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Weekly Column

E.T. Phone Home: Satellite Internet Has Arrived and Amazingly, It Works

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

So Microsoft's Web presence was down for almost 24 hours. That's nothing! My personal record for continuous outage now stands at 13 days! That's what led me to this week become one of the early customers for Starband, an Internet Service Provider that uses two-way satellite connections. Here's my story.

After more than two decades in Silicon Valley, I escaped in late 1999 to the side of a hill in the California Wine Country. It is quiet here and the view is beautiful. It's not all that far to town, either, unless, of course, you measure distances the way the telephone company does, in which case I am 36,000 feet from the Central Office. Seven miles is a long way from the phone company. My dial-up service, no matter which ISP I tried, was never better than 26,400 bits-per-second.

So I started looking for an xDSL connection. DSL technology is very distance sensitive. If you get close enough to the Central Office and your provider forgets to meter your bandwidth, it is possible to achieve speeds of up to eight megabits-per-second. The ADSL spec says it should be able to support download speeds of up to 1.5 megabits-per-second at up to 18,000 feet from the C.O., but I think few people actually achieve those speeds at that distance.

There is one brand of DSL, called IDSL — ISDN Digital Subscriber Line — that breaks the 18,000-foot distance barrier. IDSL provides DSL technology over existing ISDN lines. Even though the transfer rates for IDSL are about the same as ISDN (144 kbps v. 128 kbps), and IDSL circuits can only carry data (not voice), the major benefits of switching to IDSL from ISDN are always-on connections, eliminating call setup delays; flat rate billing, instead of per minute fees; and transmission of data over the data network, rather than the regular phone network. And while it is the slowest form of DSL, IDSL is supposed to work up to 36,000 feet from the C.O., which is precisely where I sit.

So I went in search of IDSL and eventually found an ISP that would install a line through Covad Communications. Though it took about a month to get going, others have told me I am lucky, and this is a very short time. By early 2000 I had an IDSL connection running at 128 kbps. The extra 16 kbps that IDSL lords over ISDN never appeared for me, but what the heck. Happiness reigned again at chez Cringely.

Several months later, the problems began. My IDSL connection would just stop working for a few minutes at a time. More correctly, the connection would stay up but data would stop flowing over it, probably because of a router problem on the other end. This taught me the hard lesson of DSL customer support. In the DSL world, unless your ISP is the phone company, you generally have to deal with three support organization, all blaming each other. So my ISP (DNAI, a division of RCN) blames Covad, who blames Pacific Bell. DNAI provides my Internet data, which goes over an IDSL circuit provided by Covad, and that circuit runs on wires provided by PacBell.

If you are 80 percent satisfied with a support organization, then having to deal with three separate support operations means the best you can hope for is 0.8 * 0.8 * 0.8 = 0.512. This arrangement guarantees dissatisfaction when combining even very good support operations, which is not what I've been doing, believe me.

A few months into this experiment, my problem became more serious, with complete data outages lasting for days that drove me back to that 26.4 kbps dial-up. In order to make the full 36,000-foot distance to my home office, the IDSL circuit needs two repeaters to amplify and extend the signal. Well those repeaters, which are managed by a completely separate operation inside PacBell, sometimes go out. They sit in a cabinet 10 feet from my mailbox, but only the gods of the PacBell PairGain unit are allowed to touch them. My regular phone guy just rolls his eyes.

Enough. Once I started hearing commercials for Starband satellite Internet, I knew I had to give it a try. This is not like the hybrid DirecPC satellite data service that requires a local ISP and sends any upstream data over a dial-up connection. Starband, from an Israeli company called Gilat, is a bidirectional system that uses the satellite in both directions, promising download speeds of 500 kbps (125 kbps upstream) for $60 per month compared with the unreliable, bidirectional 128 kbps IDSL that was costing me $139 per month. It seemed like a no-brainer. The only problem was finding a Starband dealer who would actually sell me the thing.

There are three ways to get Starband — through Radio Shack, through the Dish Network, or through Starband itself. The Radio Shack deal requires buying a new PC that comes equipped with a pair of satellite modem cards (one for sending, one for receiving). That made no sense to me, since I have lots of computers and the Radio Shack model wouldn't have any free PCI slots to add an Ethernet card. Buying direct from Starband was only just now becoming available, so my best option when I started looking seemed to be buying from the Dish Network, which was already my satellite TV company. On my hillside there is no cable and I can get only one broadcast channel the old fashioned way. Fortunately, that one channel is PBS. The Dish Network has done very well for me, thanks. I am addicted to the Food Network.

Intending to buy Starband and actually buying Starband are very different things. On the Dish Network Web site there is a list of Starband dealers, most of whom have never installed a system and many of whom have never even heard of Starband. Nobody seems to know how this list of dealers was compiled. Finally, though, I found (by calling my way down the list) a dealer who had participated in the Starband beta test. This dealer was 60 miles away and had no units to install, but at least he had heard of Starband. My name went on the waiting list.

Six weeks later, my name reached the top of the list and my system was installed. Now I know why Radio Shack makes you buy a new PC. My $125 installation took a total of 13 hours over two days! Who is making money here? The biggest problem once the dish, itself, was installed, was configuring the PC. Or rather PCs, since we went through three before finding one that could actually talk with the Starband modem. The problem seemed to be conflicting TCP/IP stacks: Any computer that had been previously installed on a network of any type seemed suspect, hence the Radio Shack advantage. Radio Shack Starblaster PCs come preconfigured, so it ought to be a simple matter of aiming the dish and booting up.

The Starband modem is a USB device itself the size of a small PC. It is the first modem I have ever had with its own cooling fan. But once we got it talking to a PC, it worked nearly as advertised. I say "nearly" because the speeds aren't as high as Starband claims. Starband acknowledges this and says it is adding transponder capacity and speeds will improve. The best I've seen so far is around 400 kbps downstream (300 kbps is more typical) and I haven't even tried to measure the upstream performance. Like a cable modem, this is shared bandwidth, so speeds drop in the evenings when people are home cruising the Net. They also drop in heavy rain, but I have yet to see a connection slower than the 128 kbps I get from IDSL.

Starband offers no support for home networks, but I quickly worked around that one. Using the original PC as a gateway device (it still runs as a workstation) I now have five machines up and running on a mixed wired and wireless network. My firewall goes up this afternoon, so any hackers should work fast.

Understand that I have only been up and running for two days and lots could still go wrong, but my network is clearly faster than before. But the speed increase is odd, the network just feels different and I think this is because of the latency over that 44,600-mile round trip to space and back that each packet must take. Type in a URL and there is a short lag then the data rushes at you. The Starband box has its own proxy server so something is being done to mask this delay, which is actually less than I expected. It isn't a problem, really, but I doubt the system will work well for Internet telephony.

For the moment, I'm happy. Maybe this feeling will fade, but I don't think so. When I get the nerve to cancel my IDSL, the satellite will be saving me $79 per month for faster connections, no phone company, and only a single support number to call. For rural users like me this is the best system yet.

I'm tempted to cancel my IDSL right now.

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