MDUs / Apartments / Attached Townhomes

Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs) can be very profitable for small ISPs because you can serve more customers with less equipment. Here are some tips for serving customers in MDUs:

Negotiate with property management

If the complex has an on-site management suite just stop by and ask to talk the property manager. Let them know you’d like to provide Internet service to the residents and describe the service you can provide. Arrange a time to survey the complex with the property manager so you can make sure that you will install your equipment in a way that they will be happy with.

You can consider selling the property manager on an exclusive deal to provide service to all of the residents for a set price. Sometimes a deal like that can be great for you, the property and the residents. It’s not necessary to be the exclusive provider, though.

Light up the complex

Bring in a wireless backhaul or a fiber connection to the building. These installations will be very similar to other fiber and relay installations.

Make sure that your infrastructure equipment is powered by an AC power circuit that is not dependent on a specific resident’s unit. Usually the complex will have a power meter for things like the laundry room, lighting in common areas, and the management office - ideally your equipment will be on that meter.

Distribute to each building

If the complex has multiple detached buildings you’ll need to find a way to connect them together. Short range, high capacity 60Ghz wireless backhauls such as these work well in this situations:

Again, if possible get these devices powered up using a common power circuit. If you use POE from a resident’s unit then you risk losing power to the device (and service to the building) if a tenant moves or forgets to pay their power bill.

Install a switch and a power injector in a box outside the unit or in a common area near a power outlet.

Connect individual units

Next you will need to get service from the switch to each individual unit. Ideally you will be able to use existing cables that are already run through the building.

CAT5e / CAT6

If the building was built after about 2000 there is a decent chance that there is already at least CAT5e running to each unit. If so then you can easily connect that directly to your switch to distribute service to the unit.

COAX

If the units do not have CAT5e cables they might have COAX (TV) cables. Make sure that the COAX lines are owned by the property (not the cable company) and then consider using DOCSIS or MoCA 2.0 to connect the units to your switch.

For example, you can put a device like this gigabit capable adapter or this 100 megabit capable adapter on each end of the COAX cable and provide (in theory) up to 1gbps connection to each unit.

CAT3 / Phone Line

If CAT5e and COAX cables are not available you may be able to use older phone lines to create a local DSL network. Using a G.fast DSLAM such as this for the complex and a G.fast modem in the resident’s unit you can extend your network over the phone lines.

Note: I have not tested and do not endorse this particular brand of G.fast equipment, I’m just using it as an example.

Run your own cable

You may be able to run your own cable to each unit. This is a hassle but depending on the building may still be easier and less expensive that connecting a single family home to your wireless network, so it may still be worth it.

Wi-Fi throughout the building

Why not just light up the whole complex with Wi-Fi? You can try that! But it’s not as easy as it seems. You will need a lot of access points - probably at least one for every third unit, maybe every other unit. That means you still need to run a lot of cables if they aren’t already there. Also if you’re putting the access points in common areas (hallways, attics, etc) then you may find there are still dead spots in some parts of the units. Ultimately you may find that it’s just as much work (or more!) to install Wi-Fi throughout the complex than to install each unit individually.

Use it as a relay

If the MDU is tall and in a good location you may as well use it as a relay! Put some access points up and serve the single family homes that surround the complex.