As policymakers continue to debate how best to bring more broadband service to unserved rural areas of America, satellite providers say they deserve another look.
ViaSat Communications' Exede Internet service, which took over satellite provider WildBlue, launched a new satellite in January. HughesNet, its competitor, followed suit last month. Both companies now offer a service they say is far superior to what was offered in the past.
When WildBlue began marketing satellite Internet service in October 2004, the Internet was in an explosive period of growth, but no one knew how quickly that would play out.
"We started with the idea that we were going to provide the most blazing-fast 1.5mps service the world had ever seen," said Lisa Scalpone, VP Marketing for ViaSat."That was the state-of-the-art of DSL at the time we conceived of all of this."
WildBlue and its competitor Directway, later acquired by Hughes, were designed for an Internet that was changing by the day.
"It was good at first but then the Internet passed us by," Scalpone said. "The speeds of cable and DSL blew by us, and we did didn't predict what the year-over-year growth in Internet traffic would be."
And the idea that consumers would soon be watching video online hadn't even entered the equation. So the systems faced a few problems. Subscribers used more and more bandwidth yet the capacity of the satellites remained fixed.
"The satellites didn't have the capacity to handle the explosion in Internet traffic," she said. "The second thing was the ground systems were not optimized to handle the complexity of the Web pages."
When a user of a satellite Internet system clicked on a page, objects on the page -- things like graphics and photos -- loaded one at a time.
"When we designed the ground system a Web page might have five objects. By a couple of years ago a page might have 60 objects," Scalpone said.
Viasat steps in
So ViaSat, WildBlue's major supplier, acquired the service and went to work designing a new satellite system that would address these issues.
"They designed the world's largest telecommunications satellite," Scalpone said. "They got that it was a bandwidth issue and a ground systems issue."
ViaSat, which added Exede as an Internet provider, developed software that accelerates and optimizes the complexity of web pages and designed a much bigger, faster satellite. The bigger satellite addresses the congestion issue while the software makes highly complex Webpages load faster.
"This is revolutionary, not evolutionary," Scalpone said. "This is not just an incremental step"
But what about the issue of "latency," the delay caused by the distance the Webpage has to travel from space? You might be able to write new software and build a bigger, faster satellite but you really can't do anything about the speed of light.
"On the WildBlue system it felt like it took 20 seconds to open a Webpage, Scalpone concedes. "But that wasn't really about latency, it was just congestion. Those satellites empty would have popped the pages just as well. But because it appeared as this grinding, serial downloading of objects, people associated that with latency."
The latency, or delay on the new system, she says, is a half-second. Scalpone says the service has the feel of a wired service and you don't notice the difference going from your office to your home. She says you don't notice it watching video and you can even use VoIP, something not practical with the old system.
Both Exede and Hughes offer packages starting at $50 a month for 12 mbs download and 3 mps upload. Plans are fixed -- just like cellphone data plans -- because satellite capacity is fixed. Exede has just increased its base data plan from 7.5 GB per month to 10 GB per month without increasing the price.
"We are not going to be the optimal service for the heaviest user, but for a user that is typical to slightly more, we want to target that group," Scalpone said.
And while they certainly hope rural consumers give them another chance, Scalpone says the company is not limiting itself. With its speed and price, she thinks the company can be competitive in urban and suburban markets as well.