Lydia Polzer | |

Being off the power grid generally also means that we are off the
grid. In my way of thinking, lack of phone is a much more serious
because power is easier to fix than phone. Today let’s take a look at
various options that exist for getting off-grid phone service.

Normally (that means city) phone service runs along wires buried in the
or suspended on telephone poles. These wires will typically enter your
in a skinny green metal box where a lineman can then run one or more
lines to a connector on the side of your house. The green box is put on
property by the developer before the house is built.

Off-grid is a different matter. There is no developer to pay to have
the phone
company install wiring, so if you want wires, you will have to foot the
yourself. Prices vary from one region to the next but in all cases the
will be impressive. It will not benefit the phone company to run wire
for a
single customer, so you must pay for the project yourself.

In some places you can run the wire yourself and the phone company will
give you the wire. They only need to specify the depth of wire
placement and
will need to inspect

the work before the wire is covered. You will need to get permission
and have
easements established along the path that the wire will follow and a
trencher is a virtual necessity so you will need to rent or purchase
to do the job. Crossing a black-top road will require a professional
help and
more permissions than I would care to undertake. A county gravel road
might be
as bad. A private gravel road is less of a technical issue, but
from owners must still be secured. Any overhead run on poles is
likewise out of
the question for the “do-it-yourselfer” for primarily liability and
reasons. If all of this sounds like a lot of work and a bunch or money,
right on both counts. Which is the reason there are some alternatives.

The first alternative most people will consider is cellular telephone
Since cellular radio does not depend on wires to the customer’s site,
there is
no big up-front investment in bringing an off-grid customer on line.
standard rate plans, with fairly high costs for each minute of use,
have given
way to plans that might even be affordable as the primary phone service
to a
rural property.

Naturally, there are drawbacks to cellular. In some cases the special
rate plan
may only apply to digital calls. Calls that originate in an (older)
analog only
service area may not be

covered. Since the digital system is only in metropolitan areas, it is
that your service will be analog. This could impact the cost
effectiveness of
such a plan very badly!

And a cell phone is just a phone. You can forget about surfing the web.
Oh yes,
there are cellular modems, but read the not so very fine print
carefully. On a
very good day you might get a 4,800 bits per second connection speed on
cellular modem as compared to the 33,600 bits per second that is now
standard for hard-wired modems. So to download

this newsletter on a cellular modem would take more than 40 seconds.

But cellular is not the only radio telephone solution. A number of
provide products called “Wireless Local Loop” (WLL) systems to provide

between telephone central office equipment and customer homes and
These systems are particularly popular in developing countries where
service can be provided without installing thousands of miles of wire.

The way a WLL system works is this. First, we need a phone company.
companies have buildings with a computer in them that is called a
Office (CO). A CO is just a really big switch. It listens to off-hook
telephones and translates the keypad button presses into directions to
to on-hook phones which it then sends a ring command. Someone picks up,
and we
have a route between two phones. [note: this isn’t really how it works,
but it
is conceptually correct and once upon a time it really did work that

A WLL only replaces some of the wire, but to do that it has to “fake”
some of
the features of a CO. That makes it a bit complicated to build, but
simple to use. A WLL comes out of the box in two pieces. One is
attached to the
telephone company wherever you can find a telephone wire. This can be
at a
neighbor’s house, a nearby business, or it can be tacked to a telephone
(the must be done by a company lineman).

The other end of a WLL system is placed at your homestead where you
telephone service. All it needs is power and a clear line of sight
(more on
this later) to the other half of the WLL equipment. These two pieces of
equipment, one at your homestead and the other attached to telephone
provide a two-way radio link that acts just like wire.

Standard telephones, fax machines, answering machines and computers can
connected at the homestead end and will operate just like they were
direct to the phone company. Well, almost.

Two different standards are used for WLL equipment. Older systems use
frequency radio signals around the 49 Mhz band. Compared to wire, these
frequency systems are

more prone to electrical interference and do not provide nearly as high
a data
rate for computer communications. A 49Mhz system will perform well for
will be adequate

for fax and will likely make you impatient when used for computer

Newer equipment is based on Spread Spectrum (SS) signalling in the the
900 Mhz
band. These systems provide superb signal quality and will support data
far higher than normal telephone connections allow. A 900Mhz SS system
perform as well or better than any wired phone system and will even
support an
ISDN connection for you truly serious data junkies.

Installation of either system is pretty straight forward, but there are
rules to follow, both technical and regulatory. Technically, the 49Mhz
900Mhz systems are somewhat different because of the difference in
The technical differences give rise to different regulations governing
the use
of these systems.

In a nutshell, the regulations are, surprisingly?, simple: thou shalt
interfere with thy neighbor’s signal.

The 900Mhz equipment that uses Spread Spectrum signalling is inherently
a non-
interfering technology so the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
no licensing or registration of any kind for the operation of 900Mhz SS
equipment. [the equipment itself is type rated with the FCC by the

The 49Mhz equipment is a different matter. These systems can interfere
with one
another and with other authorized uses of the same frequency band, so
the FCC
requires a “frequency coordination” within an area to keep folks from
on each other. This is done by listening on a range of frequencies and
one that seems to unused. This assignment is then reported to the FCC
so that
others may avoid that frequency in the same geographic area.

