What's the real deal with rural (satellite?) Internet?
October 27, 2015 6:37 AM   Subscribe

I am in a new job where I can telecommute from anywhere (yay!) and am thinking about buying some property in a rural area in upstate New York where Internet is spotty. But my job requires a lot of video chatting — what can I expect to pay for top-quality Internet in a woodland paradise? Will there be usage fees? Can I actually video chat?

The area I'm looking in is just north of the Catskills (near New Kingston, if anyone knows the area that specifically) and it seems that satellite internet would be my best option. I work online all day, and am usually in up to 5 hours of video chat (Google Hangouts) every day. I've found a perfect home in the woods that I love, but Internet access could be a deal-breaker.

Is good satellite feasible for this situation? Is unlimited usage possible? I'm willing to pay for good quality, but am trying to price out what this might cost me overall for basics.

But also curious if there are other options (I read about a residential T1)? What is the cadillac solution here?

Thank in advance for your help!
posted by aoleary to Technology (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Satellite can get you some pretty awesome throughput if you pay enough for it, but its latency is inherently horrible; the speed of light is a harsh mistress. Ping times of well over a second are typical. In my experience, trying to run video chat over a satellite connection is no fun at all.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Satellite internet has a hard limit of about 250 ms latency (delay) because of the speed of light - that's the time it takes the signal to reach a satellite and come back to Earth. I don't think you'd ever get satisfactory VOIP or video chat with that kind of latency, regardless of how fast a connection you buy.

Your best bet is probably going to be some kind of terrestrial line-of-sight connection, where the provider has towers and you'd put an antenna on your house pointing at one. You can get speeds and performance comparable to regular wired internet through a good line-of-sight connection. It could also be worth checking whether any providers are looking at installing fiber in the area soon.

A T1 is actually a fairly slow connection in modern terms - 1.5 megabits per second, where many cable providers are giving 50-100 megabits. You might be able to swing a low-quality video chat but it could be dicey doing that and much else. Also transferring large files is going to be slower than you're accustomed to. That may be a moot point, though, since if DSL isn't available then T1 probably won't be either.
posted by pocams at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Residential cable might actually be an option for you- midhudson cable . Have you tried calling them and seeing what your options? (a few years ago a handful of my family's neighbors banded together to get cable run up their street in Jewett, and while a HUGE hassle, they have normal internet now)

Verizon does get decent coverage in a lot of places up there, so a Verizon wireless account may be a decent backup if the cable gets knocked out.

Satellite internet is notoriously laggy and gets super expensive, so I'm not sure I'd consider that a real option for video chatting.
posted by larthegreat at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Think of satellite as being like a cell phone data plan. You usually get a set amount of data per month to use - 5GB - 20GB, just like a cell phone - and after that you're capped to extremely slow speeds. You can't be in Hangouts 5 hours a day on a cell phone plan, and you can't on satellite.

It gets worse. Satellite Internet, by the nature of having to shoot a signal into space and back, has minimum latency levels of around 600ms on top of additional latency created by the videoconferencing application - remember that a round trip requires a packet to go up into space, back down, returned by the application, back up into space, and then back down again. This creates connectivity that is even worse than most cell phone Internet, and the delay will create jarring, difficult conversations.

T1 really isn't an option either. Today's low-end DSL and cable options are often faster than a T1, which offers only 1.5mbps/second. A two-person video call on Hangouts requires twice that bandwidth.

DSL isn't a good option in most rural areas because of the long wiring necessary to connect rural homes to a telephone company central office.

The two options that provide acceptable "all day" bandwidth in rural areas are a WISP - a local wireless ISP - or cable. Rural WISPs and cable companies can be great, or they can be awful - you'll need to do due diligence at any address you select to evaluate what's available at that particular address. Note that WISPs will usually require an on-site survey to ensure that a line-of-sight connection is possible to one of their local towers.

This is really hard. If you want to live in the country with great Internet, you'll really need to do your research with both providers and neighbors.
posted by eschatfische at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I used to work as tech support for a Canadian rural internet company. Satellites tend to have very limited bandwidth available for all customers, and it'll probably be difficult to find an unlimited plan on them - the company I worked for only had unlimited plans on older satellites serving the great Canadian North at 0.5Mbps.

I'm not sure what the pricing would be in your area, but the largest data packages were 100GB a month and they tended to all be above $120/mo for satellite. A "regular" one would be like, 5Mbps with 20GB for $60-70.

