Friday, November 27, 2009

How Fast Is Slow?

Results Are In

Wow - that was a whirlwind tour - but the timing was perfect. Got to meet some first class people and talk to some enthusiastic motivated locals. It only strengthens my drive to move out to Powell River sooner than planned.

Anyways sitting in Victoria now, on a high speed connection. The view is not as nice and it's definitely noisier, but I have time to type everything in as promised, before returning to Calgary on Sunday. At the bottom of this post, please leave your comments, personal thoughts and findings so others can benefit.

If you haven't had a chance to read the PRRD report prepared by Joseph McLean (from Second Flux), please make an effort to get a copy from the PRRD office or download it (1.6MB). You'll be very impressed with his work - all the areas, options and topics were covered in depth in a very very short timeframe.

My testing took place over two days - all on the North side - but was fairly consistent throughout. It differed from Joseph's testing as I went into the homes or at the very least into the driveways of the users that requested testing. I'll summarize my results and recommendations right off the top. For those that want details, I'll enclose those at the bottom of the post. I won't get into many technical details - those are explained very well in Joseph's report.

As you may have read in the previous post, I tested Bell's new product which is supposed to use the same high-speed network as the new Telus 306 Aircard, and a lower speed Telus Compass 597 (almost identical to their current Compass 598 offering).

Although I really went in wanting to prove Bell's product as comparable or even better than Telus, it's hard to recommend anything they're offering right now to the majority of rural users outside Powell River in the Lund area. The main reason I say this is that they offer no stick with an external antenna option - and my testing showed that this was an absolute requirement for almost every case. The only exceptions were those that already had clear unfettered access to a strong cell phone signal - in those cases the new HSPA network showed remarkable speeds up to 1Mbps (1000k/sec).

Even in that scenario, unless you have a Bell plan already, I'd still recommend the Telus High Speed product offering, the (Aircard 306) over Bell. My reasoning being the low cost of Telus's 1Gb plan and the Aircard's external antenna option.

However, for the majority of residents situated in amongst big cedars with a line of sight to nothing other than the stars at night, I think the only choice is to go with the Telus Compass 598 and a 500MB ($30/mo) or 1GB ($35/mo) plan. Even though these are the CDMA cellular modems that the report suggests may become obsolete, it is highly unlikely that this technology will disappear for several years - especially since it seems to be more reliable in poor line of sight conditions.

Right now, there is little downside at all to this option. For $0 down on a 1 year contract, and a monthly fee similar to the dial-up fee being charged right now, you can free up a phone line while using Internet and increase your download speed from 20-40 k/second to 120-500k/sec with an antenna and extension cable. Telus is also offering free shipping (2-5 days) and the first two months of your contract with unlimited data - so you can assess your needs.

I've posted a summary of the Telus web page where they summarize a good data comparison of what can be done for 500MB and 1GB and up.

Finally, the antenna. I haven't done any antenna research so if people can report on what options they found, that would help. If anyone wants to buy the same antenna I did, they can do it through the eBay seller "sunsunsun". I've sent him an email to see if his company will give a discount for multiple users. Let me know if you're interested in this option and I'll see if there's a local company that'll bring them in with a bulk order. If you just can't wait, here's the links - seller is in U.S. but ships USPS Express Post, so it arrives fairly quickly (5 days?) and you shouldn't have to pay any duties like you do with FedEx and UPS:
11 db antenna (same one I used) US$28 + $34 shipping
13 db antenna (stronger signal booster) US$35 + $34 shipping

One more thing I'd love to heard more about is Bill Norris's cell phone signal booster - referred to in the report, and apparently purchased from a company in Powell River for around $300. Bill reported a large gain in signal strength and you aren't tied down to an antenna cable. I'd like to get more details on this and if it adds to cell phone signal as well. Please report back.

Thanks a lot to everyone.

Details of Testing

Speeds measured at, typically choosing either the San Franciso server or Toronto server.

