Red Hook's high speed internet starts here. Image Flickr
There’s a distinct kind of rage that bubbles up whenever a cable company politely tells you that the soonest they can send a technician to fix your Internet connection is two weeks from now. Most of us know the feeling, but two brothers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, weren't content to let their neighbors sit offline and stew. No, Rob and Eric Veksler did what most angry, disconnected customers only dream about doing—they started their own internet company.
Not a tech startup, or an e-commerce site, but a full-on internet service provider they could use to hook up their neighborhood to a fast, reliable internet connection. The company’s name, Brooklyn Fiber, may sound like a brand of granola sold at Fairway, but what the Veksler brothers are doing on the roof of that same grocery store might end up being one of the biggest changes to the way we access the Internet in New York in a decade.
Louis CK has a bit about cell phone users who complain about their smartphones: The gist is that the technology is amazing, and unless you can build your own cell phone network you can’t say you hate Verizon. As I climbed atop the famed Brooklyn food market, I couldn't help but think, at least by Louis's standard, Eric Veskler has earned the right to say whatever he wants.
Indeed, Brooklyn Fiber’s main link runs out of the top of the Fairway building. It provides the lion’s share of their bandwidth, and is comprised of a series of cylindrical white transmitters, each one about the size of a pineapple. They’re mounted in a few inconspicuous locations around a manicured roof deck (the floor above the grocery store is residential). There’s a clear view of the Statue of Liberty in one direction, and the entirety of Red Hook is splayed out in the other. Right now, Brooklyn Fiber has around 100 commercial accounts in Red Hook and a handful of residential customers, most of which live in the apartments above Fairway. Their lowest tier commercial plan costs $75 dollars including taxes and a modem, five dollars cheaper than the lowest advertised price of Time Warner’s Business Class service before taxes and equipment rentals.
Before starting Brooklyn Fiber, one of Eric Veksler’s gigs was working IT at an advertising firm in Manhattan. He did some wiring work on the side for a builder in Red Hook. After he had started the broadband company and successfully tested the service, the builder was so satisfied with the speed that he put Veksler in touch with nearly all of his commercial tenants. Almost every one of them signed up, and there hasn't been a single cancelation yet.
When I asked Veksler how he would describe the motivations of a typical customer—whether they were acting in protest against a cable company—his answer was simple: “Aren’t we all wronged by the cable companies?”
All of his clients were dissatisfied, he said, and he offered a solution that was cheaper, faster, and easier.
Last fall, the then two-year old company faced the biggest challenge an ISP can possibly face: a hurricane. Hurricane Sandy devastated Red Hook; the neighborhood was among the hardest hit in Brooklyn. Many of the waterfront buildings that housed Brooklyn Fiber’s customers, including Fairway itself, were left flooded and without power for weeks. When the water receded, the Veksler brothers brought their network back online with a newly designed system: they swapped car batteries to power the transmitters. After their network was back up, the pair set up mobile hot spots around the neighborhood so residents could get in touch with loved ones and begin arranging for repairs. Keep in mind, at this point, the power was still out and there wasn’t even cell service.
The network was certainly worth saving—it's among the fastest I've used in the city. To test the speed, I went to the office of one of Brooklyn Fiber’s first clients, a real estate company with a waterfront office in Red Hook. The first test was with streaming video on YouTube. I picked a long video, set the resolution to 1080p, and it started instantly. I jumped around in the video and it played without hiccups. The experience was more like playing a saved file rather than streaming a video.
Even at midday on a Wednesday with about 4 other people connected in the next room over, the service was much faster than the Time Warner connection in my apartment. I clicked though a dozen bookmarked sites, loaded TweetDeck and scrolled through ten timelines, and logged into Gmail. Both Chrome and Safari offered similar speeds. I ran a few speed tests that with results ranging from around 85-108
mbps down, to about 37-83 mbps up, over double the advertised speeds of their highest tier. When I experimented with the same streaming videos and bookmarks later on at home, I felt there was now a noticeable lag.
What it's like to use Brooklyn Fiber.
20 mbps on a typical ISP network is like driving on a highway with a 65 MPH speed limit. 20 mbps on Brooklyn Fiber is like flying above that highway in a helicopter. No roads, no bumper-to-bumper, no traffic jams.
