Internet Service in Cohousing

A major conundrum for cohousing and one that warrants a chapter in the next book on building a cohousing community is internet service. To provide it collectively or each to their own? If collectively how to charge, or whether to include in condo fees? Which technology? Who maintains it?

When Takoma Village began planning in 1998-1999, we had several internet-knowledgeable people who insisted that we install wiring for internet connections. Every unit has at least 4 jacks with telephone, cable TV, and ethernet connections. The 3 and 4 bedrooms have more. Basically one in every room, even the kitchen. (We have connected units, not houses on lots.)

Internet service is included in our condo fee so it is paid at the same rate as condo fees, with larger units paying more. When people started using wireless, we installed community wireless connections for everyone to use. And we use each others. All the passwords are the same.

We have an intranet so people can share music and files, and the teenagers play games with each other. Several units collectively bought an expensive back-up drive to share and use our Intranet to backup.

The Set Up

There are routers in the north and south basements and in the common house basement that connect all the wires from  units to modems. For years we only had one modem. Then we upgraded to one modem with business class service. Now we have two business class service modems from two different companies so we rarely have a total outage when one service is down. Service is just a little slower; Netflix spins a bit.

One modem used to serve the North side and one the South side but one side has more gamers than the other. Unfair advantage to be limited to the same modem. Now the traffic rolls over.

Each ethernet jack in each unit is connected to the internet with its own IP address. This has caused a problem with Bluehost, our ISP, because they don’t like our account coming from different IPs all the time. So we have some special connection with them. When I worked on our website, that was a problem because my personal ISP is also Bluehost. Working on websites is upload intensive and with everyone’s email plus connections to our websites caused traffic jams. Now all the connections to Bluehost go through a single IP address.

What Doesn’t Work?

The problems are around the routers. One or the other of them blows a port with some regularity. It’s a long process to test the system and isolate the bad ports. We have internal people—one active expert and one that can be called in, and 2-3 who have training. The trained can get on the phone with an expert and understand how to follow his instructions. Without internal people trained to manage the network, we couldn’t do this.

One person who works professionally installing networks recommends purchasing new routers every year. Install the basic reliable inexpensive router and when you replace the next year the most reliable extra features will be built in and you will always have up-to-date trustworthy technology. No downtimes. Others think this is wasteful so we have downtimes until someone gets a new router, though I think now we always have a backup handy

What Else Could We Do?

Many would like to hire someone who would always be available. Our current expert often goes to very remote places to hike. But it would be expensive and no one is always available anyway. We used to have three experts but two moved. We can still call them but the system changes so their knowledge is not always current.

Some would like an external business class service that is guaranteed to be up 99% of the time. It feels uncomfortable to ask neighbors to go out in the evening or early morning or three days in a row to fix routers but so many people work from home now they are dependent on the Internet. I’m online literally 12-14 hours a day and others are too. (We can almost instantly contact each other—a subculture.)

We bought software so the techies can change settings and check the system from home on their computers, but when it is a hardware problem they still have to go to the basement. Often for several hours. And then they have to go to work, fixed or not.

Education and Warnings

We used to have huge problems with people moving in and setting up all their devices without letting our techs know that hew equipment had been installed. They would guess the settings or use the ones they had before and it would bring down the whole system. Or they would allow their systems to automatically choose an address and often it was their neighbor’s. One or the other would then get kicked off the system whenever both tried to get on online. Because we have an IP address for jack, each device—computers, cable system, netflix, Blueray, etc.—has its own settings. If people don’t have all of them set correctly, they can’t even use all their own equipment.

Now new people are warned before they move in to call the techs to set them up. In the panic of moving, they often forget. And when residents buy new equipment, they still forget that step.

It’s Still Worth It (On Most Days)

A collective system is soooo much cheaper than each of us having our own service and in-house attention is still better than someone who has never been here before—the usual case. Collectively, we can afford service that is four times as fast. It’s slower on Friday night when every one seems to be watching movies or playing games but still faster than the smaller residential modems most cable providers include in bundled packages. That service costs now $35 a month. 43 units x $35 = $1,500 a month. Instead we pay $365—80% less.

When we need repair of the modem, business class service is normally the same day, usually within hours. Residential service is usually a 3-4 day minimum; “next week,” the most common response.

Usage Is Way Up

When we moved in, less than half our households used the Internet at home. Whenever we sent out an email with a request the deadline for a response had to include a weekend for people who only read at home and workdays for those who only read at work. From the beginning, we had a computer in the office for people who didn’t have or need a computer. It is now used by people whose own computer is broken or much slower and by guests. And some just like to get out of their units.

We also have a duplex 3-in-1 printer that is hooked up to out intranet. Residents don’t need a scanner, copier, or fax machine, and can print from home.

When only a few were using the internet at home, it was harder to get attention to the network being down because very few people were dependent on it. Several of us had our own modems because of this. Now every household has at least one device hooked up. I have four and a router to handle them. Some have their own internal intranet so they can share devices. About a third work at home all the time or a significant part of the time. And that number is growing rapidly. I would guess that most people check work email at home though some companies are now not allowing that for security reasons.

A long history but an important one that I think that Takoma Village has handled at a high level because we had tech savvy people from the beginning who were avid about new technology and foresaw the future—even though it still isn’t perfect. Every community will probably be at some point in this evolutionary process. If anyone is beyond it, please let me know!