Jean McKenzie (7970 Southview Rd)
Location: End of driveway by chicken coop
Antenna: Truck Roof
Download: 200-320 kb/sec
Upload: 50-122 kb/sec

Martin Mitchinson/Jurgen Koppen (end of Plummer Creek Rd - at Okeover Inlet)
Location: indoors
Antenna: inside window ledge (Martin), rooftop (Jurgen)
Download: 390-490 kb/sec
Upload: 35-60 kb/sec

Pete Tebbutt (Craig Road)
Location: indoors
Antenna: inside window
Download: 116 kb/sec
Upload: 43 kb/sec

Location: upstairs
Antenna: rooftop
Download: 200+kb/sec (testing results not noted because of excessive plum wine)
Upload: ? kb/sec

Quarry Place - Lund (2 locations)
Location: indoors
Antenna: outdoors
Download: 200-380 kb/sec
Upload: 56-66 kb/sec

Steve Ervington (9510 Malaspina Road)
Location: end of driveway
Antenna: on truck roof
Download: 380 kb/sec
Upload: 20 kb/sec

Peter Parlevliet (3893 Lund Hwy)
Location: indoors
Antenna: inside window (facing Vancouver Island)
Download: 350-500 kb/sec (Telus); 940 kbs (Bell)
Upload: 70-125 kb/sec (Telus); 275 kb/sec (Bell)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quest for Speed

The Holy Grail of Rural Internet

Let me start by saying that I live in Calgary - hardly rural, and rarely short of Internet high speed options. Yet the property we bought two years ago, north of Powell River, at the end of the Okeover Inlet, is far from any Internet connection, let alone a telephone at this point.

With 3 years left on our 5 year plan, it's a struggle to get time to move quickly, hard to see the end in sight for our full time move out to our property. Right now we do our best to keep in touch with Powell River. It happens mainly by frequent phone calls to my brother and future neighbor, Martin Mitchinson, working on a joint micro-hydro application, and waiting patiently for the weekly subscription to the Powell River Peak to show up in my email box.

It was in an October Peak article that I first heard about Peter Parlevliet's work to get a committee together to look at rural internet options. I jumped at the chance to join just keep on top of any developments. After Peter setup a Google Group for this interest group, the meeting minutes and emails showed many first-hand horror stories of slow and sporadic dialup connections. So many residents in Lund, Powell River A and Powell River C had no apparent options for high speed Internet access - much like our co-op and neighbors in Okeover Inlet.

So now, I'm staying overnight in Comox, waiting to head out for the 6:30 am ferry to Powell River. The morning is slated to go over our micro-hydro group application, but I'm also looking at investigating options for high-speed Internet in the Powell River areas.
Armed with a couple of "3G Internet Sticks", one from Telus, another from Bell, a high gain antenna, and some enthusiastic customer service rep opinions, I'm hoping I'll find a suitable alternative to what's out there now.

The two "sticks' I'm looking at are the Novatel Wireless U998 from Bell Mobility and the Sierra Wireless Compass 597 from Telus, picked up used from Kijiji for $50.

Stay tuned for test results. I plan to document success and failure from these sticks recording as many tests as I can - noting location, download speed and upload speed. I'm using the Telus one right now in Comox - they have an unlimited usage promo on right now.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Land Sharing Ideas

My brother, Martin, owns land right next to mine. In fact it was my first visit to his property that encouraged me to buy the vacant land next to his – even though it wasn’t going to be possible to move out for 5 years after the purchase. Now he’s looking to setup some kind of land sharing deal with other like minded people who like living off grid.

Here’s the first segment in his ongoing story. It’s an interesting read and some parts are intertwined with my efforts to plan ahead… And my property is also part of a legal coop – Toquenatch Creek Co-op in BC.

If interested please leave a comment that I can forward on to him. He's looking for suggestions and ideas, as well as interest. . .

End of Inlet when tide is out

8 Acres on Okeover Inlet - Sunshine Coast, north of Powell River, BC

This is an information sheet to give you a better idea of what is being offered, and how I hope that the land and its owners might be able to cooperate and enjoy a good life.

The Goal:

To enable a small group of people (2-4 individual/couples/families) to affordably co-own this piece of waterfront property, with the intention of living in a cooperative manner that is environmentally, socially, and politically healthy, creative, responsible and sustainable.

Within that vague statement, I believe that there is a wide latitude for individual paths and lifestyles – from “back-to-the-land”, hunting, gardening, and foraging, to a more modern use of highly-efficient technologies and sustainable energy production.


My partner Tova and I have lived here for since 2005. We have both spent many years traveling, sailing, and working in a variety of fields – from carpentry and construction, sailboat repair and deliveries, work on research ships, and geology – to writing and photography projects and other academic studies. At present we spread our time between casual work in a number of areas, online courses, and work and gardening on the property, as well as boating and hiking in the area.


Okeover Inlet is north of Powell River on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.

The drive from town center takes about 20 minutes along Highway 101, followed by 5-10 minutes down a bumpy road. The property is at the end of the long inlet, across from a salmon-bearing creek, so that during autumn and early winter, the water churns with salmon, while eagles and black bears come to feast.

