businesses subscribed to this box
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We see that small businesses residing in small office spaces can get the most out of Summator. It's a better and much cheaper alternative to their previous cable provider. It provides both fast and stable Internet connection but can serve as a backup internet channel as well.

Having used the device for a while we also realized that it's easy to take the Summator on any casual or business trip. For example, now we always take the device with ourselves to make video calls while traveling.

We would like to make the device easy to use anywhere in the world, where there is at least moderate LTE coverage.

Cat6 version is even faster - up to 300Mbit/s downloads. We created this device only a few weeks ago. In combination with our software, it performs extremely well.

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More devices to make

We have built 250 devices so far, and we are 100% sure that the world needs this solution. So we started collecting orders worldwide. Once we have recieved 500 orders, we are going to assemble a new big batch of devices.

We are also actively looking for partners in India, LATAM, and the USA for our international expansion.

Feel free to reach out to me via Facebook to share your ideas on product development or If you know how to help us with hardware or sales.

I'll be happy to hear your feedback!

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