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Weekly Column

E.T. Doesn't Play Games: Further Insights Into Starband Satellite Internet

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Last week's column about my DSL travails and subsequent flirtation with a satellite Internet connection struck home with many readers. There must be a lot of people like me out there — folks too far from town for fast, reliable connection. Many have asked for an update on my experience, so here it is, and so far it is generally positive, though with a few reservations.

To recap last week's episode, for almost a year I had been using IDSL, the slowest and most expensive form of DSL and the only one that will carry the full distance (36,000 feet) from the telephone company Central Office to my desk. But all things must come to an end and my DSL connection has been out of service now for 20 straight days while my ISP, DSL provider, and the telephone company blame each other. Meanwhile, the meter keeps ticking at a rate of $139 per month.

Enter Starband, the first bidirectional satellite Internet service widely available in the U.S. Starband is different from DirecPC, the other satellite Internet service, in that your dish sends signals UP to the satellite as well as receiving data down. DirecPC uses a combination of the dish for downloading and a local dial-up account for uploading.

Starband is available through Radio Shack by buying a new computer configured for the service or through either the Dish Network or Starband, itself, in an external USB version. I took the Dish Network version because it scored for me an extra 50 channels for only a penny more on my bill. Internet service and 150 channels of TV now cost me $99.95 per month, though that's after paying more than $600 for the modem and installation. I figure it will pay for itself in less than a year.

All that Starband expects you to do with your modem is serve a single Windows PC, but there is a thriving Starband underground that has gone far beyond that. Lots of information can be obtained from the Starband forum at delphi.com. To show how early we are in all this, Radio Shack contacted ME asking how to use their own Starband-configured PCs to support a LAN.

The first thing I wanted to do was provide Internet service to my entire home network. Initially, I did that by using a Windows ME computer as a gateway machine running Winproxy. This seemed to work okay, but the buzz on the Starband forum said there was a better way to do it. The experts were upset with the USB connection, and had figured out how to instead activate the Ethernet port that also lives on the back of the Starband modem. This is a device that claims no LAN support, yet has a port on the back labeled "LAN."

To turn on the Ethernet, you must pop open the modem case. The Starband manual is very vague about the implications of such an action. On one hand, they tell you that there are moments when you may well want to pop the top, and that it can be done by removing just a couple screws, but then there is the dark suggestion that doing so is a crime nearly as bad as tearing those labels off the bottom of chairs. What the heck, I paid for the thing, so it's mine to plunder. Activating the Ethernet port is a simple matter of opening the case and removing a daughtercard that supports the USB connection. USB, it appears, is an afterthought, and the daughtercard converts Ethernet to USB.

One reason for converting back to Ethernet is because some users report having problems with the USB connection itself. I did not see any problems, but then I only had it running that way for a couple days. But the much bigger reason for converting to Ethernet is that it allows you to plug the Starband modem straight into a router.

The routers of choice come from Linksys — either the BEFSR11 or BEFSR41. These two boxes are the same, except the BEFSR41 includes a four-port 10/100 switch, while the cheaper BEFSR11 has only a single port and must be connected to an Ethernet hub to serve more than one computer. My BEFSR41 cost $129 at CompUSA. Be sure to get version 2 of the router because version 1 doesn't support SSL connections. I have heard, though, that there is a firmware upgrade available to fix this on earlier units.

These routers perform many of the duties that would otherwise fall on a gateway machine in your network. They do Network Address Translation (NAT) to allow up to 253 PCs to share a single IP address and contain a DHCP server to divvy out the addresses. Linksys claims the box has a firewall, but I do not consider NAT a firewall in itself. The best part about these boxes, other than their low cost, is that they make no noise. Using my Windows box as a gateway was very loud.

If you configure the Starband system with a Windows PC, then switch to the router the moment the installer's truck has disappeared down the street, it will allow you to have a network without any Windows PCs. Mac zealots like that. It works just fine with Linux, too. I have a very mixed network with two Windows boxes, two Linux boxes, two Macs, and a Windows notebook. The Macs and the Windows notebook are connected through an 802.11 wireless connection provided by an Apple Airport. This, too, is something the Starband docs say can't be done. I love reading statements like that as I'm web surfing in bed, 100 plus feet from the Starband modem.

One thing that is missing when using the Linksys router is a proxy server. In the basic Windows install it is clear that the PC is doing some work for the modem. Certainly, it is caching pages, perhaps pre-fetching to lower the effects of latency, and some Starband users think the PC is doing some upstream data compression, too. I'm not sure I can tell, myself, but you can still do all that by running the Starband software on any Windows machine in your network and pointing the other computes to it, though that machine has to be left on all the time. I decided instead to run a Linux Squid proxy server that seems to do just as well, maybe better. Of course it makes noise, too.

Yeah, but what about performance? I have seen download speeds above 600 kilobits-per-second, but they seem to average around 400 kilobits, which is still plenty fast. Uploads are a different story. Claimed upload speeds are 125 kilobits-per-second, but so far I haven't seen anything over 80. And the service is intermittent. I have seen it just drop dead for a few seconds to a few minutes several times a day. I'm hoping this is just early network testing on Starband's part. Their web site says as much, so we can hope it will improve. I also lost service completely during a rainstorm, but the loss was only for a few minutes during a period when there was so much water coming from the sky I couldn't even see my car parked in the driveway.

Your satisfaction with Starband will depend very much on what kind of computer user you are. Gamers will hate it. The latency of bouncing signals up and back to a satellite 22,300 miles in the air is too much for networked games. Don't even try.

Last week, I predicted it wouldn't be good for Internet telephony, either, but subsequent testing went better than I expected. You can sense the lag, but calling for free somehow makes that okay. And I was surprised how good it sounded. I haven't tried IRC, but figure that if telephony is acceptable, then IRC should be too.

Upbound FTP sessions, are a problem, though. They seem to poop out after 32K have been transferred. My sense here is that Starband really really wants people not to send much data up to the satellite and they are putting up roadblocks to make sure they get their wish. I'd love to hear from anyone actually running a server on their Starband network. And is anyone using Starband to provide songs to Napster?

One thing you might wonder is why telephony works and FTP doesn't. My guess is it has to do with how much bandwidth each requires. My telephony application takes only 9600 bits-per-second, while an FTP server will grab whatever is available.

There is a similar effect with streaming video. Both RealPlayer and Windows MediaPlayer work just fine set for a 56K connection, but bump up to 200K and they turn into slideshows. Quicktime does better, but not under Windows. What gives? I haven't tried video conferencing, but my guess is it will be an unsatisfying experience.

So Starband isn't for everyone. If you are a gamer or want to run your own web or FTP server, you should probably forget it. But for a guy who thinks gaming means throwing a squeaky toy for the dog to retrieve, it is not bad. That's why I turned off my DSL as of January 31.

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