The wider surroundings include easy access to Desolation Sound and other ocean inlets (Toba and Butte Inlet amongst others). The more immediate area includes a great mix of “neighbours” (in a more wide-spread sense of the term), including artists, musicians, builders, gardeners – a good community of people who get together for joint projects such as apple-pressing, shared meals, and currently even a natural home-building effort.

The Property:

The eight acres has a mix of conditions – a long rock and sand ridge; a small fern wetland area; a home site clearing with our simple house, and some established apple, plum and cherry trees; a garden area surrounded by grapes and blackberries; a mix of forest throughout with mature Douglas Fir, cedar, maple and other trees; and a hillside at the far back of the property that stretches upward to the Sunshine Coast Trail.

The soil is a mix of sandy areas, with clay zones, deep black wetland soil, and large jumbled rocks on the hillside that might be used for future building. There appears to have plenty of available water on the property even during the driest summers.

The property is an off-grid location with the nearest power lines approximately 1-2 kms away across Crown and private land. We presently use solar in the summer (a single 130 W panel has been supplying all of our basic summer home needs (lights, laptops, music, blender, etc), but we’ll likely expand that in the future. We’ve experimented successfully with a solar-oven this year. We use a propane fridge in the summer, and the stove also uses propane. We heat and do a lot of winter cooking on the wood stove.

During the winter we try to use modest amounts of electricity and charge the battery bank using a small gas generator. However, we are presently a year into an application process for a microhydro project which would give us a relatively abundant supply of electric power during about 6 months of the year (approx 6-12+ kw/day to be shared by property residents). While this is not yet secured, I am optimistic about our chance of approval based on the government and First Nations cooperation up to this point. The microhydro would compliment the summer solar season.

The General Plan:

On all of these following thoughts and ideas, I am open to suggestions as to how to make this project work with all of those who eventually co-own the property.

My starting framework proposal is to establish the number of home site locations that will be sharing the property – depending largely on the vision of the co-owners, and the amount that each member is willing to spend for their share. (i.e.: each share would be less expensive with the property divided amongst a larger number of people, but there would be less land and trees between each dwelling)

I believe that a maximum of 4 modest home sites could exist happily on the space, surrounded by orchards, gardens and forestland. As well, the work and expenses divided amongst four groups would be lighter than with a smaller group. That said, the lower density of having only two or three groups could also be wonderful, and still quite affordable for some.

Our home is already situated on the property, but the remaining home site locations would be decided by the group so that all would be satisfied with the final space/privacy issues. I suggest that rather than drawing a great number of dividing lines and individual parcels, that the home sites should be established by the group, but the remaining area would be considered “commons”, with its use for fruit, gardens, workshop etc. to be shared by the entire group. In this way, the best garden location, shoreline, orchard areas, etc. can be chosen for those uses without excluding access to one group or the other.

We would need to draw up some form of agreed (coop) land-use guidelines or constitution, with a consensus necessary to make decisions and changes that would affect the common space.

These types of relationships aren’t always easy, but this area has a number of very successful examples that we can draw on. As well, I am pursuing this means of selling shares in the property rather than applying to legally subdivide because of a desire to co-exist and cooperate with whoever my neighbors will be.


These numbers are still tentative, but I think that they will be close to the final, after the appraisal and last discussions with my land partner.

I will arrange for an appraisal of the land, but I believe that it will come in somewhere around $450,000 (CAN). The land partner who purchased this property with me has decided that he will not be able to continue. Because of the nature of this cooperative plan, he has agreed to let me sell his part at below market value – as long as he can recoup his original investment. With that in mind, I believe that he would receive what is necessary if we divided the property and land shares based on a $400,000 (CAN) total. At that level, ¼ would cost 100,000; 1/3 would cost 133,000; and ½ would cost 200,000. (Again, these numbers may be adjusted slightly, but I think that they are reasonably accurate).
The immediate additional costs that would likely have to be shared by the entire group would be (a) legal fees to establish the coop or other land share entity of our choice. (b) The cost of moving the existing driveway access out from the waterfront area, so allow for building and fruit trees, etc in that area (this might not be necessary with only two home sites). And (c) labour and poly pipe, etc. to bring the water for the microhydro – only if/when this project is approved by all government levels. I am hopeful that approval will be granted this winter. However, the actual work and construction timing would have to be agreed upon by the group.

My final thought concerning the cost of property shares is that I hope to discourage any speculative investors. As much as is possible, we would like to build a sense of community rather than a group of real estate investors. By offering to sell at below-market value, I would like to include, in the group constitution, an agreement that no re-sell profit can be made for the first few years (3-5?) so that if any individual decides that this is not the right location or situation for them, then the remaining members would be able to consider buying back the available share at a reasonable rate rather than at inflated market values. However, I would not want anyone to have to sell at a loss.

