Warehouse spaces give way to boutiques as we descend from Potrero Hill into the Mission district, and Rudy Rucker and Alex Menendez are reading aloud the invisible language of San Francisco. That paint splotch on the ground is not graffiti that's gotten lost, but a symbol that the sewer was recently treated for mosquitoes. The lack of pole attachments on the newly built residential complex? That means all of the utility hook-ups must be underground. Sometimes nothing tells you something.
Tag-team decoders of the urban landscape, Rucker and Menendez know their neighborhood down to the minute level of detail you'd expect from a cabbie or a postal carrier. But where your mailman knows his route at eye level, they cast their attention skyward.
"See that thing that looks like a mechanical bull?" says Menendez, pointing to the top of a ten-story office building. "That's a . It's an outdated piece of technology, and it's huge, which is not desirable for mounting on buildings. But people love it because it's a laser."
I ask what might interfere with its signal. "A pigeon," answers Rucker.
"Unless you turn it up high enough," Menendez jokes. "Then it'll just fall out of the sky."
Rucker and Menendez are the founders of , a San Francisco independent Internet service provider (ISP). They've been working with each other long enough to finish each other's sentences in the same surf-shop dialect. The duo came to the Bay Area in the early '90s―one from L.A., one from Virginia―to attend UC-Berkeley, but they met officially while working at the Web developer Macromedia. You may not know the name, but you know the products—Macromedia made Flash and Dreamweaver before being engulfed by Adobe in 2005.
In November of '98, Rucker registered the name Monkey Brains, with Menendez joining the outfit shortly thereafter. They installed dial-up connections around the city until it became clear the modem's time was over. They pivoted to hosting remote servers, and not long after Adobe bought their full-time employer, the pair decided to quit their day jobs and work for themselves full-time. Around 2008, they began to feel a sea change coming on. Aided by the drastic drop in antenna price—what once cost $5,000 now cost between $250 and $500—they pushed into the world of wireless ISPs, or WISPs. That's when things started to change for Monkey Brains. After nearly 12 years in business, the business hired a third person. Monkey Brains now has 20 employees "with enough work to last them for the rest of their lives."
How is it that in an era when your Internet choices seem to boil down to either getting reamed by AT&T, screwed by Comcast, or getting both reamed and screwed by Time Warner, an indie ISP such as Monkey Brains is not only staying in business, but growing?
Waves Across the City
That "mechanical bull" we saw atop a building is one of more than 6,000 pieces of Monkey Brains equipment scattered throughout eastern San Francisco. This piece utilizes a laser that's about three inches long, one inch tall, and one inch wide, and uses roughly two amps of 12-volt DC power. While it's still technically a usual piece of tech, it's on its way out with the rise of millimeter microwave. It's more susceptible to fog (a big no-no in S.F.), has shorter achievable distances, involves more mounting logistics, and simply has a "very large profile." It looks like a mechanical bull, after all. Also, no, it wouldn't actually zap the eyes out of a pigeon. "But that pigeon better not stare into the eyes of the mechanical bull!" says Menendez.
The bull is a single node in a network providing Internet service to more than 5,000 customers, from high-end tech clients like AirBNB and Cisco to residential buildings and artist co-ops priced on a "sliding scale"—you know, since they don't have Cisco money. And the company does this all without wiring fiber-optic cable into anybody's office or apartment.
Monkey Brains' wireless Internet works like so: The Internet comes into the city via a data center; they get theirs from a prison-like structure near Hunter's Point. The signal goes through a fiber line up to an antenna positioned on top of a building (like the mechanical bull we saw), which broadcasts the signal. Don't think of these wireless signals flowing out in expanding circles a la an FM radio or TV signal, though. "Think of it as a wire, because that's what they are to us," says Menendez. "They're wires extending across the city in waves."
If you want to get Internet from Monkey Brains, then you need the second part of this link: the antenna that's bolted on top of the customer's building, which then brings the signal into the customer's home through another physical line. That second antenna has to be pointed right at the transmitter so that it is in the line of sight. If there's a hill or building in the way, it won't work.
The reason for this odd setup is the same reason that WISPs are able to exist in the first place and to compete with the ISP conglomerates Americans detest. It's comes down to a purposeful blind spot in FCC regulations.
You see, WISPs use roaming fleets of 60 GHz antennas, which broadcast using the same frequency at which oxygen vibrates. Because of this quirk of physics, the signal quickly deteriorates. "You can't send it more than a kilometer," Rucker says. This arrangement would make for a pathetic radio broadcast—at that range, you're better off yelling into a bullhorn and buying bulk lozenges. But the essential crappiness of the 60 GHz range is both a curse and a blessing. Because the range of frequency is so terrible, the FCC decided people don't need to register to use it. As a result, WISPs can set up in a hurry, juicing up a building within days rather than the weeks or months it takes to lay fiber-optic.
