Satellite Internet Service

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2715, 2009-04-10, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 12-14) and their website.

If you live in just about any American urban or suburban area, you typically have several options for obtaining access to the Internet from your home. If you have a large amount of patience but only a small budget, you could go the cheap route and opt for dial-up service with your phone company, in which your computer's modem communicates with the phone company's servers. But dial-up is gradually disappearing, for good reason, as it can be excruciatingly slow — especially for surfing the more popular websites, which are increasingly using multimedia and Flash, which provide a richer user experience at the expense of slower performance.

Even if it forces you to dig a bit deeper in your pocketbook, choosing a broadband service — either cable or DSL — is well worth it, and these two types of Internet connectivity are the most popular in the United States, and probably in other advanced countries as well. Cable tends to be the faster of the two, but also the more expensive. The final cost of either option depends upon whether it is bundled with other services that you would have purchased anyway. In the case of cable, such additional services might include premium movie channels. In the case of DSL, they might include a long distance calling plan and caller ID. Which of the two types of broadband you choose, will determine who is your Internet service provider (ISP). That will be the extent of your freedom of choice, because each region of America appears to have just a single phone company and a single cable company.

But what if you are living in a rural area that is not serviced by any such ISP? Or you have decided to trade in your McMansion for a McRV? Would you be forced to go without access to the Internet? Imagine, no Web surfing, no online banking, and complete disconnection from everything from e-mail to eBay. (Some readers at this point may be experiencing anxiety or involuntary twitching at the thought of having to endure "Web withdrawal". Fear not. This was only a hypothetical situation, though admittedly nightmarish for some of us.)

Satellite Savior

Fortunately, there is an alternative, and it does not require a return to the dark ages of dial-up, nor a renouncement of the modern high-tech lifestyle. Commercial satellites orbiting the Earth make possible worldwide communications (such as long-distance phone calls), distribution of digital content (such as hundreds of premium television channels), and geographical positioning (such as GPS and Galileo). They also make possible satellite Internet service, which requires you to have a satellite dish for downloading and uploading data. The speeds vary from one vendor to another, as well as which service plan you choose, but the speeds are far better than dial-up, though not as good as cable or DSL.

The minimum hardware for using a satellite service is a bit more than what is required for conventional broadband: The satellite dish can range in diameter from two to three feet, and it needs to be installed in a safe location where it has a clear line of sight to the south (assuming that you are in the northern hemisphere) because the satellites that the dish will be communicating with are orbiting over the equator. Two modems are needed — one as a downlink and the other as an uplink. Lastly, the modems must be connected to the satellite dish using coaxial cables, and the modem must be connected to your computer using an Ethernet cable.

These requirements are for services that handle both the downlink and uplink through satellite transmission. Initially, some satellite ISPs only downloaded data from the satellite to the customer's dish, allowing the use of reception-only dishes, such as those used for receiving pay television. All uploaded data, including every mouse click on a Web page element, was sent from the customer's computer to the ISP using regular dial-up or broadband Internet connectivity. This makes sense if only dial-up service is available in your area, and no broadband service, because most Internet usage is primarily downloading, and the satellite downloading would be a huge improvement over dial-up downloading. But if broadband service is available in your area, requiring its use for uploading defeats the purpose of satellite Internet service: After all, if your computer is located close enough to civilization to have a DSL or cable connection, then what would be the point of paying extra for satellite service, and downloading at a slower speed?

In terms of performance, download and upload speeds for satellite Internet will not be equivalent to those of cable or DSL services, as noted earlier. Secondly, reception of the communication signals can be adversely affected by environmental factors, such as heavy rain and tree branches swaying in the wind and blocking the line of sight periodically.

Satellites Stateside

HughesNet, formally known as DIRECWAY, offers satellite Internet for residential needs directly and through dealers. As of this writing, HughesNet has six different levels of service, ranging from their Home plan to ElitePremium. The former, costing about $60 per month, has download speeds ranging from roughly 550 Kbps to 1.0 Mbps, and upload speeds ranging from 70 Kbps to 128 Kbps. Their ElitePremium plan, at about $350 per month, offers 2.7 - 5.0 Mbps and 165 - 300 Kbps, respectively. HughesNet's geographical coverage, as with most other services, is limited to the 48 contiguous United States. HughesNet provides a 30-day money-back guarantee, but that excludes the installation charges and other fees.

There are other satellite ISPs, and we will consider those in a moment, but HughesNet is one of the major players in the market — if not the largest — so let's consider how their service and pricing compares to a standard broadband service. As an example, my own current DSL plan offers download speeds of 1.5 Mbps, and upload speeds of 512 Kbps. The closest equivalent within the various HughesNet options would be their Elite plan, if we use their typical speeds, and not the maximums (which are what they somewhat deceptively list on their pricing page). Their service is almost $120 per month, versus my DSL plan at almost $25. That is a significant difference, but that is one of the downsides of living out in the sticks.

WildBlue has three different plans: Their Value package offers speeds of 512 Kbps for downloading and 128 Kbps for uploading (all speeds listed here are maximums), at almost $50 per month (their regular rate, aside from any special deals). Their Select package offers 1.0 Mbps and 200 Kbps, at almost $70 per month. Their top-of-the-line package, Pro, offers 1.5 Mbps and 256 Kbps, at almost $80 per month. WildBlue's failure to list typical usage speeds on their website, should raise a red flag for prospective customers, since there is no way to know ahead of time what your actual speeds will be.

SkyWay USA, based in Kentucky, is clearly aimed at rural America. The company has four different plans, ranging in monthly cost from almost $30 to almost $80, with listed maximum download speeds from 256 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps. As with any of the other ISPs mentioned here, there are additional installation charges, and probably government-mandated communications fees as well.

Other satellite Internet access providers in the United States include EarthLink, StarBand, and Tachyon Networks. There may be others in this country that are not as well-known, or at least do not advertise effectively. Likewise, there are probably even more that focus on other markets exclusively, such as Europe and Asia.

Surfing the Web Surfside

Skycasters covers most of the Western hemisphere, making it a better option for individuals or businesses who plan to have one or more locations in Latin America or other regions in this hemisphere. They have Platinum and Gold plans, each with half a dozen sub-plans, offering different speeds and different monthly costs. Their least expensive package, the Gold sub-plan at $149 per month, offers download/upload speeds of at least 384 Kbps / 64 Kbps. Anyone concerned about the service levels they would receive, will be interested in Skycasters's Committed Information Rate (CIR), which means that you will receive at least 110% of the stated CIR speeds at least 90% of the time — usually more than that. One difference, compared to the American-only satellite ISPs mentioned above, is that the dishes appear larger and a lot more expensive.

These differences are probably to be expected of any satellite ISP that offers coverage on more than one continent. At least when you move to the Caribbean to run your online business, you won't have to deal with the local phone and cable companies for broadband service, assuming they even support it.

So when you want to get away from it all, either in a cabin in the woods or an RV on the highways, you can still stay connected to the "information superhighway", just as long as you and your satellite dish can look up at the equatorial heavens.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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