Friday, December 15

Satellite Internet: Don't Bother

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Often one of the most frustrating things about living or moving to a rural area is the fact that more often than not there is virtually no broadband internet service to speak of. Many of those rural areas give lip-service to getting broadband soon, but the reality is that those same areas usually have corporate liaisons on whatever committee is supposed to work on getting high-speed internet to the area. What this means for the average internet subscriber is that their choices will be limited to dialup, a wireless data plan, or satellite internet. 

Problems

Of the three, satellite is usually what heavier internet users pick as dialup is slow, and wireless data plans have draconian limits on monthly usage. What most don’t realize is that satellite internet providers have the same types of policies – except customers aren’t charged a per megabyte fee for exceeding the daily or monthly download limit. Their connection is merely slowed (throttled back) to a dialup-like speed or slower until the next cycle. This is usually called a Fair Usage Policy (FUP) which is supposed to keep usage fair between customers, and to discourage online piracy (downloading and uploading copyrighted media).

HughesNet, for example, has internet plans which range from a 200 MB (megabyte) per day download limit for 39.99 to 500 MB per day for 329.99. The only real differences in the various plans are the download (1 Mbps to 5 Mbps) and upload (128 Kbps to 300 Kbps) speeds. However, if the daily limit is exceeded HughesNet throttles the speeds back to 56 Kbps for twenty-four hours. Other satellite providers have weekly to monthly download limits.

Another aspect which makes satellite unattractive, just like most wireless internet service providers (WISPs), is that they require a 12 to 24 month service contract. That means, no matter what, customers are stuck with the plan for the duration of the contract – even if they don’t use the service. Some providers allow for early termination, but require a fee which usually comes to just about what the plan would have cost to keep it until the contract runs out.

Unlike most WISPs, many satellite internet companies also charge for the setup and equipment needed. This can range from 49.00 (Skyway) to 299.99 (HughesNet and Starband). What the satellite providers don’t tell customers is that the installer is usually an independent contractor. They are paid a fee for the minimum – attaching the dish to the house, running the cables from the dish to the modem inside the house, and setting up the modem. So if the customer wants a pole in the yard instead of putting the dish on the house, for example, the setup technician will charge an additional one to two-hundred dollars. Sometimes there are too many obstructions, and the technician will have to run several hundred feet of cable out to a pole where the dish will get a good signal. This will run in excess of five hundred dollars – payable at the time of installation.

Solutions

There are very few answers when it comes to deciding on satellite or another means of access to the internet. Most customers who choose satellite usually do so because there is no other option – at least not one immediately available because of costs and FUP’s. There just aren’t any unlimited data plans out there for rural areas. However, there are some plans coming to the market.

WiMAX is a relative newcomer to the broadband scene. While previously it was limited to around the 2.3 to 3.5 GHz (gigahertz) range, it is now using analog TV frequencies since TV has gone completely digital. It operates with an antenna, and is similar to wireless 802.11 wireless technologies – except that with its 802.16 protocols devices using it must be within rane of a base station. So far only Sprint Nextel and Clearwire have widespread coverage – what they’re calling their 4G networks.

Virgin Mobile had an unlimited wireless data plan. Their plan was set at 40.00 per month with no long term service contract. Customers needed only to buy the USB data card or Mifi 2200 wireless hotspot device, set it up and pay. The speeds were roughly on par with DSL (600 Kbps to 1.6 Mbps) in areas of lower coverage. Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint network’s towers, and was a great alternative for those who are within Sprint’s coverage area – which is greater than their phone coverage area. Unfortunately, starting in Febuary of 2011 Virgin mobile changed their usage limits. Virgin Mobile now has a 5GB monthly limit. Once that threshold is met, users will be slowed down to dialup or slower speeds. The plan is still 40.00 per month, but paying the 150.00 for the device, and purchasing the “unlimited” monthly plan isn’t worth it for users who do more than check email.

There are also more and more local providers popping up in rural areas. Many of these are line of sight – meaning that their equipment must be placed directly within the line of sight of their tower. Much like satellite, the equipment must be placed and aligned to get a decent signal. Unlike satellite, most of the providers don’t have FUP’s. Some providers even have equipment that will relay the signal through other customer’s equipment, much like a wireless access point (WAP) to increase signal strength for a wider area.

No matter which choice is made it is clear that satellite internet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For high-usage customers, dialup is probably a better option until a better alternative comes along. The only advantage to satellite would be if the company has a ‘free usage’ period where downloading doesn’t count against the daily or monthly limit. Even that comes second to the cost. Dialup plans are usually cheaper and require no equipment because most computers come with a built in modem.  

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