Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Satellite Internet Service: What's Up?

Speaking of broadband access in rural areas, I ran into an interesting issue out at my folks' place this summer. I was staying with them during Bonnaroo and stayed on afterwards to work from their house for the next week. Well, as mentioned, they live out in the boondocks, so they can't get DSL or cable internet. After a nightmarish ordeal with Verizon's wireless broadband service (basically the Verizon EV-DO card ate their Mac... twice), they finally went with Hughes Net. It's a little expensive, $60 per month as compared to about $30 to $40 for most cable and DSL services. But if it's all you got, it's not too bad a deal.

And, wow, smoking speed! I did a speed test to see how fast the connection was. I got 1,000 kbps downstream and 640 kbps upstream. That's great!

But when I connected to my work VPN, it just got miserable. Top downstream speeds of 124 kbps, down to as low as 14 kbps. Like, almost dial-up modem speeds.

So what's the deal with this? Partly there was a geographical thing going on: I was in Tennessee, but my link point to the rest of the world was not. Since it's satellite, of course, my gateway to the Internet so somewhere else. I got a little bump up when I switched from the Northridge (Southern California) VPN gateway to the Seattle gateway. But even then it was still miserable (that's the gateway on which I got the scorching 124 kbps).

No, there's something else going on there. My mom had run into an issue where her access had slowed to a crawl. The customer service person tried to tell my mom that there was an FCC regulation that each user has a 300 MB or 400 MB download quota before their access is throttled. This is bollocks, as far as I can tell: the FCC does have jurisdiction over Internet access pricing of sorts, but I know they don't control the amount that I can download or upload.

But maybe there's something about the traffic being on satellite? In that milieu, limiting the amount of traffic per user might make sense. Or maybe it's just some jabber to limit Hughes's costs. The problem is not limited to my mom, as these posts show, editorial and grammatical flaws notwithstanding (and obvious bias towards complaints as opposed to kudos).

Or, as opposed to limit costs, maybe it's to drum up some more money from subscribers' pockets? Because look at this:

Stated speeds are not guaranteed. Actual upload speed will likely be lower than speed indicated during peak hours. Click here for more info on typical speeds. Download speeds may also be temporarily slowed in cases when patterns of system usage exceed the download threshold for an extended period of time. See the HughesNet Fair Access Policy for more information. If you choose to run VPN over satellite, your data speeds may be reduced by as much as 50–75%. Despite the high speeds, time-sensitive applications, such as multi-player “twitch” games, are also not recommended over HughesNet.

Now here's their "Fair Access Policy". Note the "it's not us!" exception: all high-speed Internet Service Providers utilize “Shared Bandwidth Technology." This is that old chestnut about the web geek or teen-aged porn freak sucking up all the cable access in your neighborhood. Said chestnut has never affected me in all my years of cable internet access, which includes various stints with AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and now Charter (which has been the weakest of them, limited mainly by crap upstream speeds, although for a while my router was actually the most limiting factor in my upload capabilities).

Also, I like that VPN qualifier on there: why is VPN access in particular slowed down? There's a constant data heartbeat, yes, and the traffic is encrypted, where the rule of thumb is that that adds 20% to the size. But why? And it's high-speed access, but not high speed in the sense that... it's fast?

Are there any other satellite providers (Hughes was DirecTV, so that's the only other provider I've heard about)? Do or would they have these same restrictions? Is Hughes just predatory or are there good reasons for this crap-tastic "Fair Access Policy," even with the 50% premium over cable or DSL for basic broadband access?

No comments: