May 9—With services currently in places such as Centralia and Winlock, internet service provider Althea is looking to expand its footprint to Rochester by the end of summer.
Althea developed an open-market, revenue-sharing system intending to provide people in rural areas with affordable internet they couldn't otherwise access.
The idea came about in 2017 when Althea founder and CEO Deborah Simpier was running a computer business out of Clatskanie, Oregon.
Simpier said she was frustrated with the lack of reliable and affordable internet in her small hamlet, so she decided to do something about it.
Along with co-founders Justin Kilpatrick and Stephen Shumaker, Simpier analyzed how mainline internet providers work together to use internet infrastructure to serve their customers.
Internet traffic in cities is routed through what are called internet exchanges, and there's a room in these exchanges where all the service providers come together.
At internet exchanges, carriers open up the full capacity of the fiber to share between companies. Each mainline carrier pays to use each other's infrastructure to provide as much service as possible to the areas they serve while maximizing their profits by charging each other less for the infrastructure than they do the customers.
"They don't charge each other monthly subscription fees," Simpier said. "They're not charging a monthly fee where if you go over, it's more, or there's a bundle — no. When they charge each other, they charge it as just infrastructure, and they charge it based on bandwidth as a commodity."
Basically, carriers charge each other for open use of their infrastructure's available bandwidth used per gigabyte, with no other subscription costs to maximize profits for the carriers.
What Althea does is charge a fee to keep the service local, but other than that, it charges a flat per-gigabyte fee to its customers, the same way carriers do for each other. Instead of carriers maximizing profits by charging each other the lower non-subscription rates, Althea's customers maximize their savings by simply paying per gigabyte instead of through traditional subscriptions, Simpier said.
To be able to offer this, Althea integrates into the community it serves through either acquiring existing infrastructure or building new infrastructure.
In rural areas, Althea connects with local businesses and homeowners to install equipment on their roofs or use their existing fiber to create a network for all the customer base to use. These network hosts of infrastructure get paid an automatic revenue share for being part of the network.
"If you have a piece of fiber in the network, or you are hosting an antenna, you are going to get a piece of that back, a revenue share — a bit like energy panels that you put up and you put energy back up into the grid, then you get a little bit of credit back," Simpier said.
In Centralia, Althea kicked off service in September 2021 by purchasing the old Breeze internet infrastructure, attaching the Althea firmware to it and then networking with the community to leverage other network add-ons hosted by individuals such as those who join the network with an antenna.
The firmware protocol Althea adds to the infrastructure determines how much a given piece of infrastructures like an antenna or fiber is used by its customers, and the in-network hosts of the given antenna or fiber get revenue sharing back for the use of their piece of the infrastructure.
With Althea hoping to expand to Rochester, it would hope to add infrastructure hosts to its network of infrastructure to provide the service there and also give those hosts revenue sharing.
Althea is also going to speak with local tribes to see if they want to expand services with the carrier, Simpier said.
"Another thing that's cool about what we do is we have an 'always on free' tier," Simpier said. "So if you are an Althea customer, or you have an Althea (infrastructure) on your home, you are always going to have a basic level of service even if you can't pay."
Most families pay about $40 a month after the $20 fee to keep the customer service for the internet local, Simpier said.
And businesses also pay the flat per-gigabyte fee.
"Businesses ... can benefit from much lower costs," Simpier said. "We have found that, like with Comcast and some of the bigger telcos, they charge a premium for the same service, just because you're a business. Post-COVID, our small-town businesses need all the help they can get."
The service is prepaid and pay-as-you-go, so a customer loads up money on their account, and then the money is used up as the customer uses the internet.
The service also offers a "price-aware-routing protocol," which moves the internet traffic a customer uses through the network based on if they want cheaper or higher-quality internet. Customers can toggle the service on or off, so if they need higher quality internet for a time, they can get that, or they can opt to have lower quality at a lower price.
Althea also has plans to expand its services.
"Right now, there's a lot of fixed infrastructure that we are building with wireless or with fiber, like broadband to the home. But the next phase is looking at the existing infrastructure that can be used for mobile networks. So we're really trying to look at building out the stack to be your internet for your phone, too," Simpier said.
"I run a multinational business, an international business, from a Clatskanie, all on Althea internet," Simpier said. "I think that's a testament to what Althea is capable of."