Why Hughesnet Looked Better than Starband and Wild Blue
(And how EVDO won out in the end) - by Dan D.
This article is about how to choose a satellite provider, which turns out to be more complicated than I expected. It will be revised as I find more dark secrets buried under the dank rocks of the industry. As I started writing this, I was suffering through 128kbps ISDN. It was faster than dial-up, but the service was temperamental at best and the Cisco 804 router I used was anything but user-friendly. And I was forced to deal with Verizon, the hell-spawn of all telcos. Oh, and it was expensive too. However, I was tempted to stick with it. Read on...
I'd been thinking about satellite internet access for a long time. Rumors of "not ready for prime time" and whatnot caused me to steer clear from considering it seriously. Oh, and it's expensive too. Or is it?
Satellite pricing has ventured toward the affordable recently. Packages can be had for as little as $50 per month. Not cheap, but not in the realm of purchasing a vacation home either. So I'd been thinking more seriously about the satellite upgrade. It's the only near-broadband option for people who live in true BFE. (If you don't know where BFE is, it's safe to say you don't live there.)
I own a chunk of an ISP, and I worked there for almost a decade, so there're my credentials. I'm sure there are more knowledgeable consumers out there, but I think I do an OK job, especially with this IT stuff. So I want a faster connection...
Take What they Tell you with a Grain of Salt
Here's the rub. Much of what you'll read below pertains to information available from the major satellite providers. Though you'll see that most of them fail to communicate well, apparently things get much worse after you're "in bed" with them. Let's just say you won't be getting breakfast in bed from these guys.
Not to spoil the conclusion, but even though Hughes, unlike the other players, comes out swinging with a great bedside manner, throngs of current users complain that Hughes' service is unbearable and support is nonexistent. Apparently, once you sign up, you're locked into an agreement with no happy ending. I'm continuing my research, but what's here is still good information until that end.
Some Satellite Limitations
Satellite service necessarily sucks for certain applications. For example, the huge distance traversed causes lag, latency or put more simply, delay. The birds (lingo for satellites,) are 22,000 miles away. Your request for data (e.g. a web page,) travels that considerable distance to the bird, then back to earth to find the server with the content, which is delivered back up to the satellite, and finally, all the way back to your computer. The 88,000 mile round trip and sundry routing and processing takes about one second - not a long time, but a near-eternity in the Internet-world.
This inherent lag prevents certain activities from behaving ideally over satellite connections. There's a lot of overhead to a VPN, so those don't work well. VOIP internet telephony similarly doesn't play well. And speaking of playing, real-time networked games likewise suffer. Me? I don't do VPN, VOIP or RTS, so I'm not worried. Not that I wouldn't dabble in 'em if I had a true broadband connection, but I digress.
There are other concerns when considering a satellite provider. The "big three" by the way, are Hughes, Starband and WildBlue. They all "oversell" connections, in that if all of their customers tried to use the service simultaneously, they'd be back in the stone ages of data transfer. Passenger pigeons would suddenly seem a speedy alternative, and they're long extinct. Unfortunately, many people report having terribly slow satellite service even if they obey the FAP.
What the FAP?!
Accounting for this seemingly huge problem, providers institute a Fair Access Policy (FAP,) essentially setting a "rolling" time-frame and transfer threshold. Different sectors of IT have similar terminology to describe limitations of service. If you're familiar with Committed Information Rates (CIR) or Service Level Agreements (SLA) you'll quickly understand the gist of FAP.
FAP is important, because you're punished for violating it, and as our Internet activities and opportunities grow, so grows the potential for the average satellite user to inadvertently cross the FAP boundary into unhappiness. When you violate the FAP, your connection is throttled back to near-dial-up speeds for anywhere from four hours to several weeks while your connection "recovers." If your criteria is, "How much can I download in a day?" Hughes had the best FAP but things changed in 2007.
The basic/starting Hughes package (called "Home" @ $60/month) allows you to download up to 200mb of data within 24 hours. (In late 2006 their FAP allowed about five times as much transfer.) Determining the FAP limits can be a painful ordeal at best. Give it a shot. Good luck! Some (Wild Blue) have rolling, month-long FAP limits, meaning that if you go over your limit in the first day, you'll spend the next 30 days suffering. Hughes used to best the competition, in some cases by almost a factor of ten, but the field is now more level. Some people will tell you that FAP doesn't matter because speed sucks all of the time.
Nonetheless, keep FAP in mind when talking to providers. If you do P2P file sharing or regularly download huge files, FAP will bite you in no time, especially if you hook more than one computer to the connection. Additionally, most providers allow you to increase your FAP limit for an additional $10 to $30/month under the guise of "Pro" or "advanced" services.
