Reasons Why the Word Broadband Matters: #17 Satellite is not broadband

With over 610,000 subscribers, HughesNet is the largest supplier of satellite Internet service in America. The billion dollar company that owns HughesNet is Hughes Network Systems, LLC, which routinely describes itself as "the world's leading provider of broadband satellite services." You can see this on the company website and in the company's reporting of its first quarter 2011 results.

The problem is that broadband satellite is an oxymoron. The Internet you get from a satellite is not broadband. Just ask anybody who has used both satellite and cable, DSL, or fiber. The broadband functionality that DSL/cable/fiber users take for granted just doesn't work, or doesn't work well, over satellite; we're talking core functionality like automatic software updates, VoIP, VPN, NetFlix movies, website hosting, online backup and shared cloud storage services like Dropbox.

Who says such functionality is not there? The satellite Internet companies themselves, including Hughes. This fact is made clear in a 22-page report just released by the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance. Conveniently known as RuMBA USA, this non-profit group seeks to expand the availability of affordable broadband access in rural America.

Although I recommend reading the full report (disclaimer: I wrote it) you really don't have to look any further than the HughesNet website to see what I mean when I say that...

...the word "broadband" matters. The title of the website is: "HughesNet Hi-Speed Satellite Internet Provider." And the site describes a variety of services, all of which are described as high-speed Internet. None of them are described as broadband.

Now switch to the Hughes website and you will see a video titled "Consumer Broadband: A Thriving Market" and plenty of other "broadband" messaging. So why does Hughes talk "broadband satellite" on its corporate website and "hi-speed Satellite Internet" on the HughesNet consumer site, the site that actually sells the satellite service? The answer might be as simple as "truth in advertising."

You can't really fault HughesNet for saying "Enjoy easy, convenient high-speed Internet anywhere, anytime, Get High-Speed Satellite Today!" Based on 2 out of 3 critical speed factors used to describe Internet connectivity, HughesNet satellite Internet service can perform faster than a dialup modem. Indeed, adverts for the service often stress that is it faster than dialup. Headline upload and download speeds offered by the satellite service are certainly higher than the 56Kbps at which a dialup modem maxes out.

Where satellite Internet is not faster than dialup is the time it takes for a single bit of data to get from one computer to another across the network. This is known as latency and it has a big effect on things like signing into your online account and other secure services over the Internet (basically any web page URL that starts with https://). That's because encrypted connections require a "handshake" to take place in which a lot of small pieces of information are exchanged back and forth between the web server and the web client.

You can read more about security handshakes in this 2002 USENIX security paper. But latency affects more than secure connections. The time between sending a request for a web page or a change on a web page and the time that the request reaches the server that is serving up the page is always going to be longer over satellite, about 10X longer than on a true broadband connection. See this early paper that references the problem: Data Coomunications Protocol Performance on Geo-stationary Satellite Links (Hans Kruse, Ohio University, 1996).

As Kruse states, the one-way trip for a data bit to a geo-stationary satellite takes 250 milliseconds (that's 500 for a round trip into space and back). And the laws of physics dictate you can't shorten that time, unless you can get data packets to travel faster than the speed of light. Add some ground station and Network Operations Center overhead and you get a best case satellite Internet latency of around 600ms. This might not sound like a long time but it can mean that logging into a secure site can take minutes, not seconds.

Other activities, such as a typical remote employment task like writing code, are also impacted. Consider this programmer's complaint about cable Internet being slower, at 80ms, than DSL at 20ms. Now compare that to 600ms, which is the best I've seen on satellite, where latency can average 1000ms, or 50 times slower than DSL.

So, satellite is not broadband, and that matters because the federal government has given tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to satellite companies to provide broadband service. As the Hughes Annual Report of 2010 proudly proclaims: "Hughes Wins $58.7 Million Under U.S. Recovery Act Broadband Program." Except it just isn't broadband.

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