Busman's Holiday
Living with Satellite Internet
by Steve Wood
September 5, 2011

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If you live in an area where dial-up has been your only option for internet service, the commercials for satellite internet may look pretty attractive. They promise quick online access to web pages, photos, and videos at an affordable price.

Wild Blue dishWe live in a rural area of Indiana where dialup or satellite were our only options until recently. We're also in a cell phone dead zone, so accessing the net via an iPhone, iPad, or other similar device wasn't an option, either. So we signed up for satellite internet service in January of 2008.

In three years of using WildBlue satellite internet, we found that our service was usually considerably faster than dialup, but fell far short of true broadband. Web pages did load faster than with dialup, but videos were choppy, VOIP impossible, and upload speeds were horrible. And that was in good weather.

Good weather?

I started writing this column on a snowy day in early 2008 shortly after our satellite was installed. I wrote:

I had just changed my user profile the previous day on Moodle.org to read, "I'm a retired teacher now working as a freelance writer and trainer." I really hadn't begun to write anything of value, and the only training I was doing was with the latest stray kitten my wife had "rescued."

I was just messing around hitting various education sites on the Internet when everything stopped. I looked, and the indicator light on my Airport Extreme Base Station was blinking amber, signifying no connection. It turned out to be the first of many interruptions in our satellite internet service. It had begun to snow outside, and our satellite dish was covered with ice and snow. It was my introduction to what Wikipedia calls rain fade. "Rain fade refers to the absorption of a microwave Radio Frequency (RF) signal by rain or snow, and is especially prevalent in frequencies above 11 GHz."

The reality of living with a satellite internet connection is that it doesn't work very well in rain and snow and may slow to a crawl even on cloudy days! On good days, we had speeds considerably faster than dialup, but far slower than most low end DSL or other broadband packages.

Good Day
Cloudy Day
Partly Coudy
A good day on satellite internet

Slowest ProvidersBefore getting away from performance, let me add that a testmy.net page of the Slowest Internet Providers ranks WildBlue and HughesNet, the major players in providing satellite internet service, fourth and fifth worst in internet speed!

Dishes on ground
Another Option
Frontier

I should add that towards the end of our stint of using satellite internet, we were informed that we were close to our bandwidth limit and were being throttled. My wife was taking an online class at the time and was indeed using lots of bandwidth. I was also publishing Educators' News and Senior Gardening. Neither took tons of bandwidth, but added to the total. We were told that our only options were to cut back our use of the internet, accept the throttled slower speeds for the rest of WildBlue's rolling, unspecified "month," or upgrade to WildBlue's $99/month package (which is still considerably slower than most wired broadband). We found that we actually had another option, Frontier's High Speed Internet which just became available in our area this year.

I should add here that there are some sources online that suggest that when one exceeds their package download limit and has their account throttled, HughesNet recovers, gets back to normal speed, significantly more quickly than WildBlue. Similar sources suggest HughesNet is less prone to rain fade, but all of those sources appear to be shilling for HughesNet, so take any such advisories with a giant grain of salt.

Cost

When we signed up for satellite internet, I was occasionally teaching online classes from home. My wife would have several weeks each year where she was on call for her job as a WAN specialist for a regional banking concern. Both endeavours required something faster than Wild Blue's entry package, so we ended up going with their middle package for $69.99 a month. As I've mentioned, the speed wasn't great, but WildBlue's service did allow us to do most of what we needed to do online. My wife was supposed to use VOIP in her tech support role, but was able to substitute regular landline phone service to satisfy her superiors.

Note: When we tested the VOIP package the bank was using, reception (download) was pretty much okay. Speaking (sending or uploading) simply didn't work. The voice, when something could be heard on the line, was choppy, garbled, and mostly unintelligible. That was pretty much in line with our other experiences with WildBlue's slow upload speed.

While both WildBlue and HughesNet (links are to current plan/pricing pages) are currently offering $10 off/month specials on their interent packages, the base package without the special runs around $50/month. Of all of their packages, only the most expensive ($100-110/month) approach the speed of a relatively slow, wired broadband connection. From their ads, it appears that HughesNet is a bit more liberal with both speed and download limits.