A new residential user can expect to pay $35 a month for the service (with no contract, Monkey Brains is quick to point out), but that's after an initial $250 antenna setup fee—not an insignificant investment for short-term renters. But if you're putting down roots, you can expect a high service speed over wireless. Depending on the ability of one's computer, customers can download a 1 GB file in a minute, meaning it takes less time download the Blu-Ray-quality 1080p file of The Dark Knight than it does to microwave frozen fish sticks.
"That's where we compete," Rucker says. "Speed of install, speed of service."
The downside of poor signal distance, however, is that the network must remain close-knit. "In a city like this where there's a lot of hills, the goal is to keep everything close," says Menendez. But that's not easy. Monkey Brains' deployment-on-demand strategy―putting up a new antenna only when it's needed―has, frankly, made one giant mess.
Back in their dank shared office—cluttered with empty boxes that once housed gadgets jockeying for desk space with scattered papers, tools, heavy manuals, and a few indoor plants―the duo show me a map of their equipment, beaming the signals outwards in every direction. Zoom out a few clicks, far enough to see the entire peninsula, and the maps turns into an amorphous, multi-colored blob engulfing the city's northeast. "In a traditional telecom, they'd be planning things for a long time. They follow streets, railroad tracks, poles," says Rucker. "But this is a beast."
Monkey Brains' piecemeal, DIY development of a network may be messy and incomplete, but it's also the method they're using to shoot for their next big goal for San Francisco: To supply homes with the world's fastest Internet.
"Last year we got kind of bored," Menendez says. When you get bored in San Francisco, you start a crowdfunding campaign. So the pair launched an IndieGogo project called Gigabit-to-the-Home, a concept to take the same high-end antennas they've been using to hook up expensive business accounts and deploy them to link residences. They'd be the first ISP to make such a move, they say.
One gigabit per second is damned fast—it's the fastest wireless connection on the market and roughly the equivalent of fiber-optic hookups. To make it happen, the company would have to deploy a variety of different antennas from the normal 60 GHz they've been installing all over the City by the Bay. "Five GHz, 24 GHz and 80 GHz," says Menendez. "Whatever makes sense for the distance and speed required." (They have an FCC licence to operate 80 GHz, but have to register any new link they build.) If it worked, customers would be able to download up to one gigabit (or 1,000 Mbps) a second. To give you a point of comparison, the average U.S. household gets 21.2 megabits per second, nearly 50 times slower.
What Monkey Brains really needed to realize its dream for was enough folks to sign up that they could negotiate a bulk discount with the manufacturer. The number they landed on was 100 people to take the $2,500 plunge. (The campaign also included rewards above and below that threshold; the lone $1,000 "Have a lunch with Monkey Brains" prize went unclaimed.) When the smoke cleared, 273 participants raised a grand total of $420,501, enough to buy nearly twice their stated goal. Gigabit was a go.
Who'd want this kind of insane Internet speed? Network engineers who work from home, gamers, people who like to show off, people who are sick to death of buffering, everyone in Silcon Valley trying to keep up with the Zuckerbergs. But, Menendez is careful to say: "We don't just want to be stewards for the douchebags, so we try to throw in some philanthropy." After installing antennas to their backers, Monkey Brains deployed the extra antennas to schools, homeless shelters, and cultural centers throughout the city, pro bono. "We really tried to show Internet speeds to people that have truly never seen them [that fast]."
The stated goal of the project is "to create a rapid and repeatable deployment system that creates a high-speed mesh for residential neighborhoods." This new deployment, then, is another example of the company's slow-build M.O. The more antennas they have up, the more customers they can access. But the way in which they went about achieving it points backwards to their college years: Get enough people to pitch in, split the costs, and everyone's better for it. It's a Berkeley co-op in tech form. This strategy has not made them billionaires overnight like any number of kids down in San Mateo. But it built a viable business.
If you've heard the term "gigabit" tossed around lately, it's probably because of Google. With Google Fiber, the ultra-high-speed network it is test-building in cities around the country, Google is trying to break the death grip of ISPs in America by offering a rapid alternative to the likes of Comcast and Time Warner. (That includes the Bay Area: that it would be rolling out Fiber to San Francisco.) In a sense, Google is chasing the same dream as Monkey Brains but in opposite fashion: wired rather than wireless, and spreading to cities all over the nation rather than across one city node by node.
It's a curious moment in Internet history. Today the five largest ISPs (AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, Comcast Xfinity, and CenturyLink) claim 75 percent of the country's Internet households—yet because of the huge numbers of customers on their systems, than on indie ISPs. And because of that market domination, a startup-turned-tech-behemoth like Google and a mom-and-pop provider like Monkey Brains are both working around the periphery to try to beat the system. How did we get here?
