Friday, February 8, 2008

Satellite Internet: When broadband isn't

For millions of Americans today the Internet is not what it could be, or should be. While they can watch television adverts show depicting an Internet rich in video, streaming media, and cheap phone calls, the virtual reality for many rural Americans is virtually dead. They are still on dialup. They have no broadband.

Despite the fact that big, fat, high-speed pipes criss-cross rural America to deliver thick, juicy broadband to major metropolitan areas, the locals too often lack a steak in this pie (sorry about the twisted allusions, but these folks that are being short-changed raise the steaks and many of the ingredients for our pies).

Sadly, as urban Internet access speeds soar beyond 1 Megabits per second on stable, 7x24 connections, for under $30 a month, too many country folk are still measuring their web page load times in minutes and their access speeds in baud rates. They can't telecommute over intranets. They can't get Vonage or any other VoIP.

Baud rates? You remember baud rates. Back in the eighties we went from 300 baud to 1200 and then we started talking bit rates, like 19,200 bits per second or 19.2Kbps (the difference between bauds and bit rates being somewhat symbolic, nudge, nudge). Then came the nineties. That's where a lot of people out in the country on dialup still reside, getting about 48Kbps. That's 125 times slower than the city dweller's 6 Mbps. You are not going to watch much video at 48Kbps.

So, why have our agrarian bethren been left behind, despite the fact that their stewardship of the land helps keep fiber optic lines alight? Greed, pure and simple. What profiteth it a communications company to install a switch in a valley or a village where only 300 souls reside? Apparently not enough. And whenever a state thinks about making "universal service" a prerequisite of doing communication business therein, the lobbyists come forth in great number.

Consider New York state, a prime example of a state that is essentially rural, apart from a huge great population center in the lower right. Despite Manhattan, New York State is, for the most part, farm country and timber country (and also hunting country, home to over a million deer, and more than 4,000 Black Bear.) And despite the fact that the state is criss-crossed by broadband infrastructure to feed Manhattan and the other high density population centers, a lot of farms and rural residences do not have broadband.

Or do they? There is one technology that can claim to deliver broadband to just about anywhere, without wires: satellite. But let me tell you folks, satellite is not broadband. It is more like broad bucket. (Note: opinions expressed herein are derived from my ongoing experience with HughesNet in upstate New York, dating back to when it was DirecPC).

Satellite Internet has serious limitations and requires some heavy lifting, not to mention a fat wallet. For a start, satellite service has daily bandwidth caps. For example, the basic $60 per month service from HughesNet caps you at 200 Megabytes per day, and cap is the right word. When you exceed the limit your connection is throttled back for about 48Kbps for 24 hours.

To put this in perspective, if you surf YouTube for half an hour while eating breakfast, then watch 20 minutes of a live webcast for work, and listen to the delicious 192k MP3 stream of Radio Paradise the rest of the day, and the day turns out to patch Tuesday, you could well be capped. Which means you are not going to be doing any of those things on Wednesday. (Oh, and that $60 per month gets you less than 1Mbs of download speed and is on top of the $300 installation charge.)

Not only that, but the latency on satellite connections can be 400 milliseconds or worse (that's the time it takes for another computer on the Internet to respond to your computer--you can see what it is on your connection by using the ping command). I'm pretty sure 400ms is one tenth of the typical latency on cable or DSL connection, and that makes some Internet activity a real chore.

Consider the sort of handshake activity that goes on in establishing secure connections. They don't use large pieces of data so the speed of the connection in terms of upload and download bit rates is not that critical, but they do involve a lot of waiting around for a response from a remote machine. Logging in to PayPal or my bank can take a long time.

You can forget Vonage or any other voice over IP over satellite. As for accessing a corporate intranet, currently the heart and soul of telecommuting and other innovations that could help rural areas attract higher income residents, well that just doesn't fly (HughesNet actually warns you about this on their web site).

So when you go to HughesNet on the web and see that the tag line is "Broadband Unbound" you have to wonder if their marketing folks have spent too long basking in front of the feedhorn ("the area between the feedhorn and the reflector should always be considered hazardous and carefully avoided," US DoT). And speaking of hardware, the satellite setup is quite a bit bigger than the one you use to get Dish Network or DirecTV).

You can see the smaller of the two models offered by Hughes at the top of this post, complete with brush marks where the accumulated snow is being swept off, snow removal being an aspect of Internet connectivity unique to satellite systems. This is the 0.74 meter dish with the 1 watt radio. For an extra $300 at time of installation and a $100 monthly charge you can get a 0.98 meter dish with 2 watt radio and increase your daily "download threshold" to 500 megabytes.

My own setup is the smaller dish but with the Professional Plus plan that gives you up to 425 megs and download speeds of up to 1.5Mbps (see the rates). That is the most you can get out of that dish-- to get more of anything I would need to pay to swap in the bigger one. You can see a snapshot of how my rig tests out at the most excellent DSL Reports site:

Note that the upload speed might be wrong due to compression used by the Hughes system (in other words it may faster than 179Kbps and closer to the rated 200Kbps).

You can see the download speed, while not 1.5Mbps, is not bad. But the latency is rough. And I am not alone. According to DSL Reports, the average speeds for Hughes users are 632Kbps up/163Kbps down (based on 146 samples in the last 14 days--but not adjusted for the differing levels of service).

So, am I just a curmudgeonly old geek for insisting that broadband be defined as constantly flowing, virtually unlimited Internet access that supports intranet access and all-day music feeds? I must admit I have a herniated disc at the moment and can get pretty cranky, but I am not alone in my opinion. HughesNet has been reviewed 713 times at DSL Reports and they break 138 positive, 345 negative. Ironically, Hughes has not been bad in terms of service and support. (And I should mention that they provide a 3 hour window for unlimited downloads: 3AM to 6AM.)

As a geek I am still tickled to think that what I type into this window gets blasted into outer space on its way to you. But I am troubled by two things. First, getting a system like this to work, or fixing it when it is doesn't, is too close to being a black art for me to feel I can rely on this type of connection (dig around in the forums and you'll see what I mean). Second, the big telcos, through their lobbyists, are using the existence of satellite Internet as a way to cop out of providing true broadband to rural America. Of this, more in a later post. I have to go do some snow removal.

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