Althea antenna

One antenna established in Clatskanie.

Althea, which was founded in 2017 and began its first decentralized internet structure in Clatskanie, just announced it is expanding to Newberg, Oregon.

The company, which provides a decentralized internet structure for residents, started in Clatskanie in 2017, although co-founder Deborah Simpier said that the system began in earnest in February of this year. Simpier said that the network in Clatskanie is the world’s first decentralized Internet Service Provider.

Simpier explained how the system works.

“Instead of one company, there’s many different entities that participate,” Simpier said.

In a traditional wireless ISP, one company comes out and sets up a large tower, distributing its signal to all the residents in the area. This can cause problems, because, as Simpier explained, the tower’s signal may not be able to reach very far. Simpier explained that the town of Clatskanie is situated in a “bowl,” meaning that residents in the city especially might have problems with connectivity. This problem is solved with Althea’s system in Clatskanie, which Simpier called the Clatskanie Cooperative.

In the Clatskanie Cooperative, there is one “gateway” location established at Clatskanie Computers, which Simpier owns. From a gateway location, that person can send the signal out to their neighbors.

“We’ll be adding more gateways as we grow and expand,” Simpier said.

There are also “relay” locations, which help expand the signal farther, and those homes also have an antenna on their roof. In Clatskanie, Simpier estimates that there are four or five relay locations. The relayers can make an income from hosting the antennas on their roof, with the software that operates the system automatically paying them using the blockchain for their participation in the network.

For billing, the system really operates on a “pay as you go” type of system, according to Simpier.

“You have an app on your phone to buy tokens. As you use the internet, those tokens are depleted from your router, kind of like a prepaid phone,” Simpier said. “The billing happens between you and your neighbor.”

The benefits of using the system are many, according to Simpier. For starters, the system itself is locally owned and run, because it is a co-operative, rather than a large business.

“It gives them more say in how things are run,” Simpier said.

She added that rather than the focus being on making the best profit for the ISP, “It’s more about how can we best come together to serve the community.”

Other than the ownership, other benefits include users paying what they want, and the fact that because everything in the network is encrypted, it is impossible for any of the data to be censored or throttled, according to Simpier. Another benefit is the automatic configuration of the system, which lowers the overall cost, Simpier said.

In Clatskanie, Simpier said that the network has about 40 subscribers. The average amount they pay is $40 per month.

When the company expands to Newberg, Simpier said they will take a different approach. For one thing, they’ve begun with an outreach campaign, in the hopes of attracting at least 100 people who want to get on board. Simpier said they already have a few people in Newberg who have said they want to be relays. Simpier predicts the system will officially start by late fall.

In addition to Newberg, Simpier said that the Hilltop community in Tacoma, Washington has expressed interest, with 43 people pre-registered.

Simpier said that one thing she has learned in operating her startup is how common it is for people to lack basic internet access.

“We definitely connected people who had no internet before,” Simpier said. “Clatskanie and so many areas were suffering from lack of access, but I did not realize how many people were affected. [The system] really changes people’s lives,” Simpier said.

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