HughesNet recently launched a next generation satellite to provide high-speed Internet service to rural America, matching a step taken in January by its rival Exede, which is owned by ViaSat. Both companies say their new services are nothing like the old satellite-delivered broadband.
I admit I was a skeptic. Having lived in rural Northumberland County, Va., for the last ten years, I have tried just about everything to keep pace with the Internet as it has required more and more speed.
In the early- to mid-2000s I tried both HughesNet and Wild Blue, also owned by ViaSat, and found them totally inadequate. For the last few years I have relied on Verizon Wireless' old Mobile Broadband service (now HotSpot) for Internet service at home.
Just getting by
There were many challenges. First, it's a measured plan with only 5 GB of data per month. That meant careful monitoring on my usage. Watching a movie was out of the question, but not just because of the data it would consume. The 3G speed just wasn't conducive to watching streaming video.
I was also three and a half miles from the nearest Verizon tower so my signal was marginal. With a booster antenna installed in the attic I could usually get close to 1 mps download.
But then smartphones came along and suddenly the demands on the network rapidly increased. On a good day my download speed was .6 mps and the congestion on the network meant pages would often time out before they loaded.
While my urban colleagues long ago upgraded their DSL connections to FiOS, to me DSL was only a dream. Half of Northumberland County is served by Verizon switching stations still using analog equipment. Despite repeated appeals from county officials, Verizon has declined to upgrade its system.
So last month, when I interviewed Lisa Scalpone, VP Marketing for ViaSat, I was intrigued when she said the new satellite system was nothing like the old ones. Because Exede was the same price I was paying for Verizon Wireless, and I would get 10 GB of data per month instead of 5, I decided to give it a try.
The system was installed on October 20. The installer appeared knowledgeable and competent, properly siting the dish, setting up the system and making sure each computer in the house was connected.
After using the system for a few weeks, I have to say I am impressed, with a couple of caveats. The advertised download speed is 12 mps. Scalpone said I could expect it to actually be slightly higher. In fact, it's something less. Not enough to notice, but less than advertised.
When measured by the Speakeasy.net speed test, the download speed was 10.21 mps with an upload rate of 2.09 mps. When measured using SpeedTest.net, the download speed was only 6.79 with an upload rate of 2.94 mps. The "ping rate," the response time from my computer to the server, is 724. A normal DSL connection has a ping rate of about 40. The higher the number, the longer the delay.
And that gets to the real meat of the argument against satellite broadband, the "latency," or lag between the time you click on a link and the time the page begins to load on your computer. On the old systems latency was seen as a huge problem. But Scalpone says latency was not responsible for consumers' frustrating delays; congestion on the satellite was. That has been rectified, she says, with a bigger, faster satellite.
Latency is still there, of course, because you really can't do anything about the distance between your dish and the satellite in earth orbit. Scalpone said the delay should only be a half-second. We have found it to be more like three to four seconds. While that's slightly annoying, it's easily overlooked because, once the page begins to load, it's extremely fast. Video plays with no buffering.
The system also seems very stable. In the short time we have had Exede there have been no outages or dropouts. The service was even rock solid during Hurricane Sandy.
The satellite providers will tell you that the service might not be right for everyone. The latency issue makes online gaming problematic and Skype or other Internet phone service is a no-go. If you are an extremely heavy user, you might need to pay more for a larger data package. But for the average user, 10 GB should be ample.
I have an office in nearby Richmond, Va., where I have access to DSL Internet. As I have used the two systems over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to compare them.
Compares favorably to DSL
The DSL system provides a consistent 5 mps download speed. Because of its low latency, it seems a little bit faster. It also provides for unlimited data and is about $10 a month cheaper.
For those reasons, if I had access to DSL, I would probably choose that. The fact is, however, I don't have that choice at my rural digs and the new generation of satellite-delivered Internet gives me -- and the rest of rural America -- an option to catch up with our urban peers. And a pretty good option, at that, and it's available right now, not in a few years.
For policymakers trying to find ways to expand broadband service to rural America, the new satellite systems are something that deserve close attention. Satellite broadband requires no infrastructure investment, beyond a dish, and could be a reasonable alternative to huge taxpayer subsidies to major telecommunications companies.