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Build Blog

Declan & Demirhan hoist the 7th section up to Dennis on the tower. Dennis is at 60 feet, this section makes 70. Soon the Cleveland Hill tower will be broadcasting!

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Photon Quest

by admin on January 1, 2012

December 15th to January 15th, the darkest stretch of the year.
December 18th to January 3rd, this solar-powered network’s highest traffic volume period ever. The amount traffic passing through our access point on the Great Hill Fire Tower is four or five times more than this week last year.

It’s a sunny day with single digit temperatures and frequent 40 mph gusts of wind, for a wind chill of -35.  We are hiking up the trail to the Great Hill Fire Tower to add a third solar panel to our array there.  Declan and I have the 3 by 6 foot panel between us, and the wind keeps trying to carry it off into the woods. Declan is also carrying a gallon of gasoline for the generator,  Gunnar a drill and tools to mount and connect the panel. It’s not the first time today I’m wondering if this is really a good idea in these conditions. The alternative would be to return tomorrow in the predicted freezing rain, and possibly a network outage overnight.  We press on.


The wind keeps picking up as we approach the tower, to the point where we’re yelling at each other to be heard. We’ve been here every day this week to charge the batteries with the generator, and trouble shoot what we’d need to do to keep the network up through holidays. The weather’s been overcast more often than not, and traffic on the network is at unprecedented levels. None of our previous visits were like this though, and we make our way over the icy rocks with the panel very carefully. Declan takes the panel by himself at the foot of the tower stairs, as he did last summer with the other two. It only takes one gust to convince him that it will take two of us. We move up to the stairs to the platform pausing for every frozen blast of wind. We’re going to use the generator to power the drill, so Declan takes off his pack and prepares to start it. The wind blows the gallon of gas and Declan’s pack slowly across the deck. The whole time we’re up there we must hold on to everything not attached.

Between the generator and the nearly constant wind nobody can really hear much. There’s one hole already drilled in the panel frame, to match one already drilled in the angle iron of the tower. We slide the panel out through the tower’s frame work and the three of us get it into place on the outside of the tower. Declan and Gunnar hold it there, and I dig a nut and bolt out of my pocket for those pre-drilled holes. I have to take my gloves off to place the bolt and twist the nut. By the time I accomplish this I am watching my fingers do what I intend them to do, but I can’t really feel them. I put my gloves back on and grab the panel again to help hold it in place while Gunnar drills the other holes, through the frame of the tower and into the frame of the solar panel. Nuts and bolts are placed and twisted, and tightened down with a wrench.

While we’re doing this, I think of a comparison that Declan made earlier on the trail to the Apollo 13 crew – three men, in a small very cold place, with potentially life-threatening conditions and lots of talk and concern about amperage. Once the panel is bolted in place we pause to let our hands come back to life.

Gunnar’s hands worked the drill, and got so cold that he didn’t notice when the drill took a little skin. He’s bled on the platform, and leaves evidence all the way down the trail on the way out. Every hand was needed to get the panel in place so I couldn’t take any pictures while we did it. Gunnar and Declan huddle over the generator and rewire the charge controllers, yelling at each other from a few inches apart. I’m standing on the opposite corner of the platform with both of their packs between my legs and the now empty gas can in one hand, and my other arm wrapped around the center beam of the tower. I dig out the camera and try and take pictures, but it’s so cold that the camera barely works. I get one shot of the two them in front of the box with the top controller removed, and decide to return in better weather to get pictures of the panel in place and the blood on the wood.

Now there are three panels on the tower. Two face roughly southeast toward Tamworth Village, on the “front” of the tower. A third is now on the side of the tower that faces roughly southwest toward Cleveland Hill, and will be collecting photons from that direction in the winter months from about 1:30 in the afternoon until sunset, when the other panels get little or no sun at all. The days will just get longer now, and we are confident that we’ve covered our power needs with this new panel. As soon as everything is in place, we gather our belongings and clamber down off of the tower, hurrying into the relative calm of the woods. No one is warm. We talk about adding more batteries, and another box to house them and the generator.

