Satellite broadband opinions wanted.
July 15, 2004 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone here use satellite internet access? [obMI]

I live in a very, very rural location, so cable and DSL are out of the question. I'm looking at satellites, but wonder if any of you can give some first-hand or okay second or third-hand advice:

How much of an issue is the latency, really? I don't care much about online games, but for things like telnet or VPN? Does it still work, just more slowly, or does it not work at all?

Is weather interference a problem? If so, how much weather are we talking about? (It's a home office, so I can't afford to lose connectivity every time it rains.)

Comparing Starband vs DirecWAY -- any reason to go with one or the other? Any horror stories about one or the other? Any other providers I should be looking at?
posted by ook to Computers & Internet (16 answers total)
Telnet (er, ssh that is) sessions are not too bad IMO. RTT is usually, though not always, less than a second. It's noticable for sure, but I've gotten used to it. VPN makes it noticably slower again - bit of a pain to do anything seriously interactive, but it does work OK.

It usually takes a thunderstorm to knock out my uplink. Black clouds in that particular spot in the sky will do it. Normal rain doesn't bother it.

I'm on DirecWay. Their bandwidth-throttle thing means you can't download more than about one ISO per day (I'm on the cheapest plan that has a fixed IP); other than that no complaints.

I'm using a Windows box as a gateway, since that's all they supported when I got the system. Nowadays, you can get a DW4020 instead.
posted by sfenders at 10:51 AM on July 15, 2004

It's absolutely horrible. I have Direcway. I hate it. I don't remember the exact issues that made us choose Direcway over starband but I think it had something to do with contract length or up-front payment.

On an average day, my ping time to is around 2s. Interactive things like ssh or telnet are basically unusable. Web browsing is arguable worse than dial-up, as the extreme packet loss and latency leads to a lot of errors: loading times out, safari gives a 'Failure to connect' error, or the page loads halfway but all the sub-connections (images, stylesheets, etc.) time out, leaving the page basically useless. I'm seriously considering getting dialup and using that for basic web browsing.

If your VPN uses any encryption, it will probably be unusable. SSL connections are unusable because they break the compression scheme direcway relies on. I had so much trouble (the innumerable timeouts mess up the session) checking my balance online that i now just leave my house and go to the atm to check it. It's significantly faster.

We haven't had much trouble with weather as far as we can tell. There are frequent, unexplained outages that seem to be in their NOC, and other mysterious times when the satellite signal strength goes from it's usual indicated ~70 to ~10, leaving it unusable, but it doesn't seem to correlate with the weather. Then again, I've only had it for a few months and haven't really experienced much weather with it.

The only thing it will help you with is it occasionally makes downloading large files faster. The upstream is horrible, probably sub-dialup. It seems like it should help a lot, because the latency shouldn't come into the picture, but the reality is, packet loss rates run so high that they drag latency back on the scene. Sometimes, you get double-digit kbytes/sec downloads, so if you download a lot of large files from websites, it's good for that. If you use bittorrent or anything like that, your limited upstream will keep you from being able to download much. For some reason it just doesn't seem to like other p2p services.

Direcway also has a 15 month contract. All said and done, I'd still probably get it again, because I work from home and I really need broadband and the only other choice is the ATT wireless broadband (significantly crappier: all the bandwidth of dialup with the latency and packet loss of satellite). Still, i hate it, and if you just want broadband to download mp3s or something, it's totally not worth it. If you want it for the web, you may be better off with dialup.

(on pre: I have the DW4020. and I forgot about the 'Fair Access Policy'. Very irritating. Also, sfenders must have a better setup than mine somehow, my RTT is consistently nearer 2s)
posted by jeb at 10:54 AM on July 15, 2004

I have a cousin using DirecWay. Latency is definitely an issue; I've used telnet (er, ssh) over his link, and have found remote text editing to be very unpleasant. (It does still work, but slowly.)

