Is satellite internet the only option?
January 1, 2008 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for broadband internet connectivity options for my (quite non-tech-savvy) in-laws. They live in a somewhat rural area in Wisconsin where no cable or DSL service exists.

Their kids & grandkids are scattered about the U.S. and we rely on the internet to keep in touch, send photos & movies, etc. The problem is, they only have dialup internet, and the quality of their rural phone line is such that their 56k modem usually connects at 14.4k or worse, with frequent dropped connections and so much latency that one can't tell a call was dropped for several minutes.

The most obvious solution is satellite internet. I've looked into WildBlue and HughesNet, but I have some major reservations about satellite:

- High cost of entry ($300 or more up front for hardware + install)
- High monthly costs, especially considering how much bandwidth you get (best I've seen is $50/mo for 512k down/128k up - ugh!)
- Seems like satellite users get a lot of downtime (from sampling the forums) and/or need a lot of tech ability to keep the connection up.

We have to find something faster and more reliable than their awful dialup. Given that cable and DSL are completely unavailable out there, are there any alternatives to shelling out and bolting the dish on their house?
posted by gazole to Technology (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are they within cellphone range? Verizon and others offer somewhat reasonable service if you can connect to the cellphone network. Otherwise you are screwed. If you aren't actually screwed, this will become my farm living brother's favorite thread.
posted by caddis at 6:40 PM on January 1, 2008

posted by rhizome at 6:40 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

On second look I'm not sure how many in that list actually offer it, but ISDN is also available in WI from AT&T
posted by rhizome at 6:43 PM on January 1, 2008

If they have a strong cell signal, it's possible to tether to a cell phone...but the data plans are probably going to be even more expensive than satellite.

Which dial-up provider are they using? Some are better or worse in terms of number of dropped calls, DNS errors, etc., switching to a better dial-up provider may be more effective... especially if you can stop sending movies. (Really. You've been sending MOVIES? Ugh.) Anyway, a moderately decent dial-up connection should handle pictures (resampled to be no larger than the viewing area of a smallish monitor) with no problem, and you can mail them discs of movies if you must share.

(Sorry, I'm on dial-up here and it annoys me when people keep sending videos that tie up my connect for 3-4 hours, because, you know, it was a humorous video that entertained them for a whole thirty seconds. And the people who don't resample or crop their pictures, for fucks sake, even in the land of large monitors I do not need a full rez version of your vacation pictures!!!!)
posted by anaelith at 6:47 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've had satellite IP for the past five years, and it's horrible. Mine is Starband, and the bandwidth gets swamped for a large percentage of the time. There are fewer times when it's good, but when it is good the download transfer rate is fine for web browsing. Starband impose a seven-day-window usage allocation, and if you go over by watching you-tube then the transfer rate is cut to 100 Mbps (in the times when the satellite is not swamped). We fall back to using dial-up maybe half the time.
posted by anadem at 6:52 PM on January 1, 2008

Sorry, ISDN or WildBlue/HughesNet is going to be about it, especially for that kind of budget. On the bright side, I used satellite Internet for awhile and it really wasn't all that bad... obviously it's not good for gaming but I was happier with it than I thought I'd be. They rolled out DSL to our area pretty quickly though and that was that.

That said, it really sucks that cities are festooned with FiOS but rural areas languish in the 1970s. I've had a real beef with that situation since I run a tech based business but refuse to be chained to the city.
posted by mr. creosote at 6:56 PM on January 1, 2008

BTW the satellite I used was WildBlue... I had the higher tier business plan if that makes any difference.
posted by mr. creosote at 6:56 PM on January 1, 2008

What's their ZIP code?
posted by rbs at 7:07 PM on January 1, 2008

Wanting to point out that there's no way anadem gets 100Mbps ever...especially not with satellite latencies. 1Mb maybe, 10 if it's a deep package, but not 100.
posted by TomMelee at 7:36 PM on January 1, 2008

How dense is "somewhat rural?" Could they get a bunch of neighbors together and arrange to share a single DISH connection via wireless (with repeaters) to save costs? If they have a neighborhood association that group could take the project on, sparing your folks the tech and admin burdens.
posted by carmicha at 7:50 PM on January 1, 2008

I used ISDN for a while about 5 years ago and was quite happy. 128 kb each way that is technically dial up but the connect is so quick you don't notice the lag on connecting. And since it's a digital signal it's true 128 kb, which is about 3-4X the throughput of the typical 56K connection.

