“There’s something wrong with the Internet,” I said, then rebooted and watched as it continued to slog along at less than 1Mbps down and around .65Mbps up.

We were tired of asking, “Will this page ever load?” I called tech support for my Internet service provider (ISP). The technicians were really positive and above all cheerful. Lines were checked. I was “escalated” two times until the diagnosis was, “Well, it looks like your router/modem has failed.”

It was over a year old — beyond its warranty — the final authority decided, then suggested I go to Best Buy, “and be sure the modem is compatible with our service.”

I was sure the new gear would get me on track and speedtest.net would be the promised 3Mbps down and 1Mbps up, thus making our speeds only slightly slower than Trinidad.

I rebooted — sludge, the gantlet of help desks and then, “Oh, the problem must be on our end. If things don’t improve in a few days, please call back and use this numeric identifier.” Things got better, but still not as good as Tajikistan — no, really.

I began a search for a new service provider, amazed by how each service made the same claims and had very similar packages. I saw an article in MissionLoc@l about these two guys and their curious company, MonkeyBrains. They had just added wireless Internet to the CoLo service they offer the Mission.

What did I have to lose? Their website explained how to get into the installation queue, but carefully noted that Alex Menendez, who co-founded the company with Rudy Rucker in 1998, was on his honeymoon, so installations would be delayed a week or so. I called my new lucky number, 415-974-1313. The answering voice announced, “MonkeyBrains Worldwide.” I knew I had found my people.

Anders arrived for the installation on a bicycle with a little trailer. We scurried up to the roof and clamped a tiny antenna to one of the vent stacks. He directed it toward “the green house over there.” The CAT5 lead was carefully tethered as it dropped down to enter the building in the tradesman’s passage. That is where I had terminated a CAT5 lead for each of the five units in our building.

Anders retrieved a small weatherproof box from his bike trailer. It had an eight-port Ethernet switch. The POE injector was placed in my flat. Everything was energized and the whole building was plugged into the switch. The install was complete. There were no proprietary devices — evidently a little UNIX box inside the antenna provided the plug-and-play hose from which we all were drinking.

Our speeds zipped up to 29Mbps down and 18Mbps up, much faster than any service offered by any of the other ISPs, regardless of package, bundle or promotion.

I asked Rucker, one of the founders, what kind of residential packages MonkeyBrains offers. “It’s simple,” he said. “Use the monkey, pay the monkey. If you don’t like the monkey, thanks for visiting.” Then he informed us that the first few months would be free as they refined the system. “If you have a problem, call us. If we don’t answer right away, we’re probably working on it.” He was right, and I couldn’t believe it. MonkeyBrains was simple, straightforward and lightning fast.

Since we began using the service a year and a half ago, its quality and reliability has continually improved. For example, our transfer speed had slowed as more users journeyed the same pathway to our access point. The connection bogged down, especially in the evenings. By the way, the rates were still four times greater than my old provider’s.

Next thing we knew, the MonkeyBrains guys wanted access to the roof to install new gear. The speed popped up to levels much faster than ever before. The most recent upgrade, for which we paid extra, is providing an unbelievable 92Mbps down and 75Mbps up.

Even when our community is in full flux, the speeds are 75Mbps down and 64Mbps up, with a 2-4 ms ping. The world leader is Japan, with average speeds of 61Mbps at a cost of $.27/Mbps. For us, MonkeyBrains is on average 80Mbps, divided into $35/month — a very competitive $.44/Mbps. The average cost for the United States is $3.33/Mbps, with an average speed of 4.8Mbps.

Internet speed gets kicked around a lot, but suffice it to say, our old speeds, which were slower than Jamaica, were a long way from jamming.

Equally amazing is the speed with which the performance of the hardware has improved. We currently use a four-eyed multiplexing infrared laser to hop to fiber. We shared the extra installation costs with MonkeyBrains. They have a rule of thumb: First make it. If you can’t make it, buy it used but fully refurbished. If that doesn’t work, find a deal on the latest technology, beta if possible.

The new laser link is the junior version and only yields 100Mbps. Its big brother spews gigabit performance. Junior easily outruns my wireless router while simultaneously provisioning four other access points in the Mission. I love the accuracy of the laser, too. Four pencil-thin beams of invisible light bridge the lasers to our fiber optic node. The beam’s accuracy is so good that the two units automatically track each other to compensate for things like building deformation due to heat.

The latest tool in the MonkeyBrains toolkit is a 60GHz “fiber through the air” antenna from Athena Wireless. It is about 8 inches square and is capable of gigabit performance as well. That is about as good as it gets, unless you have fiber to the house. You guessed it, MonkeyBrains is pleading with the city to get permission to microtrench fiber to houses in the Mission.

Equally amazing is the fact that all the stuff on our roof now — laser link to fiber, high bandwidth radio backup, APC and four links to other access points in the south Mission community — together use less electricity than a 150-watt light bulb. The energy saving comes from very sensitive low-power devices. Each must have an unobstructed view of its mate. The line-of-sight requirement allows the signal to be soft, since the lobe cannot functionally penetrate walls, roofs and vegetation. The antenna encrypts the signal, which is subsequently encrypted again when each unit’s router distributes the feed.

Amid all the amazing technical stuff is the neatest business model ever. Perhaps MonkeyBrains is a harbinger of the future. Imagine paying for a service without any confusing plans, bundles, linkages or complex contracts.

Ponder, if you will, that this company hasn’t taken a dime of government or venture capital money. MonkeyBrains does all its magic with a staff of four. It has been cash positive from day one and charges exceptionally competitive rates. Nobody working there is subject to the president’s new tax proposal, but everyone is having more fun than they ever imagined.

As I wrote this story I asked Rucker, a MonkeyBrains founder, to review it. I told him that I didn’t want to reveal competitive details or technical secrets. “Don’t worry,” he replied, “because we don’t compete and have no secrets.” Perhaps monkey business is just plain good business.

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George Lipp

George Lipp has long lived in the Mission. He’s our volunteer extraordinaire – always out taking photos or running across crimes in progress.

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  1. I’ve tried to sign up a few times and just did again. I’m at 12th and Howard and hope they can service me, I’d love to try out wireless!