He hasn't had many serious difficulties with weather, aside from a freak thunderstorm that ripped the dish off his roof. In poor weather he usually just sees degraded speeds.
posted by Galvatron at 10:57 AM on July 15, 2004

My Dad had Starband in Southern MA and I'd use it whenever I'd go over there, so I have second hand experience mostly. My loose impressions were that while I could access my shell account with it [I'm not sure if I ever ssh'ed, I know I used telnet a lot] the latency was in the 400-600 ms range. Not horrible but not great. He had bad luck with weather though, if there was serious cloud cover he was out of luck and so he kept a dial-up account as a back-up. The d/l times were pretty quick once they got going so it made web pages a whole new experience. You'd click a link and get nothing... nothing ... nothing, and then POW, it would all load in, even on sites that probably weren't pre-cached.

He found tech support not that great, but he's an impatient techie so no surprise there. There's an interesting non-official support for Starband users called that has a $15 membership fee but gives you access to a forum where the guy who runs the site and lots of other Starband users help out. My Dad said that it was completely indispensible if you're going to go with Starband, and some of the stuff there is free so you can look around. He specifically mentions VPN as something that's problematic, but he also says that about telnet and I'd consider it serviceable, not great.
posted by jessamyn at 11:08 AM on July 15, 2004

jeb, I also don't get any packet loss. :) Either the aim on your dish is off or there's something wrong with the transponder you're on (I'm on g11, 990 I think). For downloads I get at least 30Kbytes/s, usually more.

For remote text editing, you'll need get out of the habit of using the arrow keys to position the cursor. I was already proficient with vi, so that wasn't a problem for me. :)
posted by sfenders at 11:12 AM on July 15, 2004

Another potential source of problems it the tcp settings on your machine. Lots of things should be tuned differently for satellite, but the most important thing on Linux is to set tcp_timestamps to 0.
posted by sfenders at 11:23 AM on July 15, 2004

Consider ISDN. You can get it pretty much anywhere, and you get a rock-solid, low-latency connection. The only problem is that you're limited to 128kbps up/downstream, and prices may be high.
posted by zsazsa at 12:07 PM on July 15, 2004

I've got DirectWay; I've had it for three months now. It is much better than dial-up, so if you can't get cable or dsl, it's right nice. I use desktop streaming applications, and latency is not a problem.

You can't do web hosting, due to slow upload speeds, and their FAP makes downloading very large files (over 175MB) a pain. But I hardly have to do that. I've used BitTorrent, and it's slow, but not extremely so. SSL in IE was astoundingly slow, but they have a custom version of Mozilla that's optimized for their service, and that helped a lot. FireFox looks promising even without tweaks.

I had some problems with POP3 timeouts, but I don't think it was DirecWay's fault (I set up WiFi at the same time).

Here's the biggest thing: NextGen satellite is right around the corner ( BroadBand over power lines is finally getting good field tests, and I'd expect that to be more widely available next year. But if you get new equipment from DirecWay, you'll either have to spend a bundle up front or sign a lengthy contract. You can hedge your bets by getting used equipment and avoid contracts altogether. I got a barely-used DW6000 (their top model) for next to nothing and pay DirecWay $59/month with no contracts. Look on ebay or ask around the neighborhood (like, somewhere close where DSL just came around), and you can avoid the big expenditures and commitment.

One caveat, though: if someone broke their contract and didn't pay the huge fee, the fee is tied to the equipment. If you get used equipment from someone you don't know, call DirecWay with the serial number BEFORE you buy!
posted by ewagoner at 12:33 PM on July 15, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone. I hadn't even thought of ISDN; I'm checking to see if that's available here -- if that craps out I'll try the used equipment route as you suggest, ewagoner. (Did you install the dish yourself, or were you able to get installation on used equipment?)