Hughes, WildBlue, Starband Satellite Speed
The other guys start out at only $50/month, but if we're to believe the sales-pitch promises, it's just not worth it. In addition to their stodgy FAPs, their peak speeds are similarly sub-par. Hughes Home tops out at 700kbps, a hearty 25% bump over the other guys' 512kbps entry-level service peak speeds. And upgrading to Hughes' Pro service similarly kicks the peak speed over 1000kbps. Keep in mind that these speeds I'm mentioning are fairy-land download speeds. There's another limitation of satellite, all providers' basic services allow only 128kbps upload speeds, and upgrading your service level does little if anything to increase this facet. Most people don't need faster upload speeds, but if you do, satellite might not be the answer, unless you have deep pockets.
Another thing to remember about speeds, is that the numbers listed are only the bright side, and you'll spend some time in the shadows, a lot of time if we believe users' experiences over the marketing mumbo-jumbo. When many users are suckling the satellite teat, your speeds will be slower, but that's true with almost all consumer grade services (e.g. cable and DSL too.) The overselling is more evident with satellite service though, because the "pipe" is smaller to begin with and upgrades (new birds) are rare and crazy-expensive. Some users report being able to seldom reach even 10% of their maximum speed - pretty slow territory, so in this case, don't plan on curling up to watch movies online.
Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) is the industry's annoying way of describing the gear (satellite dish, modem, etc.) behind the ever-costly installation/activation fees. Most providers will offer "promotional" deals, allowing you to spread out the heady CPE fees over many months. But do the quick math and you'll find that you always end up spending a few hundred extra bucks on these "promos."
Installing a satellite dish is not something the average consumer can do alone. They'll send a technician/contractor to your house to set it up. Depending on the weather and some other factors, the installer usually shows up a few days after you place an order. Expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $1200 for the CPE and install. As of this writing, Hughes does well in this battle too, $400 after rebate.
Communicating with Satellite Companies
So it might seem like I've got a brown nose from kissing Hughes' hindquarters... but that's the way it is. The competitors are lousy communicators. For the past several months WildBlue's site informs me that, "...we are not currently performing installations in your area..." and then asks me to fill out a form expressing interest in their service. I did. Days later, a local electric co-op sent me some bush league WildBlue information in a brochure. It was neither reassuring nor helpful. WB needs a new sales/marketing VP for sure. Even if it's the white coats in IT sinking the boat, somebody can put a nice coat of paint on it. To make matters worse, Wild Blue kept teasing me with emails indicating I could now purchase their service. Phone calls and time wasted always proved those claims to be premature. Annoying.
Starband is even worse at the communication game. If it was an elimination tournament, they'd've been kicked off the island first. As their site lacked critical information, I called their sales number on a Saturday afternoon. They told me to call back during "sales hours" and then neglected to tell me what they were. I emailed them and told them that even outsourcing is a better option that the two-bit non-sales effort they have going on. Oh, and I asked them for info on their services. They responded, but poorly. They passed the buck to a friendly but under-informed affiliate/reseller in my area. Starband does not provide their resellers with the ammo to close the deal.
Getting pertinent info from Hughes was easy. Their Internet and phone bedside manner was great. Regardless, I eventually obtained the necessary info (FAP, pricing, policies, etc.) from all parties and Hughes trumped the others. Speaking of others, there are indeed other players in the satellite Internet service game. Although Unasat recently went belly-up, Ground Control and iDirect are examples, but you likely need not worry about them unless you're in a niche demographic, e.g. RV or corporate/enterprise.
Alternatives and Epilogue
The short answer is, satellite internet service might suck even more than dial-up, especially if you add the cost-factor. And for some people, satellite and dial-up are the only options. I'd considered sticking with my ISDN connection but then got satellite. I've now traded up to EVDO and I'm really happy with it.
If you're in an area with decent cell/mobile phone coverage, some providers offer broadband EVDO services that are often a better deal than satellite. AllTel, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and others offer broadband from the same towers that deliver wireless phone service. If you live in a cell dead zone (like me,) you might need an inexpensive EVDO antenna to get service.
I posted this article on a forum and I've received some great feedback that led to HUGE revisions. Please read the thread. I've also added two more pages chock full of info one for satellite information and one for EVDO. Please read it! I can answer a question or two if you want. (Just use the link at the bottom of the uncool index page.) Thanks for reading.
Dan Dreifort is a writer, consultant, musician and an IT/marketing/SEO/usability geek. He plays 34 instruments, enjoys international travel, wears size 10.5 shoes and has a 32" waist. Friends called him 'Duck' in high school. His mother calls him 'wonderful.'
Hughesnet, Starband, Wild Blue and EVDO / 3G wireless internet