To start an ISP you’ll need a connection to the public Internet. In most cases the best way to do this is to buy a fiber connection from an existing provider. Fiber is available in unexpected places sometimes - fiber is commonly installed using grant money and is sometimes left unused due to the expense of last mile installation (getting the fiber from where it is to down the street at a customer’s home) and because of restrictions surrounding the grant money.
Sometimes you’ll purchase fiber from the same entity that you’re competing with for residential customers - Comcast, AT&T, or CenturyLink, for example. This may seem weird at first but in practice isn’t much of a problem - the business units that sell fiber to businesses vs sell Internet to homes are very much separate and happy to take your money.
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How to Find On-Net Buildings
Ideally you will be able to find a fiber connection that is:
- Reasonably priced ($1-3k/month)
- Already built in to a building (so you don’t have to pay to dig up the streets and run new fiber)
- Close enough to your customer base to make a decent relay site
If you are building a network in the suburbs of a larger city you might start your search at the office buildings near the edge of the city. Often these buildings already have fiber available and they may be willing lease roof space to you for your relay equipment.
Here are some companies that provide leased fiber lines in the U.S.:
- XO Communications
- Level 3
(there are many more, this list is just to get you started.)
Or if you’d like to use a paid solution to get a fiber map of your area check out FiberLocator.
There are usually other regional providers as well that will be specific to your area, so you may need to do some searching. These companies usually won’t give you a map of where they have service, but sometimes they will take a list of addresses and then tell you which ones are on-net. Make a list of buildings that you think would work for your needs and get the addresses and then start calling around to fiber providers.
You can also physically go to the area where you’re looking for fiber and look for fiber enclosures and hardware in the ground or on the exterior of buildings. Sometimes you’ll see boxes helpfully labelled as fiber infrastructure with the name of the company.
How much do I need?
You probably need less than you think. A 1Gbps fiber connection will easily serve 500-800 customers, regardless of the speed plans you offer. Interestingly, customers don’t tend to use more data in total with higher speed packages - the average usage on the fiber connection ends up being about the same regardless of what speed plans you offer.
I like to think of it this way: Say I have 500 customers on a certain fiber connection. If that connection had unlimited bandwidth how much would the customers use in aggregate at the peak, and for how many minutes out of the day would they use more than 1Gbps? Right now even with a very tech-forward customer base 500 customers will only rarely spike above 900 Mbps (0.9Gbps). That means that even at peak times a customer could still come on and run a speed test and get 100Mbps.
In general, I would recommend starting with a 1Gbps fiber for nearly all applications. You usually won’t save much money trying to get less than that even if you’ll never use it. Then just watch the usage and make sure to upgrade when you see it start to hit it’s capacity on a regular basis.
Negotiate a Lease
Once you have found a building that you think has a fiber connection, try to contact the property manager and negotiate a lease to put your equipment there. (See Step 3: Find Relay Sites for tips on negotiating the lease.)
Order the fiber connection as early as possible - it will take longer than you expect to be lit up. Expect at least 90 days even if the sales person tells you otherwise.