Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Satellite Broadband–Only For The Lonely

If you are too far off the beaten path and need something better than dial-up just about your only option is broadband via satellite.  That is my issue living out in the country on property my grandfather purchased and farmed 80 years ago.  And it's not a very good option either due largely to inconsistent performance issues and frankly, is only for people that need the speed and need to keep up with things.  I got it because I needed the speed for uploading my stock photos to various agencies I sell through.  What follows is my experiences with one provider, Wildblue, over a 6-year period.

The Set Up
Hopefully the installer will do a good job or else you'll get off to a glitchy start.  Fundamentally, it all works as advertised.  Until stuff happens.  One thing is weather.  A dark cloud and and sometimes even a moderate rain can lose the lock.  As the storm passes it will reacquire the signal.  However, another problem is the central gateway, located elsewhere around the country can lose the lock for you if they have weather problems in their location.  Since I am on beam 45, my gateway is Lorado, Texas.  A storm front there and here I am here in Florida with a cloudless sky and there goes my internet.

Sometimes the net will slow to a crawl.  I don't know what causes it other than a network issue on Wildblue's end but I have a fix for it.  To reboot the modem.  And how do you reboot a satellite modem?  Pull the plug out of the socket, wait a fe minutes and plug it back in.  Hows that for hi-tech?  Nothing like living in a modern age, huh?  Apparently, the engineers thought the satellite lock would be so solid as to rarely get lost.  So there is no on/off switch or reset button.  The trouble is a loss of the lock happens so often, plus other glitches that might occur, that the unplugging and plugging is almost a daily occurrence.  It gets old quick.  I solved some of this frustration by getting separate, dedicated, power strip.  It's got an on/off switch on it.  Imagine that!

Anyway, it works for most matters.  The service goes through phases of being spot-on and running rock-solid and other periods of utter frustration, poor quality and ineptitude.  One day recently I had to reboot the modem 5 times.  The next day, none.  The problems encountered are everything from pages not loading with a host of error messages (101, 103, 105...) with are mostly network related; slow loading of pages, pages with most of the graphics missing and pages that never load.  I've seen the satellite lock lost in a heavy downpour and at other times staying connected through the worst of rain squalls.  Anything and all conditions are possible.  I've seen it all including equipment failure requiring a modem and parts replacement.

On the other hand, my satellite TV and radio work so much better than satellite broadband.  A recent tropical storm which featured 5 days of rain, the TV only lost lock once and the XM radio, never.  In my experience both are light years ahead in terms of quality and reliance.

FAP, the Fair Access Policy.  The was instituted so overuse of the bandwidth would slow down the speed for everybody.  A good idea in theory but it's like a death sentence hanging over one's head.  Will just one more download from iTunes do me in?  It's done as a rolling 30-day usage which I've never understood but I think it reflects what the usage was thirty days previously.  It’s a confusing method of calculation and I never know where I stand with it.  Some people have called it a “magic formula” and that is basically correct.  A competitor, HughesNet, has limits but loosens them up for late-night unlimited downloading from 1-6 AM, EST.  (Also, basic service is $10 cheaper per month and use KU BAND service for access during bad weather.)

(A word to Mac users, it might be wise to turn off the automatic downloading of software updates, no matter how important this feature is because your data usage can expand quickly out of control.  Especially if more than one Mac is on the pipeline.)

I've been FAP'd twice before.  Once you get past your 75% data threshold your speed is cut.  The first time I was uploading too many video clips to one of my online stock photo sites.  When this happens they back your speed off to dialup speeds.  I admit it was my own fault for not paying attention to my usage.  However, when Wildblue sent me the email that I was being FAP’d, they stated that since I had violated their policy I was being "punished."  Yes, they actually use the word "punished" in the email they sent me.  Imagine saying such a thing to a customer that is paying $50 a month for your service!  They don’t do that anymore because at this writing, I’ve got my FAP notice again.  Apparently, that 1.3 gig Mac OS updated did it plus a few other updates.  This second time has been the worst as they backed me so far off that most web sites would not load at all.  I got a host of 101, 103, 105 and 107 error codes.  The first time I could at least load a page.  This time virtually nothing.  It was as if I was placed in a sub dial-up mode.  Even my Earthlink dial-up, which I had to use during this time was faster and more reliable than this Wildblue slow-down.  I can understand lowering the data rate but this just about shuts off all web access.  Pretty nasty and uncalled for.

Regardless, it can take a few days to a week to get regular rates back up to normal again.

6 Years On
Nothing about the quality of satellite broadband service has ever gotten any better in quality over the past 6 years.  It's as glitchy as it ever was.  Signal drop-outs are common and nothing much has been done to correct this and other issues associated with the service.  It's all stuck back in time.  I've maintained a dial-up account with Earthlink and I'm glad I did as I've had to use it many times.  It's ironic that the old fashioned dial-up is so reliable–slow but reliable.  The Fair Access Policy has changed little over the years except to rename it a DAP–Data Allowance Police.  allowing users more leeway in managing it, or for that matter, understanding it.  At least the monthly service charge has remained the same. I’ve read that Wildblue has a newer faster system but that require a new dish and modem called Excede.  I doubt I will be spending any more money with them in the future and if you read the customer comments on Wildblue’s forum (http://wildblueworld.com/forum/) you will not find very many happy users there and it’s a classic tale of the pioneers getting all the arrows, or in this case, glitches.

Finally, 3G is in available in my area now and it's the next phase for me.  I haven't tried it yet but I have read the speed is much better and the basic service cost for broadband with Verizon is just $30 a month.  It’s a two year commitment though.  It has a FAP but your speeds are not reduced for going over your monthly allotment.  Instead, the user is just charged more per data packet.

So if you are far out in the boonies and need internet access faster than dial-up just remember what I've written here and what you can expect to deal with.  Your milage may vary of course, but be prepared with a back up dial-up account and a separate power strip.

Addendum  7.3.12
Did make the leap to Verizon 3G via Mobile Hotspot wi-fi.  It's awesome!  Way faster than Wildblue's basic service, no dropouts and it works when it's raining.  Lightning fast! Youtube video's run steady with no stop and starts.  Pages rip down in seconds. Verizon has a package deal for the Interent and wi-fi phone for around $69.95 a month.  Highly recommended for all folks living out in the country.