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June 07, 2006

Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To

The good news is that satellite access is available everywhere in the contiguous 48 states and is fine for email and modest downloading and adequate for web browsing. Satellite access used to require a phone line for its uplink but it doesn’t anymore.  You are always connected as with DSL and cable.

The bad news is that it is expensive to install and use, doesn’t work with VoIP, restricts monthly data volumes in both directions, and is annoying with some websites. 

It won’t be anyone’s first choice for broadband access except where it is the only choice.  Unfortunately, satellite access is the only broadband option in much too much of Vermont.  I’ll save the rant about why that is and how it might be fixed for later.  This post is a preliminary review of the satellite access we just installed at our summer house on the Lake Champlain Islands where there is no cable or DSL service.

The service we bought is from WildBlue.  A generally favorable review by Timothy Palmer-Benson on the Scenes of Vermont website convinced me to go with WildBlue.  The major provider of satellite access is HughesNet (formerly DirecWay). Plans aren’t apples-to-apples but WildBlue seems to be a little cheaper and has a different policy on usage.

The services work by installing a two-way antenna somewhere that can see a geostationary satellite in the southern sky.  The dish is somewhat larger than the receive-only dish you would get for satellite TV.  The dish attaches to a special modem in your house or office and you attach your computer or WiFi hub to the modem with a standard RJ-45 cable.  Obviously power is required for it to work.

Self-installation is not available but both companies are now running specials which amount to free installation with a minimum commitment to one year service. However, you have to buy the disk which costs $299.  I called  local dealer Satellite One in Charlotte, Vt late last week and had no problem scheduling installation for the following Monday.  The installer came on time for the appointment and was pleasant and competent.

The plan I ordered is $69.95/month with a download speed of “up to” 1.0 Mbps and an upload of 200kbps – a little better than DSL in this respect.  There is a $49.95 plan with 512Kbps down and 128Kbps up and a $79.95 plan with 1.5 MbPs up and 256Kbps down. The most expensive plan also includes dialup access which is $7.95/month if purchased separately. All plans include 5 email accounts and 10 megs of web space.

Because the service uses satellite, I know there will be problems during heavy precipitation but don’t know yet how severe and how frequent.  Because the satellites are geostationary (always above the same point on the equator so that a fixed dish can point at them), over two tenths of  a second of delay (latency) afflicts every packet in each direction.

Explanation: geostationary satellites have to be about 22,000 miles above the earth so that their orbital speed keeps them above the same spot.  You may remember that light and radio waves travel at approximately 186,282 miles per hour through a vacuum.  That means that over 200 milliseconds or two tenths of a second of delay to get up and down.  This is a  law of nature and is unlikely to be “fixed” although different more expensive satellite technology using low orbiting satellites avoids the problem.

The latency doesn’t matter for email or downloads.  The packets are in a stream and the fact that it takes a fraction of a second for the first one to arrive is not significant.  But, if you are browsing a complex website in which the imaging of each page requires many back and forth transmissions between your computer and the host, the fractions of a second add up to slow screen draws and annoyance. Although nominally as fast as DSL, latency makes the service inferior.

This latency means you would lose any computer games which require fast response: the aliens’ll zap you before you can zap them.  The latency also would severely degrade the quality of VoIP.  I say “would” because, in a quick test, I couldn’t get Skype to connect at all over WildBlue which surprised me.  Could WildBlue be blocking?  I don’t know but will let you know if I find out and would appreciate a comment if you know more than me about this.

Last annoying thing about satellite is the “fair access” policy.  It IS fairly spelled out and prominent at WildBlue so you know what you’re getting.  On the plan we subscribe to, we are entitled to upload 3 billion bytes and download 12 billion bytes in any thirty day period.  If we exceed that, we get throttled back to near dialup speeds until we are in compliance.

This is probably a reasonable amount unless you are doing peer-to-peer anything sharing, running a major server, upstreaming a video camera, or downloading full videos (they give all these examples). The HughesNet fair use policy prohibits more than 169 meg in any four hour period (225 meg offpeak).

Only used the service for one day before I had to leave the Lake so will report more if there’s more to report.

I previously posted about our ersatz arrangement for broadband access in Stowe.

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