If you're looking for Year Zero for our modern malaise, the best place to start is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first big national legislation of the telecom industry in more than 60 years. Remember, this was back when most people started their home Internet sessions by popping in an AOL disc and waiting for that sweet, whirring music of the modem to dial them in. It was a surging sector but a market dominated by few, partially because of the labyrinthian regulations new businesses had to navigate in order to exist. The Telecom Act of '96, then, was a way to rewrite the law to encourage competition from smaller businesses.
The Act focused on the division of the Internet into two parts: The national and international network, allowing the Internet to be the information delivery system it became, and the "last mile" or "local loop," which brought the service to the home user. The goal was for competition between incumbent service providers and new businesses to be focused on this second section. Think of a highway where the road is free to use, but you have to pay a toll for the on- and off-ramps. The fight was for the ramps.
However, as NYU economics professor Nicholas Economides pointed out in of the act and its fallout, it wasn't much of a fight. For starters, building the "local loop" required a few basic things smaller businesses didn't have—foremost, cooperation from the telephone and cable companies that had already laid down the infrastructure, and who, frankly, weren't and aren't keen on competitors trying to piggy-back on the digging they've already done. According to Ars Technica's great history of small ISPs, the big companies' tactics included high-retainer legal teams writing up meant to delay smaller businesses until their funds dried up. It's no coincidence most of the names reigning in the ISP landscape are the same ones that used to grace our phone bills. It's easy to be the incumbent. It's hard to build everything from scratch.
The TC Act of '96 also left out some important ways to foster competition. For instance, while the United States has laws about how many TV or radio stations can be controlled by a single entity in a single city, there were no such anti-monopoly laws for the Internet. Mergers and acquisitions consolidated service options pretty quickly.
Even if an indie ISP were brazen enough to bypass Big Cable and lay down its own infrastructure, another hurdle was () one put up by local governments. If an indie ISP were to create its own network, then it'd need permits to dig trenches in the streets or approval to throw antennas on buildings. A few tried ways to get around this hefty cost: , for example, was an early attempt to build a wireless network, allowing users to get online wherever they could get a signal on their wireless modem; however, the cost of creating said network was too great, and in 2001 Ricochet had to shut its doors. There are no rules defining what city governments can ask for in return, either. Compensation includes steep permitting charges, donated equipment, extending infrastructure far beyond the customer base, and free service in government buildings. Those are costs a mom-and-pop just can't absorb.
The final barrier lives in the customer's own mind. If you believe the piles of consumer reviews, then there's no question an indie ISP provides better service both in terms of Internet speeds and customer response for roughly the same cost. This isn't exactly the world's most difficult argument to make: big ISPs like Comcast are regularly named among America's most-hated companies. Yet Big Internet is doing just fine, thank you, because, well, switching is hard.
Consumers who want to change providers would have to actually find the indie ISP options in their neck of the woods, read through the various customer reviews, perform the cost analysis, and make a choice. And then wait for a whole new group of people to come and install a new device in their home... and then run an extra errand and return their equipment to their old provider, and then answer that awkward question about why they're changing service.
It all just seems like a lot of work. After all, you already took that day off work to stay home and wait for the Verizon guy to show up. So, as always, stasis reigns supreme.
None of this means mom-and-pop ISPs can't work. They have, and they do. There are independent small ISPs scattered throughout the country, in seemingly out-of-the-way locales like Moriarty, New Mexico, and Emporia, Virginia. If you're in the market for a WISP, wispa.org has or just do an "Internet service provider" search on Yelp.
The question for Monkey Brains and company is, are they the last of a dying breed or the smoldering coals of a new fire?
When the technology inevitably changes, the Monkey Brains duo says they'll adapt. "Wireless has ten more years on it," Rucker admits. While wireless will be alive and well, the growth in the number of Monkey Brains customers means that, if they want to keep their network speedy, they'll have to eventually dip into fiber. Right now, however, a complete overhaul is not feasible. "There has to be some sort of relaxation in the right-of-way access [of fiber]," says Menendez, meaning government control of land. "When that happens, we'll be doing fiber like motherfuckers."
Until then, they'll expand the old-fashioned way, how any independent business does: organically, through word-of-mouth, hooking up the friends and families of satisfied customers, then their friends and family, building their neighborhood network through a relatively small swath in the world's tech capital.
In a city and a culture used to watching companies rocket up and just as quickly crash and burn, Monkey Brains is a rarity: growing at a sustainable pace, not pushing toward rapid expansion, harvesting the fruit they need and nothing more. They've recently opened a satellite office in the residential-heavy Richmond part of town, but that's as far as they're thinking, and not just because of the limits of the 60 GHz signal. Mostly, they just don't want to.
"We're growing, it's the term everyone likes to say," says Rucker. "But you keep coming back to this word 'compete,' and there's this real push for it in this capitalist society. I don't view anyone as competition, especially in the WISP industry. They're partners in the brotherhood of the WISP. We don't need to compete. There's enough fruit for all of us to harvest."