Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why Satellite Internet Is Not Really Broadband

I recently posted a review of HughesNet satellite Internet service over at DSLReports. You may need to sign up to read it--which is totally worth the effort, DSLReports is a great source of info and news for bandwidth hungry net surfers--but I am also posting it here for ease of access:

Pros "Downloading is quite fast (but capped)"
Cons "Poor latency, 13Gb monthly cap, costly, flaky DNS, not true broadband"

Despite the fact that there is Verizon fiber optic at the end of my drive and Road Runner cable about 3 miles away, I cannot persuade anyone to run a broadband line to our home/office near Cooperstown in upstate New York (unless I pay $1,000 per month for a T1).

So, we pay HughesNet $80 per month even though it does not fit my definition of broadband (e.g. does not support VoIP, VPN or watching Netflix on demand movies).

Although traffic is fast enough when it gets going (from 1 to 1.5Mbs down) the latency is terrible (around 500ms, way slower than dialup) and if we exceed 435 megabytes downloaded in a day we are stuffed for 24 hours (Hughes actually slows your connection down to dialup speed--a death sentence if your boss wants you to take a quick look at his big deck of Powerpoint slides).

I should point out that the latency is not the "fault" of HughesNet but rather an unsolvable limitation when sending signals into space and back. This creates a huge overhead for things like logging into your bank account (what takes 20 seconds on true broadband takes 70 seconds on satellite). Doing online bill payment becomes a very tedious chore.

Hughes warns you not to try VoIP or VPN because of the latency, but does not make this clear in their TV ads. They also fail to give sufficient warning about the practical effect of bandwidth limits. For example, recent automatic operating system upgrades from Apple and Microsoft have both blown out our daily limit. Needless to say you have to turn off automatic OS upgrades, which potentially puts your system at risk.

HughesNet does offer a form of unlimited download, limited to between 3AM and 6AM. But we have found the speed and connection to be flaky when using this "feature." For example, you set up your download manager to get that big 600Mb file from your boss at 3AM but the connection flakes out and when you get up at 8AM you find most of the file arrived between 6 and 7 thus blowing out your allowance for the day.

There is also a problem with DNS flakiness (as reported by others in this forum). Random sites report DNS lookup errors but they are online. This was particularly weird when I found I could not get to my own web site over the HughesNet DNS servers for well over a week. If I used alternative DNS over Hughes, like running Anonymizer, I was able to see my site, as were friends on other ISP connections. I have a video of that issue here.

As a geek I am still amazed that I have a satellite uplink hanging off my porch that actually sends and receives, but that does not make up for the painful price/performance ratio and vicious bandwidth caps.

After a year on HughesNet I am devoting every spare moment to exploring my options (like getting that T1 and blasting WiMax out to all my neighbors--who have the same problems I do with satellite).

Bottom Line: "Should not be sold as broadband (no VPN, VoIP, OS upgrades, or movies)"