If You Run A Work From Home Business, Consider Investing In Backup Internet

A small monthly investment can drastically improve the stability of your home internet connection

Those people whom I see face to face regularly — that pre-COVID class of human we once called ‘friends’ — know that from time to time I get lost in life.

I get lost not due to failing pray to despair — although I’ll admit that, like anybody else, I have my moments of that too. Thankfully, I don’t periodically forget where I live. Rather, from time to time, I fall into what can only be described as rabbit holes plumbed through self-guided research. They tend to be decidedly technical in flavor too.

I’m on the way up from what may be one of my engrossing ones yet.

And its name: backup internet connectivity. To save you a trip down the rabbit hole, here’s a summary of what I brought back to the surface.

When you find yourself creating elaborate networking diagrams in the small hours of the night you just might be down a rabbit hole. Diagram: author.

Getting internet connectivity is fickle business

A graphic I created to accompany an early video about trying to find an internet solution. Photo: author.

During the past year or so, my wife and I — who also mostly works from home — have been laboring under the daily burden of internet that really isn’t so great.

Yes, despite the fact that we live in a relatively central neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel — the capital of the self-proclaimed Startup Nation. It’s not exactly the back and beyonds. But our internet is as fickle — like the time of day at which the Jerusalem Municipality begins nearby roadworks.

We’d tried just about every option one can think of — or thought that we had. Yelled at our internet company when the internet went down again conveniently just in time for an important Zoom meeting with clients. Followed their instructions time and time again. Yelled again. Realized there was no more point in yelling.

We’ve even subscribed, simultaneously, to two different ISP connections. I ran the two ethernet (cabling) outputs into a switch that I manually pushed whenever one line went down. This happened relatively frequently. I got tired of pushing buttons. Switching from (intermittent connectivity) ISP A often meant switching to (intermittent connectivity) ISP B. I also figured there had to be a smarter way. There was.

ISPs sometimes go down together

Those of us living in more internet-stable climes probably take our home connectivity for granted (I returned from a trip to the US this summer to find us once more internet-less and came to the conclusion that relatives in rural Connecticut had better home internet than we had; then I knew something had to be done; the rabbit hole I’ve plumbed since has been my protracted attempt to right this state of affairs).

But there’s still a lot of work involved in getting internet from where it “originates” (the servers we’re trying to access) into our homes.

The so-called backbone of the internet is actually comprised of ginormous cables that are laid across the ocean floor.

You can even watch a video on YouTube during which a Danish dude working from a nondescript internet facility holds about a third of his country’s internet connectivity in his hands (cool fact: the points these cables hit land are pretty closely guarded even though they tend to look like random beach houses). It literally just looks like regular ethernet cabling. That’s how much bandwidth fiber optic can carry and in that little physical space.

So while you may be feeling very smug about the cutting edge nice WiFi mesh network you’ve just spent hours configuring, you may feel less smug when you realize that the route your traffic is taking to access websites you frequent involves crossing pretty old school looking cables that are probably covered in algae.

In times gone by, humans watched in awe as Marconi transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic.

These days, major tech companies are actually laying down their own infrastructure of oceanic cables to connect their global infrastructure. But these days, outside of the tech-interested community, nobody really cares. Digitally transversing the globe in miliseconds is old hat. Spare us the explanations. We just want to know that it works.

The internet is getting increasingly sophisticated too.

Much of the internet is these days hosted on infrastructure provisioned by a small handful of major tech players — AWS, Google, and Microsoft — at infrastructure that it positioned closer to the network edge, like the point you and I are accessing it from.

Because serving the same YouTube video everybody wants to watch across oceanic cabling makes little sense, these providers tend to cache a lot of their data locally to minimize latency to users.

If everybody in your neighborhood is ordering the same pizza every day — or the latest episode of X Factor streamed over YouTube — then it makes more sense to just copy the pizza recipe locally and have Dave from down the round cook it up for the neighborhood than to ship it repeatedly from around the world to houses spaced ten meters apart. (My powers of analogy are waning, but keep trying I will…)

And you know what’s even cooler?

You can be served cached and non-cached content from the exact same page with different elements and scripts being pulled from different servers located in completely different locales.

And unless you feel like doing some serious digging, you’ll be none the wiser of any of the magic that’s taking place on the other side of your web browser or whether the web server that just provided you with video content is part of a CDN located in the Tropics or up in the road in cloudy Northampton. It just happens in a millisecond the moment you pop a web address (URL) into a browser and hit enter.

Prescient example: if you watched a YouTube video embedded in a local chat forum, the text that wraps around the video may have originated from a server located across a continent while the text may have come from a local caching server. Or vice versa.

Why over-land connectivity can be spotty

But where were we? Yes, connectivity.

Getting from where the cabling hits land to your home is another matter entirely.

There are switches. More switches. And more switches again.

In fact, every time you access a website your traffic passes through an array of them. Even if the website is located in the same country as you. These don’t really add much in the way of human-perceptible delay to the connection because data moves across cabling very, very fast. But they exist nevertheless to relay packets of data between the servers that provide us with “internet” and wherever we’re connecting from.

But now, remember, we’re bringing internet connectivity over land and not just dragging it across dozens of miles of ocean floor.