Gunnar says, “Well that was one for the books!”

Down in the village and out in the woods from Ferncroft to Mountain road in South Tamworth, over Little Young and Red Hill to Sandwich, 93 households check their e-mail, Skype their friends and family, watch their Netflix movies and connect to each other and the rest of the planet. Up on Great Hill, the panels silently collect those photons in the howling wind, powering the whole show.

We walk down the trail awaiting the return of our extremities, fully confident in this moment that we could’ve landed that space capsule, but we’ll settle for Googles for all for now.

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Completion And Test Of The Backhaul

by DQ on November 24, 2010

With the Great Hill Fire Tower installation complete, we move on to finish the installation  at the 212 year old Tamworth Congregational Church.  We’ve placed the Nanobridge, (a small white dish ) on the back of the church, to communicate with Great Hill,  and send a signal carrying broadband up there. This will be our primary link, or “back-haul” from the greater internet to the Tamworth Wireless network. The dish on the back of the building must be connected to the DSL/telephone lines that enter the front of the building, so the cable travels over the top of the ceiling, through the 212 year old attic, under with wooden access stairs that lead up into the iconic steeple.  It’s a privilege for us to be working at these landmark Tamworth sites, and crucial to our planned town-wide network that this link function as we ‘ve planned.

Oh, and it does. Gunnar Berg’s design and the equipment he’s chosen all did their job, even better than the specs said they would. Once we established that the link between the Church and the Fire Tower, we connected some 900 Mhz customer premises radios.  These are the flat panel receivers that houses without direct line of sight will use to connect. Even while inside the church, we were able to receive a strong signal. This was kind of a key moment for us, because it established that the back-haul would deliver the kind of  “throughput” we’d need to support the network. All the planning and theorizing and months of meetings finally were borne out – it worked! Here’s the video of the moment of connection:

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Completing The Great Hill Access Point

by DQ on September 24, 2010

To finish the Great Hill access point, we needed to install a NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) rated steel enclosure containing:  a voltage regulator, 2 charge controllers, a MicroTik 493AH router with Ubiquity XR9 radio card installed, and 4 circuit breakers. The router is programmed to be the central hub of the network, receiving the signal from the Tamworth Congregational Church, and handing it off to the 900 Mhz antenna, as well as Bunker Hill, Page Hill and future access points. We also needed to ground the whole array to an eight-foot copper grounding rod, embedded completely in the ground.  Once it was all connected and the batteries stored enough juice, Great Hill was ready for a signal.

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Great Hill Fire Tower Poem

September 24, 2010

This poem is inside the cabin of the Great Hill Fire Tower. It was there before we hung our solar panels… (if you know the poet, let us know!)

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The first day of dishes

September 4, 2010

This was a comparatively easy day, we met at the Tamworth Congregational Church, to hang the Nanobridge dish on the back, and plan our installation of the Network Operating Center (NOC). A new phone line will need to be installed, it will be accessed from the choir loft. Shielded network cable will need to be […]

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Great Hill – Omni Installation

August 31, 2010

Key facts: 100 amp gell cell batteries are 74 pounds heavy. A baseball bat 19 feet long is hard to swing. all connections that will be out in the weather need to be well sealed Today in the August heat we transported 6 batteries, attendant cables and interconnects and the 900 Mhz Omni antenna up […]

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Great Hill Solar Panel Installation

August 27, 2010

Our second trip to the Great Hill Fire Tower is to install solar panels. The platform built earlier supplies a place to stand. Another beautiful day, but we probably wouldn’t have gone up there in the rain….

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Infrastructure Build-Out , Day 1

August 27, 2010

After months of preparation and discussion, we’re finally getting to build the network. The first step was a platform the we needed on the Great Hill Fire Tower. This platform will hold the rechargeable batteries for our internet equipment, and provide a place for humans to stand and work.  It’s also big enough to hold […]

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