The limited bandwidth also meant that it was very sensitive to peak usage times, with things slowing down when people got home from work and so on. Peak usage was VERY region-specific. I would try contacting some potential neighbours in the area, if possible.

Additionally, latency on a satellite is what would hurt video chatting most - I would expect a delay of up to a couple seconds just because of the physical reality of the distance from your location to orbit and back. It would be doable, but the delay would be very, very noticeable.

Citrix, VPNs, and other remote software really suffers on satellite. Many of them are nonfunctional with the high latency.

Internet satellites are also more sensitive to the weather than TV satellites because it's a two-way communication. Any weather locally, plus any weather at whatever ground station your signal ends up at, will affect the connection.

For these reasons I would strongly suggest looking into tower service before satellite service. Look for LTE/4G/WiMAX towers. The issue there is that you need a good line of sight to the tower, hills and trees will block the signal - but I would personally only consider satellite internet if tower communication was impossible.
posted by one of these days at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2015

A few years back I had a colleague who "had to" move to a rural area, and subsequently worked remotely via satellite (I don't know which one). She had latency problems with mere client / server apps.

My brother lives in a rural area now, has Dish. Heavy weather can take out his internet access entirely. Even on a good day, he has enough problems just playing Youtube videos. I think he would laugh at the notion of video conferencing.
posted by Herodios at 7:09 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you can get line of sight to cooperative neighbors, rolling your own mini-WISP might be feasible.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2015

WISP . . . WiMAX . . .

There appear to be a (non-zero) number of WiMAX vendors operating in your area.
posted by Herodios at 7:25 AM on October 27, 2015

i work with people who live in (well, near) new paltz, which seemed pretty rural to me when i visited, but which is on the more populated side of the catskills. they have decent internet and it's not satellite. if you want more info email me and i'll ask them what they do.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2015

FYI, Sprint is shutting down its WiMAX network next week, and it's going to take a lot of regional/nonprofit WISPs (that it largely inherited when buying Clearwire) with it. Probably not a longterm option.

My guess based on 10 minutes of googling (and going through this in other areas) is that the absolute best you'll do is LTE data through one of the wireless companies (probably Verizon) which can cost up to $750 a month for a 100Gb plan. At five hours of video conferencing a day, that's probably not enough.
posted by Oktober at 7:55 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Satellite is garbage and completely useless for anything interactive. Certainly video chat.

WISPs are the best option for much of for rural America. I'm typing to you from one, with 12/2 Mbps reliable networking. The tech is pretty solid, it just takes a clear line of sight to another site < 5 miles away. That's a challenge with tree cover, my antenna is 70' up a tree. It's nowhere near as good as a wired connection but it's way better than I feared.

The WISPs tend to be local companies, you'll have to ask around to find them. There are some federal subsidies that have made them viable businesses. It's also possible to roll your own wireless link to a friendly neighbor using consumer hardware like Ubiquiti, but obviously that's complicated to arrange.

Of course your best option is a wired connection, but the major cable and DSL providers are all refusing to extend service coverage to less dense areas and US regulators won't force them.

Cellular data is increasingly a reasonable option. If you have a decent LTE signal at the site it's worth looking in to. It tends to be expensive.
posted by Nelson at 8:14 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: up to 5 hours of video chat (Google Hangouts) every day
I wonder what that works out to in terms of monthly bandwidth. Google publishes their bandwidth requirements (minimums and ideal) for video chat. Going with a middle number of 2 mbps times 5 hours a day, five days a week, four weeks a month (100 hours a month) gave me 90 gigabytes a month. You'd want this for both upload and download. Presumably Hangouts will use more if available to try and get up to their "ideal," but I think you could throttle it down with a decent router. Anyway your expected monthly bandwidth is something you ought to know, as most of the rural providers seem to have monthly caps.

What is the cadillac solution here?
"he mean Lexus but he ain't know it"
posted by exogenous at 8:45 AM on October 27, 2015

I also work remotely with many hours of video chat daily, and have in the past experimented with wireless internet (Clearwire). The latency is a dealbreaker, IMO. (It also made interactive use of e.g. SSH totally impossible.) Bandwidth numbers are misleading; all the throughput in the world won't help you if the latency sucks. I wouldn't try to hold a job like this anywhere I couldn't get some kind of wired connection.
posted by enn at 9:02 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

We used to have a contractor in the sticks who insisted his satellite internet "usually" worked better than it did on literally every conference call with us. Based on my experience on the other end of all those calls with him, I wouldn't try to run any sort of real time communication (video or just audio) over a satellite link. It was that bad.

