Satellite Equals Broadband Lite

By Wayne Kawamoto | Posted February 01, 2005

If your business is cruising the Web at slow dial-up speeds, you've either eschewed the lure of fast DSL or cable, or lack access to conventional broadband in your area. But when DSL and cable aren't options, you can literally look to the skies to receive broadband Internet through satellite providers such as DIRECWAY (Hughes Network Systems) and Starband and soon, WildBlue in the continental U.S.

As the name implies, satellite broadband offers two-way Internet access via satellites. Your PC, through a special satellite modem, broadcasts requests to a satellite dish that sits on top of your home or business. The dish then sends and receives signals from satellites that orbit some 22,000 miles above the equator. As long as your dish maintains a clear view of the southern sky (in the U.S.), you receive broadband Internet access — sort of.

While Internet-from-the-heavens may seem like a godsend to frustrated dial-up users, satellite broadband speed clearly doesn't come close to DSL or cable. "The service is primarily complementary to DSL and cable by serving areas that are underserved or not served at all by these technologies," says Jay Pultz, research vice-president at Gartner, Inc. "Satellite broadband for consumers meets its promise, however, the data rates are lower than what is typically available from DSL and cable" According to Pultz, broadband satellite is primarily serving consumers in rural and other hard-to-reach areas that do not have DSL or cable service.

"We have access to satellite broadband in Canada, and it doesn't equal land based speeds," says Andrew B. King, President, Web Site Optimization, LLC, a firm that analyzes and improves Web site performance. According to King, typical download is 400Kbps with an even slower uplink. For example, Earthlink offers both DSL and satellite service. The company quotes DSL speeds up to 3.0 Mbps while its satellite speeds are 500 Kbps (download) and a horrendously slow 50Kbps for uploading — more than four times slower than DSL. And Earthlink (like other vendors) doesn't guarantee the speeds (for either service) and says that the speed is based "on many factors such as the length and condition of the telephone wires connecting your house to your central office and general conditions on the Internet at any given time."

Despite the space-age access, satellite broadband fits into a small business environment in the same way as conventional broadband. With a router, you can network satellite broadband as you would any other type of broadband. But the providers are quick to point out that while their systems will work with a virtual private network (VPN), the performance will often be more like that of a dial-up connection. Because satellite broadband has something of a geographical monopoly, advertisements compare speeds to dial-up, and emphasize the fact that you don't have to log on, or tie up your phone line — typical pitches for conventional broadband.

Just like cable broadband customers, satellite users compete with each other for limited bandwidth. As more people logon to and use the system, everyone's overall performance slows. To address this problem, satellite providers have fair-access policies that say they can cut you off if you use more than your slice of valuable bandwidth. By the way, if you're dreaming of fast Internet access from moving vehicles such as RVs or boats, it won't work. At present, the systems are designed only for stationary installations.

Weather and Distance
Unlike DSL or cable, satellite dishes need clear views of the skies, and outages are likely in heavy rainstorms and other severe weather. Also, because the Internet signal has to travel from your dish to a satellite, there's a built-in latency or delay — typically a quarter of a second.

The latency isn't usually a problem when you're viewing Web pages, but can affect applications such as VoIP and real-time interactive gaming. "I think that latency can be reduced to a certain minimum when software inefficiencies are removed," says King. "At that point it would be limited to the speed that the info can travel from the earth to the satellite and back."

Another down side is that satellite is more expensive, particularly when getting started. Installation fees and monthly rates vary widely. By the time you purchase a satellite dish and have it professionally installed, you can fork over close to $1000, depending on your vendor and plan. Earthlink's monthly rate (after $600 for installation fees) comes in at $69.95.

To Market
In the grand scheme, there's probably little incentive for satellite providers to increase their speeds, lower their prices and decrease their latencies. "From a marketing perspective, satellite doesn't have the backing and/or commitment from the major operators and ISPs that DSL and cable do," says Bakkers. "In some cases, satellite is provided by major operators, but only targeted in areas where they do not have DSL or cable coverage."

DSL and cable should continue to gain mass acceptance, which will shrink potential satellite markets. According to the January 2005 Bandwidth Report from Nielsen//NetRatings, broadband users in U.S. homes increased by 35.9 percent in 2004. Gartner's Pultz says that today, rural or remote users who are not reached by existing broadband technologies are approximately 20 percent of the addressable market, and he estimates that this is likely to shrink to 10 percent over time.

Like DSL and cable, satellite broadband won't monopolize your phone line the way dial-up access does, but if DSL or cable is available where you live, that's the way to go. Satellite just can't compete.

However, if you run a small business in an area where these technologies aren't an option, then satellite may give you an added (if pricey) boost of speed.

Over the last ten years, Wayne Kawamoto has written over 800 articles, columns and reviews about computers, new technologies, the Internet and small businesses. Wayne has also published three books about upgrading PCs, building office networks and effectively using and troubleshooting notebook computers. You may contact him through his Web site at www.waynewrite.com.

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