The difference between 20 mbps on Brooklyn Fiber and 20 mbps on a major provider is astounding. To borrow a Web 1.0 “Internet as highway” metaphor, 20 mbps on a typical ISP network is like driving on a highway with a 65 MPH speed limit. There are roads, other cars, traffic, and stop signs. Sometimes you might be able to go faster than 65 MPH, but with delays you’ll be a few miles under on average. 20 mbps on Brooklyn Fiber is like flying above the same highway in a helicopter. No roads, no bumper-to-bumper, no traffic jams.
Those figurative delays with the telecoms aren’t because there is a bigger pool of customers using the same bandwidth, but instead because of self-imposed regulations larger providers place on high-bandwidth activity, like streaming a video on YouTube or Netflix. According to Veksler, bigger ISPs make peering agreements with content providers that limit the amount of bandwidth customers can use for specific services. He likens the situation to plumbing: if all available bandwidth is the sewer system, then the big providers make a Netflix pipe or a YouTube pipe that all traffic has to pass through.
But speed isn’t everything for an ISP. Considering that Brooklyn Fiber was created in response to the unreliable service previously available in Red Hook, Veksler also maintains a remarkably high uptime for his service. When asked about the last time he had an outage, Veksler cracks a half-embarrassed smile when he explains that he temporarily disconnected about half of his customers after he made a wiring mistake on one of his main transmitters last Spring. He says he was able to restore service to all of his customers in around 15 minutes.
Although his service is quicker, Veksler’s goal isn’t to beat Internet land speed records. Instead, he’s offering a net-neutral alternative to the big ISPs to take some of the day-to-day hassle out of dealing with a big ISP. When you call Time Warner Cable’s phone system, a computer checks your billing address on file, and if there’s a reported Internet outage near your home, a polite voice informs you that technicians are working on it, and no one at their call center can offer any more information. You’re then automatically disconnected. The experience of reporting an outage to Brooklyn Fiber is closer to texting a friend for a ride than dealing with a cable company. Veksler gives every customer his personal cell phone number. If there’s a problem, you simply text him and he drives over to your house to fix it. There’s no appointment, everything happens on the same day, and there's no automatic disconnect.
A map of Brooklyn Fiber's coverage in Red Hook
The emergence of an upstart broadband company in the most populated city in America is a little surprising. Alternative ISPs usually provide service to rural farmlands or overlooked remote areas that fall victim to the “the last mile is the most expensive” mentality of most major providers. Instead, Brooklyn Fiber exists because of the strange state of broadband Internet in NYC: despite being the furthest place possible from rural farmland, much of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods and more industrial areas have spotty service and only one provider to choose from.
Unlike some of the remote and rural broadband networks, Brooklyn Fiber isn’t a mesh network. That is to say, it’s not a series of connected devices sharing bandwidth with one another. Instead, each customer connects directly to his transmitters. We’ve covered a few alternatives for people living in areas too remote for traditional broadband. Solutions like satellite service, or rural, homegrown broadband have worked in the past, but the majority of those programs usually require huge government subsidies and can still cost residents hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention years of construction. After only three years in business, almost no installation time, and a relatively small number of customers, Brooklyn Fiber is already profitable.
Veksler sounds positive about the future of Internet access in New York. While Brooklyn Fiber’s “point to point” is a quick and cost effective way to circumvent the red tape of altering New York’s digital infrastructure, it’s not a perfect system. The service is largely subject to the problem of scale. With fewer than 200 total accounts, the personal customer service Veksler offers is still realistic. It might not be impossible to maintain, say, 1,000 accounts with a team of engineers, but beyond that it's an open question how Brooklyn Fiber can maintain its personal touch.
Tall buildings—which are more difficult to outfit—and topographic variations also eliminate huge groups of potential customers for the Veskler brothers. But Eric is realistic about the role of his service: his goal is to eventually lay fiber optic cable to supplement his point to point access. He’s interested in a new way to lay fiber optic cable called “microtrenching” with considerably lower overhead than traditional methods.
Unfortunately, the company that regulates that service is also owned by the big telecoms. So right now, Brooklyn Fiber is a hyperlocal solution. So much so that Veksler’s apartment, which is just under two miles from the Fairway Building, is out of Brooklyn Fiber’s range. He still has to get his own internet from one of the very ISPs that inspired him to start Brooklyn Fiber whenever he's at home.
Watch Motherboard's documentary "Free the Network"