John Elliott

How I Got into Seattle Community Network

New city, new connections

Seattle Community Network has been a big part of my life and free time for the past year and I thought I’d explain how I got involved.

When I moved to Seattle I had Comcast internet installed. Comcast was only choice. Uploads maxed out at 10Mbps, which made uploading video or cloud backups basically impossible. Despite good download bandwidth—200Mbps—the connection was jittery and I was looking for more.1

During my ISP search I remembered my brief participation in NYCMesh. A web search for seattle community network landed me on Seattle Community Network (SCN), so I made a beeline for the coverage map. I saw that I wouldn’t be getting connected any time soon, but I remembered that building these networks takes time, so I filed it away in my brain.

I decided to investigate a more direct path to the internet. I read Creating an Autonomous System for Fun and Profit and was learning about peering and how smaller networks were built.2 So of course I investigated making my own wireless ISP. I did a bunch of surveying using online maps and wireless planning techniques from NYCMesh. After figuring out my needs I made some hopeful but ultimately naïve phone calls3 but it only confirmed my suspicion that it was going to be far too expensive for one person where I was to afford.

Colocation side quest

I covered a lot of ground in my research and reasoned if I couldn’t get a direct link I might as well explore the datacenter side. I bought a janky old server pictured in my post about MikroTik, upgraded the ram, added disks and the missing screws from the hard disk cages of an old Apple PowerMac G4. Solid. I planned out my 1U of rack space with a shelf, raspberry pi, and small MikroTik router. After a bunch of lab testing at home my colocation contract was starting and I went to the datacenter to rack my equipment. Surprisingly I had only one brief issue that was probably DNS, and I was hosted.

The colocation side-quest raised my confidence with MikroTik router configuration out-of-bound access, hypervisor options, and server hardware, but once I was finished preparing and had deployed it I actually did very little. That was never the point. I’d done VM’s in AWS and GCP for years and that would be more of the same. Even with my own colo setup and the ability to hack on lower levels of the stack my home wasn’t any more connected. There was still more to do, and luckily I’d use all I learned again shortly.4

Getting involved with SCN and the board

Through the ISP quest and colo side-quest I was constantly reminded that the internet is made by constant effort by a lot of people. Around that time my thoughts turned back to SCN because if I ever wanted to realize my ideal internet connection I’d have a much better chance teaming up with like-minded people and spend probably years to complete.

So I just started showing up, to every SCN meeting at the community center and started helping however I could. I did some computer help desk sessions, installed an LTE antenna in someones apartment at a senior center, and did some other smaller and a few larger equipment installations.

Eventually I was helping configure routers because I was using MikroTik devices on my home network and learned as much as I could about what network engineers do. I ended up serving as a board member to better drive and guide our progress.

The community network today

Our network doesn’t have a complete layer-2 access network yet, but we have set up a portion of the datacenter and site infrastructure. We now have an ASN, IP blocks, with the biggest remaining task being tying our sites together with a VPN and eventually dark fiber. There’s so much going on right now and still a ton left to do to build this.

Building a network is a far slower process than provisioning cloud resources, but it’s a different level of infrastructure with different goals. It’s been an amazing time and I’ve gotten to meet so may cool people and gotten to see parts of my city and spaces I couldn’t otherwise access. My internet still sucks but my desire for discovery and building are satisfied.

  1. With Comcast I did get DHCP from my modem and ipv6, both of which I had to give up when switching to the GPON fiber solution from the phone company. At that time I wasn’t aware of the trade-off and wasn’t using ipv6. ↩︎

  2. In 2021 the only times I read or heard about BGP was around NYCMesh or reading harrowing tales of web service outages. ↩︎

  3. I even used my retired NYCMesh WiFi antenna to find potential providers. ↩︎

  4. Literally, that server is now running in the WBX datacenter I initially couldn’t afford to be in 😎 ↩︎