However, if WI is anything like VA, it'll cost as much or maybe more than the broadband cellular network. Also, nobody at the phone company will know anything about ISDN. They'll need some tech help getting it up and running.
posted by COD at 7:53 PM on January 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the input so far, everyone. rbs, I sent you a MeFi Mail with the zip code.

They live just outside of an incorporated village, and I know people less than a mile away have high-speed cable internet. Frustrating!

They don't have much contact with the neighbors, so I suspect that isn't an option. Cell phone signal is a bit iffy there (2 bars out of 5, usually) so I don't know how viable a solution that might be (are there hardware connection solutions other than a laptop PCI card?)

Keep those ideas coming!
posted by gazole at 8:07 PM on January 1, 2008

Get friendly with the people less than a mile away who have the cable internet, and build yourself a couple of cantennas?
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 PM on January 1, 2008

thanks TomMelee - I'm losing zeros (brainslip) 100 Kbps is Starband's throttled rate (I think).

If I had broadband-able neighbors in line of sight I'd use flabdablet's cantennae. Too many trees in the way for me.
posted by anadem at 8:34 PM on January 1, 2008

Response by poster: Bear in mind that the people in question are retirees with approximately zero technology savvy...
posted by gazole at 8:37 PM on January 1, 2008

See if you can find a local ISP, and ask them. For my house in very rural Washington state, I talked to an ISP based in the nearby town and was able to get broadband wireless -- little (1ft) dish on the side of the house that points to an antenna they put on a feed mill tower in the town (a few miles away). Not as expensive as the satellite costs you mentioned (either installation or monthly), it's 1.5mbps, and it's been rock solid.
posted by madmethods at 9:31 PM on January 1, 2008

FYI, some providers started calling ISDN "IDSL" a couple years ago.
posted by intermod at 9:53 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hope you can find something faster than dial-up but if not I'll reiterate anaelith's advice: don't send movies and crop and resize all pictures. 640x480 max would be appropriate; they can always ask for a larger copy if they want. And don't send every single picture you take with minor differences in poses and expressions.

But I'd check in-town for something like madmethod's method.
posted by 6550 at 12:19 AM on January 2, 2008

As someone running 28.8, I sympathize with your parents. We've been told time and time again by not only local cable providers but also by representatives of large telcos (AT&T, Verizon and others) that it is not at all within their plans to upgrade the communcations infrastructure near our home at any point in the foreseeable future.

Anyway, what you'll find is that this varies so highly for rural people. Some places are just on the brink of being upgraded and have found a sort of access due to their proximity to places that have broadband or cell service. That's how you end up with something like madmethod's broadband wireless.

Some homeowners, like myself, have zero cell service at home and have had DSL and ISDN/ISDL sold to them. Only, I was told that it's not actually available once the time to install came around. At one point an AT&T representative actually found theoretical access to HDSL for me, but the cost of sucking connection from 150 miles away was ENORMOUS. You might see if that's around, somehow. Personally, I don't understand how I could have HDSL, but not DSL. Whatever.

A lot of local legwork may be required to see if you can find a magic pot of gold, but there's an excellent chance that you'll be mailing CD-Rs for a long time to come.
posted by fujiko at 1:59 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ask at They have tools to find providers with your zipcode. This forum is just for midwest users.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:38 AM on January 2, 2008

Best answer: According to Sprint, you're (according to the zip you sent) within their EVDO coverage area. You can get EVDO for $49.99/mo (no taxes, no contract) through Millenicom (shitty website, good customer service).
posted by rbs at 7:02 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

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