After that initial time period, I would like to still have some mechanism in place to allow the remaining property owners to have first option to buy-back at a below-market price, and to have some input in the member selection process. A number of the local land coops have this sort of agreement that we can consider as a model.

I think that this would be a benefit for all members who truly want to keep their share over a long period of time. Again, I am open for suggestions in this regard.

This is a first draft, but I hope that it offers some clarity to the property and the plan for its future. If you are still interested after all of these thoughts, please keep in touch, and feel free to contact me with any questions or thoughts on the project.

Martin Mitchinson

XBee XSC Range Test Success!

Finally ... properly prepared and ready for another go at testing today.

Managed to get Sleep Mode enabled on the remote transmitter after using great instructions from a Digi Knowledge Base Article - a Cyclic Sleep Mode Example that was intended for the XStream/XTend models, but it appears that Sleep Mode parameters are the same for both firmwares. Hoping this will extend the remote's 9V battery life.

After taking the dogs out for a walk on Nose Hill and braving the chilly winds to get to the top, I connected the battery to the Xbee, closed the lid, and placed the box at the base (about 1 foot from ground height) of a bush.
Covered it with a prickly thorn bush - but if you look close you can still see the small white wire antenna extending about 2" upward. Although low to the ground, the box is still very much elevated above the transmitter, with no real obstructions below.

From the vantage point above the bush you could see the 64th Ave intersection and a piece of the parking lot where I intended to do my testing later that day. There's plenty of trees in the line of sight and the receiver location at the base of the bush is not ideal, but I needed to keep fairly hidden from local hikers.

Interior of truck shows sophisticated setup?

Frigging cold to be out playing with radios

Transmitter Antennna (5" in center - not light standard at left) extended out from truck roof to sit on slightly open sunroof.

View from the Parking Lot - receiver located in bush below the left most tree in isolated stand of three in center of view at top of hill.

Google Earth View of the receiver and transmitter locations - click on image to get a better view - or if you want to look at receiver location for yourself, coordinates are: N 51 degs 06.610 minutes and W 114 degs 05.736 minutes. Using the Google Earth ruler tool, the distance came out to be 820m. Not sure if that's horizontal or line-of-sight?

After starting up the X-CTU range test, I had to wait the obligatory 16 retries before the Sleep Mode Cycle picked up on the fact it was being sent some data. I considered it a great success when it returned 196 packets as Good and 41 Bad - 80% success!

Other results:

TEST #2: Front of Parking lot - facing sign. Trees slightly visible in distance. 60% success

TEST #3: Front of Parking Lot - Facing hill directly in front of truck. 10% success.

TEST #4: Alley across street. 1.0km distance. Good view uphill. 90% success.

TEST #5: Alley - further down road. No visibility. 10% success.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Xbee XSC Range Testing

After yesterday's troubles and embarrassing tribulations, today promises a new start filled with optimism once again. The XBee-Pro XSC 900 Wire Antenna radio mounted on the RS-232 Development Board from Digi has been solidly set into the box along with its 9V battery power supply. The antenna extends vertically through a small gap in the box and will be visible when the lid is closed.

The specs on this radio indicate a promising extended range coverage.
  • Outdoor RF line-of-sight range up to 15 miles (24 km) with high gain antenna
  • Outdoor RF line-of-sight range up to 6 miles (9.6 km) with dipole antenna

After yesterday's escapades in failed testing I'm very hopeful at the start of today. Software bugs have been worked out, user errors eliminated and moveable parts solidly mounted. There's been a lot of doubt in the user community regarding these long range values in the specs, so it's time to do some real world testing. I plan on placing the remote transmitter on
Nose Hill in Calgary in a bushy area and test the reception from various distances and vantage points around the park. Working with a GPS I'll be able to accurately mark the distances between transmitter and receiver while doing the range test.

Placing the receiver is also going to require a bit of thinking. Looking at all the geocaches on Nose Hill, you can see that it will take a bit of planning to place the modem where there won't be any treasure hunters around.
I want to place it in a location that is not anywhere near a geocache, hidden from plain sight of main trails, in a treed or bushy area and within range of a multiple spots from the park's perimeter.

Update ... As they say ... the best laid plans...

I finally climbed to the top of Nose Hill with the dogs one more time with my new more secure remote XBee box and placed it in a small bush halfway down a dip in the landscape - probably 800m from the 64th Ave. parking lot.

