Part 2 in a series describing choices for Internet access in rural Sonoma County

Almost everyone can get satellite Internet access – access to the southern sky and some expensive equipment and you’re ready to go.

The promise is alluring. Consumer satellite service is offered through DirecWay, a division of Hughes. (The competitors are essentially all out of business. Earthlink and a couple of other companies resell the DirecWay service, but that just means you’re one step further away from the technical support folks who actually know what’s going on.) Upload speeds are modest, but download speeds can be very speedy indeed – anywhere from 400K on up, sometimes as much as 1.5Mb. Consumer service is more expensive than DSL, but not much more.

I had the consumer service for a year, then moved up to the least expensive business class service, in my case from World Communications, for $110/month. For that I got a static IP address, which I needed for remote access to my clients’ networks, as well as a higher download cap – more on that below.

It’s possible to move up from there, using the same Hughes satellite system but getting more robust equipment – bigger antennas for the roof and more sophisticated equipment inside the house. That might alleviate some of the problems I’ll describe below, but the price tag rises significantly.

Enterprises move away from the Hughes’ satellites completely, to companies like Tachyon that monitor the connection and respond instantly to problems. Enterprises have lots of money – this is dead serious, expensive service.

The reality of DirecWay service is a combination of exciting speed and hideous frustration.

Some of the frustrating things are easy to understand. The service is very sensitive to weather. If it rains, or even if there’s heavy cloud cover, the odds are the lights on the box inside the house will go out. Satellite owners become very skilled at switching back to their modem until the sun comes out.

The service is erratic in any case. Too many times, once or twice a week in my case, the satellite connection will go down for no apparent reason, to return in a few minutes, or half an hour, or later that day.

The software is buggy. I have to reboot my server every couple of days to recover from the memory leak that sucks up all its resources.

The connection to the computer is through a USB cable, supported by software that runs continuously. That prevents use of a router to share the Internet connection with other computers. The connection can be shared but the methods for sharing it are more limited than with DSL or cable. Not a fatal problem for most people, but a bit constricting for some.

And there are download limits – “Fair Access Policy,” in Hughes’ terminology. It varies by the type of account, but in general the idea is that if you download more than a certain amount of data in a certain amount of time, your access will be cut off or slowed to sub-modem speeds for twelve hours or so. The current cutoff for consumer accounts is 169Mb in four hours. Serious music downloaders will spend a lot of time cursing. Business accounts have higher cutoff limits, although I still get “FAPed” every so often.

But the real killer is the lag. When you click on a link, your click travels up 22,300 miles to a satellite, it travels down 22,300 miles to San Diego, and it goes out on wires to the web site. When the web site responds, the signal comes back to you on the same path.

It takes a little more than half a second for the signal to make that round-trip.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Trust me. That’s a half-second delay, every single time your computer needs a response from the web. Your computer communicates a lot with the web to respond to your clicks. The delay could not be more infuriating. The perception is that the satellite is slower, far slower, than a modem connection.

It’s worth noting that this is an inherent characteristic of satellite service. It’s a limit imposed by the speed of light, and the best engineers in the world can’t change the physics – the latency will remain. Gamers should note that the lag means that online gaming is impossible over a satellite connection.

Granted, once something starts to flow in over the satellite, it flows in very quickly. And downloads just fly. The satellite is very satisfying for downloading music and software.

But for everyday Internet browsing, it doesn’t feel at all like a true broadband connection.

This is the online forum for answers to satellite questions. I think every satellite owner becomes familiar with this site pretty quickly. There’s dozens of tweaks necessary to make the satellite connection more usable, and Hughes’ support is frequently inadequate.

I’m bailing out. After two years, my satellite goes dead in a couple of weeks.

Next up: high-price wires.

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