But then my tolerance for latency and dropped frames in real time communication is near zero. Your teammates may vary.
posted by fedward at 9:06 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

On latency, it's important to distinguish the kinds of wireless. Fixed wireless from a WISP is not bad. My local wireless hop is 30ms round trip, the Internet beyond my ISP is 40ms. That's not the 10ms you expect from a good cable/DSL provider, but it doesn't meaningfully interfere with video or even gaming. Satellite latency is 200+ms. I don't have enough experience with mobile latency to say for sure, but I believe it's highly variable.
posted by Nelson at 10:26 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Even if DSL is available in that area, it may not be a good solution either. My parents live in rural Indiana and their DSL is horrible. Skype skips and lags every few seconds.

If there are other people in the vicinity, it might be worth talking to them about what they use and how it actually works in practice.
posted by nolnacs at 10:40 AM on October 27, 2015

Had satellite Internet for 9 years here in rural Vermont and it sucked. Sure, I could surf at 12-15 Mbps for the outrageous price of over $130/month, but like others said you have data caps (17GB/month for me), latency issues, etc. Plus you need to disable any and all auto-updates for software, and HOPE that the provider gives you unlimited after hours data (mine was midnight-5am) in order to do software updates. Forget using Dropbox, or the like, because each time you open your computer all of those files sync.

Many rural areas are also cellular deadzones, and if you call your provider about a signal booster, guess what? They need broadband to work.

I LOVE my rural home, but if you rely on broadband for your livelihood you are shit out of luck.
posted by terrapin at 3:42 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a house in a rural area. High speed internet options are meh, at best.

My neighbor has satellite internet; he constantly complains about the low data caps and the latency.

I had a T1 line for the first 4 years. It was $340 per month, and while it was always on with no cap, the bandwith was crap. Netflix worked, but you couldn't do anything else at the same time.

We have great cell service and the house is line of sight to two cell towers and we get five bars with LTE. I'm not sure if that's the case with your property.

I switched to cellular internet. Specifically, an AT&T Unite device on a separate 40GB Mobile Share Plan. It's been pretty good and reliable and we haven't gone over the cap. However, we try to avoid streaming movies. It works fine for days when I work at home. It's also $286 per month. That's less than a T1 line, but still abysmal as far as monthly charges for internet are concerned.

I'm still wondering when they're declare Internet access to be a utility and fund rural broadband with bill taxes like they did with electricity and telephone lines way back in the day.
posted by tckma at 3:46 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm amazed y'all were able to get a T1 line. 1.5Mbps is not completely awful; it is good enough to do low bandwidth video, for instance. But when I called AT&T in 2012 (in California) they claimed to no longer sell T1 service at any price.
posted by Nelson at 4:38 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I *wish* my Comcast service was as good as the WISP service I had before I moved here. As eschatfische says, WISPs can be great, or they can be awful. Mine was awful to start with and became great after they hired a guy who knew what he was doing. After that point, I normally had 10ms ping times to google.com. I'd recommend looking at the local WISPs first, wired connections next. Satellite, as has already been noted, will be unsatisfactory for video chats.
posted by bricoleur at 6:13 PM on October 27, 2015

In this situation i would buy out someones unlimited verizon plan, pop a SIM in a LTE hotspot(this DOES work), and then use a VPN service for all traffic.

Verizon aren't assholes like AT&T. They WILL let you use like, 300gb a month without yelling at you.
posted by emptythought at 6:43 PM on October 27, 2015

Satellite's unfortunately not going to work for your needs. T1 cost (especially relative to usability) is usually insane at this point. LTE cellular, if decent reception, will be more usable AND cheaper than either of the above options.

I'd even venture to say solid 3G cell reception would beat satellite.
posted by kalapierson at 9:52 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Most towns in New York, be they ever so rural, have a franchised cable company which is obliged to extend service to your house, albeit at your expense. It can range from $5k to $50k, but when you consider what you pay to renovate your kitchen or master bath, and how much more time people spend online vs. cooking or bathing, you can imagine that you'd easily recover that in property value. If the extension can light up other property owners, you might even be able to share the cost.
posted by MattD at 9:50 AM on October 28, 2015

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