Internet access in rural areas

Italy is full of rural areas with little to no internet connections. In 2015 the government started a strategic plan called BUL (Ultra Broadband) to develop an infrastructure across the nation, and to build a publicly owned network in the market failure areas (white areas). Today, in 2021, the coverage is still quite low, but with the advent of 5G things are starting to change.

The problem

Recently my uncle bought a house in the middle of the Appennini Tosco-Emiliani. It is a beautiful late 1800 farmhouse, built with thick stone walls on top of a hill. He renovated the whole house and he’s using it as a second home during the holidays and on the weekends. Nowadays an internet connection is almost mandatory if you want to live in the 21st century: a home alarm system, a DVR with some videocameras and streaming services require an internet connection. Lets evaluate all the options: TIM, or Telecom Italia, originally brought a twisted pair all the way to the house, to provide basic telephone service. Unfortunately, the house is so isolated and far from any village that an ADSL connection would be too slow to be usable (it should be connected to a telephone exchange 4.6km away). Also, some of the poles that carried the telephone line have collapsed. Eolo is an ISP (internet service provider) that offers wireless internet connection (FWA, fixed wireless access), but the house doesn’t have any coverage. Openfiber offers a 100/50Mb connection on licensed band in the 26-28GHz radio spectrum, but still no coverage in the area. What’s left? LTE may be the only viable option, exluding Starlink and other satellite ISP (too expensive, medium/high latency). Vodafone and TIM have a FWA offer which works with 4G technology, which is speed limited (30/3Mbps) and has limited monthly traffic. WindTre offers an unlimited plan with speeds up to 400Mbps, using LTE+, for less than 18$ a month. Using my smartphone I could connect to a BTS (radio base station) and reach considerable speeds outside the house but inside the thick walls I had no coverage.

Not bad for a house in the middle of nowhere

The solution

The router/modem I chose is a Mikrotik LTE12 Chateau. It is a CAT12 modem capable of speeds up to 600Mbps in downlink and 50Mbps in uplink, with 3CA. It is not the fastest LTE modem, but it is certaintly one of the most configurable, thanks to RouterOS. Next I needed an antenna, and I found a used MRT15 from Marotec, which has two connectors and is capable of MIMO 2X2, and I bought 3m of low loss antenna cable, terminated with SMA and N-type connectors. I used an app called Netmonster, which is available for free on Android) to determine the BTS I was connecting to (eNb 208069). Next I used LTEitaly to find the BTS position, and I discovered that it is 6km away from the house, with direct visibility, and with 4 radio bands.

The elevation profile as extracted from a [path profiler](

The elevation profile as extracted from a path profiler

The BTS we are going to connect to (eNb 208069)

The BTS we are going to connect to (eNb 208069)

Using that antenna mounted on the roof I achieved a RSRP of 87 dBi, which is good but not excellent. However that signal is enough to aggregate 3 bands, LTE band 3 (1800 MHz) as primary, 1 (2100 MHz) and 7 (2600 MHz) and capable of reaching over 100Mbps in download and 40 Mbps in upload in optimal conditions. Using Router OS I excluded LTE band 20 (800 MHz) which gives a better signal but is slower (10 MHz vs 20 MHz amplitude on band 3). There is still a problem left: most LTE connections in Italy are behind CG-NAT. That means that certain services, like videocameras, are not directly reachable from the outside. To mitigate this problem I set up a VPS for very cheap (less that 3$ a month) and installed Wireguard VPN. The Mikrotik router is configured to port forward on the VPN subnet, and the VPS forwards that connection to the internet. Wireguard is incredibily fast and reliable, which means that even if the router looses connection (which happens every 4 hours because of a WindTre policy) the VPN is up and running again in a few seconds, at full speed. Also I can choose which traffic travels on the VPN and what doesn’t: the normal web browsing traffic goes straight to WindTre to minimize latency and increase speed, while videocameras and other services are accessible through the VPN.

LAN and future updates

Inside the house, those thick walls make wifi a mess. I installed three cap ac on every floor, plus a wap ac ouside, under the wooden canopy. All these access points are configured with CAPSMAN on the central Chateau router. This configuration is not perfect, because LTE signal is not excellent and there may be BTS saturation in peak hours. However it is the only viable options for now, until Eolo or OpenFiber FWA network reaches the nearby villages. When that happens, we may be switching ISP but the LAN part stays the same. The network is wired with CAT 5E cable, which is gigabit rated, and all the APs have gigabit ports so everything should be future proof, at least for the next few years.