We can no longer just lay down massive straight line cabling and set up a repeater every 70 kilometers to make sure the signal has enough power to run the cable.

There’s power running here too. Geological variations to countenance. Lots and lots of folks living just about the ground. Things that need to be periodically maintained. This is where things start to get messy.

I mean, land is messy — or at least life about it. It’s where hurricanes can rip trees right up off the ground (in places where infrastructure travels overland of course). Or the local municipality can accidentally slice through coils of fiber when putting down new infrastructure for the power grid.

This is also probably why — despite subscribing to two ISP lines — we found that they tended to go down together. The answer might have something to do with final mile connectivity. Or the networking that takes cabling the final mile of its route to your front door (or router) and back.

If Dave the Digger cuts through ISP A’s cabling just outside your front door ISP B is going to be fine. But if his buddy Sol splices through a whole trunk of internet cabling just a mile up the road (after the local switch for your sreet) then there’s a fighting chance that both connections will be severed and thus both connections downstream will become inoperable.

But anyway. What are these details. I’m out of the rabbit hole now. Sort of.

So what you can do instead

Here’s the thing about internet connectivity.

As we’ve seen it’s complicated business.

Thankfully we don’t have to be at the mercy of Dave, Sol or even the periodic trawler that might get caught in some wire under the sea.

Even lines that are ordinarily very fast and reliable tend to periodically go down. But the good news is that in this day and age there are several ways to get internet — including the Starlink satellite connectivity currently being rolled out globally by Elon Musk and co.

Workers at the ISP go on strike. A digger cuts through cabling. There are many things that can go wrong. So here’s what we do instead.

So here’s what we can do. Like a kid in a candy store who has 5 favorite sweets rather than 1 (I’m working hard here), we take a pick and mix approach to our networking.

We subscribe to a few different flavors of internet connectivity. That way if our favorite one goes down we at least have an alternative. Like when the candy store runs out of cola gummies but they still have licorice (just substitute ‘licorice’ with ‘quarterly sales update over Zoom’).

These flavors are typically variants of:

  • ISP one
  • ISP two
  • Cellular connectivity
  • Satellite connectivity

Combining different internet connectivities is a process known as WAN aggregation (WAN stands for wide area network).

The router you’re connecting through now might have one WAN port that’s a different color different color than the other ethernet jacks on the network. Like me, you may have never given thought to it. But if you’re about to join the multi-WAN revolution that might all be about to change. (Just get used to the devices looking a big more industrial than what you may have been using hitherto. Below is the Draytek Vigor 2927 LTE. To my eyes, this currently looks about as appealing as a Ferrari).

The Draytek Vigor 2927 LTE. Screenshot: Draytek.

When we’re combining multiple internet connectivities we’re aggregating different internet connectivity sources in order to build one connection that’s much more reliable.

How you can do that involves a combination of hardware and software.

But once you’ve begun doing that the options of what you can do get — well OK, I’m fresh out of the rabbit hole so I’ll say it — pretty darn exciting.

If your hardware supports it, you can use a technology known as bonding to amass the various connectivities into one virtual connection layer. This will allow you to actually benefit from a faster connection that “combines” your various forms of connectivity. Yes, that’s actually a thing.

Alternatively you can just do something a lot simpler which is the connection that I have going on and which will hopefully eradicate periodic downtime for ever and after. This is called failover — although I prefer the description ‘backup internet’ because it explains more clearly what it actually does.

Using failover, if link A is detected to be down (say, your ISP) your hardware will automatically fail over to link B (say, cellular). And it will roll itself back when link A is ready. No button pushings necessary.

The only catch?

The mysterious hardware that I descried doesn’t tend to come cheap as businesses are the typical purchasing base.

Although these days with so many of us running businesses from our homes, the lines between home connectivity needs and those of SMBs are becoming increasingly blurry.

Consider one more thing before you write me off as a mad technology enthusiast lost somewhere down a rabbit hole (or on the way back from one):

The rapid migration of mission-critical business utilities to the cloud.

While the cloud is wonderful — you won’t find me cheerleading for on-premises connectivity — it creates (in more networking terms) a single point of failure.

If you don’t have backup internet connectivity and your single line goes down, well good luck trying to access your CRM / Zoom meeting / order your online groceries.

Could you use a hotspot?

You could.

But where would be the fun in that? Particularly if the outage strikes slap bang in the middle of a podcast interview. (The oddly specific example is there for a reason — it happened to me).

For just a small bit more investment you can have a router that will do everything automatically.

(For some better actual reasons: if you provision backup cellular on the network level, every connected device will automatically benefit from the fallback connectivity. You won’t have to worry about setting up hotspots. Or phones running out of battery. Finally, you can hook up wired devices to the cellular connection too. Trust me, it’s better. I’ve been down that hole..)

My monthly running costs for subscribing to a data only SIM to provision my 4G (cellular) backup?

About $15.

My once-off hardware costs for upgrading my home network to accommodate failover and create a system that’s totally independent of the hardware my ISP provides me with?

$200 or thereabouts spent on a 4G router, another router to create a new WiFi network, and a couple of extras.

The enjoyment and education gained from a trip down this latest rabbit hole?

Priceless.

Daytime: tech-focused MarCom. Night-time: somewhat regular musings here. Or the other way round. Likes: Linux, tech, beer. https://www.danielrosehill.com