Reliability

I've already mentioned our problems with rain fade. Heavy snow and the satellite icing up will take down the service as well, although there's the HotShot Satellite Dish Heater that can solve icing problems...currently for $129.95 plus shipping. But we also suffered a number of unexplained outages for a time in bright, sunny weather. Our connection would just go down and sometimes stay down for an hour or so. Other times, the connection would go down, come back up almost immediately before going down again, repeating the process over and over. I can only guess that the service was oversubscribed for a time and their servers were crashing. But that's just my guess.

The unexplained outages became far less frequent the last year we had satellite internet service, so something must have gotten fixed. All in all, the service became fairly reliable...in good weather. But if an internet connection is essential for you, it's best to have a modem and an inexpensive, dialup service as a backup.

What About That Other Company?

At this point you may be thinking, "Gee, maybe I should choose HughesNet for my satellite internet connection, as Steve's experience is only with WildBlue." Let me add this story.

After just six months, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with our satellite internet service from Dish/Wild Blue. With satellite Internet, rain fade is unavoidable, but we'd had frequent outages with clear skies. We'd even had to pay for a service call for WildBlue to correct the errors made in the original, shoddy installation of our dishes. I knew one of my wife's co-workers had HughesNet, so I started to ask her to ask him about their service. Annie cut me off and said, "It's not worth it. Dan (the co-worker) is furious with HughesNet and asked me to ask you about Wild Blue's reliability!"

Final Words

If you have no other options and can work the exhorbitant pricing into your budget, satellite internet service is clearly a better way to go than a dialup connection. Just go into it being aware that you're going to be paying way too much for rather slow and unreliable satellite internet service that possibly still requires a dial-up backup. Having someone onhand who is familiar with satellite internet and roofing might be a good idea when the installer comes. Our original installation created several severe leaks in our back porch roof where the Dish and WildBlue dishes were mounted. The installer also left without grounding the dishes, something dicovered only on a paid service call when I had to have our dish alignment fixed after several months of service.

I'd had some pretty negative experiences with Dish's customer service over the time we had them and WildBlue, so our Dish TV service got pitched when we made the switch from WildBlue to Frontier High Speed internet. At one point I'd had the temerity to call and inquire as to why we were being charged around $20 a month for hi definition when Dish's CEO was running commercials on TV saying Dish didn't charge extra for it. After that call, it was just a matter of time before we switched services.

We ended up getting DirectTV as part of Frontier's phone-TV-internet bundle. When the poor installer came to put in our DirectTV dish, I think he wished I'd get out of the heat and out of his way while he installed their dish on the very edge of our newly shingled porch roof. I asked about the bolts creating leaks (He had some nifty patches that should prevent leaks...at least for a while.) and had him show me the grounding of the new dish. Interestingly, he said that Direct now had a rule in place that installers were not to go onto a roof to do installations. He did all the work on a ladder from the edge of our porch. My guess is that a lot of other folks have had roofing problems after having either Dish or Direct (or HughesNet or WildBlue) installed.

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About Busman's Holiday

This fall marks the first time in over forty years that I don't have some kind of a direct connection to the classroom. I gave up subbing last year after getting crossways with a local superintendent over his cancelling some of my scheduled subbing days and finding myself blacklisted from the classrooms where I wanted to sub. But then, the super's actions prompted a good posting on Educators' News, Another Turkey, or Maybe Just Sour Grapes, and a continuing feature story there, Turkey of the Week Award "Winners." Grin

While supposedly fully retired now, I still publish my Educators' News page about three times a week and somewhat irregular postings on our newer site, Senior Gardening. Most of my recent columns have been pretty political and have appeared as Educators' News Feature Stories. But for stuff not educationally related, I fall back on the Busman's Holiday series, started in a 1998 protest of non-payment for columns written for a now defunct site.

I actually offered this column to one of my previous editor/publishers, but he didn't even respond to my email! So, I guess I really am pretty much retired from teaching and writing, other than an occasional independent column here and there. But stay tuned, as I have a few more pieces to put up here before they take me to the home and put me on soft food.

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©2011 Steven L. Wood