I'll admit jeb's got me more than a little spooked, and the upfront costs seem downright extortionate -- but anything'd be better than what I'm getting on dialup. (Our phone lines, they are not so clean.)
posted by ook at 1:33 PM on July 15, 2004

I have direcway (8 months now.) I have the low end consumer edition and really like the service as my only other option is dial-up. My downtime due to weather has been minimal. Service does go out occasionally with thunderstorms, but usually only lasts a few minutes and then most everything is good again. From what I have read about both systems the install is critical, if you do not get a good one things are going to be ugly. If you go with starband I would second the This is an excellent forum for dway users, there are many users there that could speak as to vpn and telnet.

Wildblue has been "right around the corner" for the past several years.

This site will give you some snapshots of dway up and download times.
posted by busboy789 at 1:34 PM on July 15, 2004

Upfront we were only supposed to pay $99 for the install but we we have the 15 month contract. In reality, since I live in an apartment building with a flat roof, we had to pay like $300 for the 'NPR mount' or 'non-penetrating roof mount'. This is a scam. They said they had to switch to it because of leakage problems when using screws to attach the dish to the roof, fine. The annoying part is that we couldn't get service without getting a qualified installer to set it up (this was related to some other constraint that I don't remember...probably not universal), so we couldn't just rig something. Never mind that there were other perfectly adequate bits of stuff to put screws into on our roof that wouldn't go through, we had to pay the $300 for what is basically a couple of 2x4s and cinder blocks.

The fact that other people say there's sucks less makes me want to mess with mine more. I don't really trust the guy who set it up, in part because he spent the entire time telling me about how he refused to eat any food that didn't grow underground and that consequently, he was going to live forever whereas I'm basically half in the grave. He rattled off the names of a bunch of root vegetables and then he laughed. 'I bet you've never even heard of half of those!' He was really pumped about the root vegetable knowledge disparity that existed between us.

Also, I should clarify that my situation may be slightly atypical: I have three roommates, all of us work from home in computer-oriented work at least sometimes. With four people making heavy use of the downstream, it's easy to hit the FAPcap without d/ling isos.

sfenders: the fact that you don't suffer from packet loss is very interesting. Do you have any more tuning tips (mtu?)? When I'm next home, I'm gonna check that stuff out. You've given me hope.
posted by jeb at 4:59 PM on July 15, 2004

ISDN is generally available only up to about 18000 feet from the telco central office, so if ook's really in a rural location it may well not be offered, or require a repeater which is hard to explain to brainless telco salespeople...

Wildblue, if it ever arrives, will still use geosynchronous satellites, which hang 22,300 miles over the equator, so the minimal time for two round-trips will still be 90,000/186,000 = about half a second.
posted by nicwolff at 5:38 PM on July 15, 2004

Do you have any more tuning tips (mtu?)?

Google search for direcway + tcp_timestamps comes up with remarkably little, considering that Linux (behind a Windows ICS gateway at least) is completely unusable without changing the default. It does yield this list of recommended settings.

If you've got a Windows client, there are various shareware programs that claim to adjust things for you.
posted by sfenders at 7:16 PM on July 15, 2004

RE: Wildblue. I sort-of work in the industry. The satellite is finally due to be launched this month, then there will be a half-year of betas. Everything is actually looking like the service will go live after new year's. But that said, I couldn't wait no more, which is why I jumped on the used DirecWay equipment. I've got a youngun coming in mere days, and I want to work some from home then. Just couldn't do that with dial-up.

I agree that the install is key. Everyone I've found with packet loss, etc., got a bad install. I did have to pay for mine, but it wasn't much, and he did great.

One more tip, regarding optimization. Join DirecWay Uncensored!, download their tweak tools and other software goodies, and hang out in their forums. They'll clear your problems right up.
posted by ewagoner at 7:41 PM on July 15, 2004

anyway to get in on that beta?
posted by jeb at 6:28 AM on July 16, 2004

Jeb: I haven't found a way.
posted by ewagoner at 6:36 AM on July 16, 2004

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