Returning in the afternoon to test, I again had absolutely no luck getting any kind of signal from any location I tried. So once again I trudged back to the top of the hill to retrieve the device and see if it was still running. Opening the box, the lights appeared to be off again! Disconnecting and reconnecting the battery cord brought the lights briefly back to life again but they quickly returned to their off status.

Further investigation at home revealed that the Xbee XSC Hi-Power (100mW) RF Module had sucked the life out of the supplied 9V 'Industrial' battery supplied in the Development Kit. It was completely dead after a short couple days of abbreviated testing. Next stop is investigating the Sleep mode - seeing if I can somehow manage to program it to stay in low power mode and awaken upon receiving a signal...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Priming for Microhydro

It's been more than a year since my first (and last) post. We're coming up to the final stages of approval or our micro hydro application. As far as we can tell the biggest hurdles are overcome - First Nations approval, Environmental Assessment done, Fisheries and Oceans okayed, and approval from the downstream license already on the creek we want to use.

There should be enough power to handle 4 household comfortably for 8 months of the year while the creek flows high during the non-summer months.

The environmental report leads directly to my next personal project. Even though we had planned on only running it 8 months of the year, the environmental report recommended leaving a minimum flow in the the creek.

Perfect opportunity to learn more about wireless RF transceivers and micro controller boards.

My plan is to develop a micro controller application that will remotely sense the water flow and automatically shut-off or redirect the intake for our micro hydro pipes.

To start with I ordered the XBEE XSC 900 MHz Development Kit which comes complete with two evaluation boards - one that plugs directly into the computer, and the other has a 'null modem' attachment so it's easily configured with the included X-CTU software to do a 'range test' of the two Xbee Modems.

According to published specs, these little modems (about 1" square) can transmit outdoors line-of-sight for more than a mile. The real question is can they do it in the real world - or at least in an outdoor environment filled with trees and bushy sloped areas?

Day 1: Called support line because I couldn't get the modem to be recognized by the software. Newbie error - receiver was not seated completely into board.

Day 2: Learning something new at this age is proving difficult.
Decided to test it on Nose Hill in Calgary,
a huge undeveloped area with many trees and open areas. Hooked it up to supplied 9V industrial alkaline battery, placed it in a wooden box, and again inside a plastic bag, only allowing the small (2") wire antenna to protrude. Took dogs for walk and placed it in a secluded very bushy area far from the parking lot. According to Google Earth it was around 1km away. This would be a real world test.

Proved to be more of a test in patience.

I returned that afternoon with my truck, laptop and the other modem, only to arrive at the first location to find out that the Modem Driver had disappeared. Apparently once I disconnected from my home network, it lost the COM5 port it was using at home. My attempt to reinstall the driver was met with a request for the original CD. back home I went.

After installing it again with the network detached I now had a COM6 to work with remotely.

However upon returning to the parking spot I did not detect any signal at all. Undeterred I proceeded to the next parking lot on the hill - this one about .8km away but perhaps on a better open area. Still no luck in getting even faint signal. One more try at the high Nose Hill Lookout lot resulted in the same failure to receive anything.

Finally I left the lot to walk up to the spot and bring back my remote modem closer to the truck - a spot only 300m away. Walking back to the truck to test again and it still showed no signal. When I brought it back to the truck, it was obvious it was a modem or battery problem as there was nothing showing up even when the box was next to the receiver.

Returning home for closer inspection revealed the power connection had been jarred loose - probably from the dog walk and my haphazard mounting inside the box.

Decided that I could do one more quick test around the neighborhood. Leaning the remote receiver up against the upper office window, I left with my laptop in the truck to see what kind of neighborhood reception there was. Garage out front was great - but lost all contact around the block, only getting sporadic signals as I returned around the circle on the way back to the house. GPS indicated it had to be 200m or less. That was disappointing to say least...

But once again I returned only to find that my mounting method had failed miserably as sometime during my 4 minute ride around the block the modem had fallen from its perch on the window sill to lay comfortably on the floor under the couch.

Well ... that did it...

Inspired by reading Make Magazine articles for the last month, I rebuilt the container using leftover parts (hard drive mounting bracket, broken cassette case, screws and electrical tape) - into a secure, easy to modify, test container...

Here's where it's at ... testing starts once again tomorrow...

The case is reused from a small smoked salmon container. Great native drawings on outside sliding top. Here I have the collected parts ready to go...

Using small screws to mounted both the board and the hard drive bracket for the battery, securely for the first time.

Final test ... Power Connected ... Lights On .. ready to go..

Slight modification to sliding lid, sawing a small gap to allow antenna to protrude and cassette case piece to lock lid.

Closed and ready to go.