Which ever system is employed, there are some common characteristics
that will
control how the system is installed. Remember we said the two parts of
must have a clear line of sight between them? Well, here’s the reason.
A 900Mhz
radio signal follows a path that is every bit as straight as a ray of
light, so
you must have a completely unobstructed signal path: if you can not see
antenna from the other then the antennas can’t “see” each other either.
word “see” in this context is to be taken literally. Can you see
through a
tree? Neither can a 900Mhz radio signal. This limits or WLL to what is
(for obvious reasons) “line of sight.”

Satellite TV antennas work the same way (on even higher frequencies
900Mhz). On one system I installed, I had to move the antenna about 6
one direction because it was aimed directly at the trunk of a large fir
tree on
a neighboring property. In one place I

had near zero signal and six inches to the left I had near maximum.
Line of

Which brings up an important point. You do not need to be able to see
the other
antenna with your naked eye. Feel free to use binoculars or a spotting
scope. I
certainly could not see the satellite 22,000 miles away in the example
and relied entirely on the receiver to aim the antenna.

In flat, open country, line of sight is probably about 7 to 10 miles
on how high a pole you mount the antenna on–the higher you go, the
your line of sight. If you live on a hilltop, you might get 30 miles.

The 49Mhz signal is much less a “line of sight” beast. It will go
through some
objects including smaller trees and will bounce off and around larger
obstructions. But “cheating” will cost you in signal quality, so it is
best to
stick with a clear path if you can.

The least attractive features of WLL systems is, you guessed it, the
cost. A
dual line system, which is my own minimum requirement, will cost
anywhere from
$4000 on up

depending on vendor, model, and installation issues (like range). To
put this
in perspective, keep in mind that running wire is a “dollars per foot”
deal, so even a one mile run could exceed the cost of a WLL system.

In case you haven’t noticed, I consider it a personal failure if I
can’t build
it myself (just kidding, sorta’). What would it take to build our own

First, let’s start with a 900Mhz SS wireless telephone from a phone
store. Some
of these have pretty good range. One such phone has a measured range of
couple miles. If we could hack in a better antenna for both the
hand-held unit
and the base station we might have a WLL solution capable of several
Even if a better antenna did not improve range, we would need an
external roof
mounted antenna to get good line of sight.

The base station for the phone would be placed where it had access to
telephone line and the handset would be located at our homestead. Since
charger is usually part of the base unit, we might need two complete
We’ll use one of the base units just to charge the handset.

We’ll need to replace the antennas with directional antennas that will
then be
aimed at each other. [Note: this probably violates FCC regulations as
equipment is certified for the particular antenna it comes with, but as
long as
it causes no interference it will never be known] Hacking the antennas
into the
base and hand unit would require a bit of radio skill but the parts
would be
real cheap.

Alas, this scheme will likely not pass data at all and will be tricky
interface to a computer modem anyway. On the other hand, this could be
a very
inexpensive approach, well less than a thousand dollars, to get a good
voice (only) connection.

What if we turn this around and design first for the data connection
and see if
the voice connection comes along for the ride?

This gets really weird. Ever hear of Voice of IP? VOIP is where we
voice communications over Internet Protocol (IP), the way computers
on the internet. If we had two computers, one at our homestead and one
at a
telephone connection, we could transmit voice between them if they were
connected with a computer network.

With a radio modem we can do just that. There are several plug-in cards
for PCs
that allow two computers to be networked together without wire — radio
the gap where wire is normally used.

We then add a telephone interface card into each computer and voila! we
have a
wireless internet connection and a standard telephone interface in one
Any standard telephone can be plugged into the telephone interface card
used just line a hardwired phone. Including a pair of directional
such a system costs about $2000 at current prices.

Once you have the telephone interface cards, you can also make use of
(dozen or so) internet long distance telephone companies. These folks
work just
like the long distance phone companies except that the calls are
routed, for
free, across the internet.

A “build-it-yourself” offgrid phone is not the right solution for most
It is simply too involved technically. An off-the-shelf WLL or a
portable phone however is an option suitable for nearly anyone.

Survival Communications

This is the only book in the category that I am aware of, and is an
book for anyone interested in emergency preparedness. Note that the
author only
deals with survival communications as the title promises, which does
include normal phone service and such.

Buy it at Amazon for $19.95

Rural Telephone and Internet

This little gem, well it’s actually 200 pages, has just about
everything you
need to know to make phone calls over the Internet. Why would you want
to do
that? Two reasons: long distance is FREE (or nearly so) and an Internet
connection may actually be easier to get than a phone line! The CDROM
with the book has a bunch of useful software. A bunch more can be
from the Internet.

Buy it at Amazon for $23.96

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the web site

One Response to “Rural phone technology options”

  1. Robert Haas

    I am selling my business and along with it goes the high speed internet along with voip telephone service. Am now in need of rural telephone/internet service; we are out of range for any dsl service so must microwave from nearby city. 269 782-2454


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