Satellite DSL

One Internet connection path that’s almost always available to you is the one in the sky. Satellite television services offered by DirecPC and Starband offer Internet access through their high-orbit outposts via the same technology that gas stations have been using to report your purchases when you insert a credit card at the pump. (You may have noticed that most filling stations sport a meter-wide, oval, skyward-pointing dish these days.)

That’s the same kind of expensive parabolic antenna that you will need on your roof, which counts as a disadvantage. In the past, satellite providers relied heavily on the asymmetric service scheme, because users actually used earthbound telephone lines to uplink their requests to the Internet.

Only the downlink data came literally down from space. Some users still do it this way, though providers are prodding them to upgrade to a genuine two-way link by citing many of the disadvantages that former telephone modem users are familiar with.

Because two-way dishes transmit as well as receive, a professional must install and precisely aim that dish. The installation process will take about an hour and a half. Part of that time will be spent removing your existing satellite dish and running a second (data) cable to the new one.

Naturally, you will have to install the provider’s driver software. Your PC will have to be configured as a software gateway if other networked PCs are to concurrently share the satellite link. Gateway computers must be left on continually for the clients to stay online.

The same dish can be used for the pickup of video and data; however, the transmitting satellites are separated by a few degrees in the equatorial Clarke Belt, so focus will be fuzzy on the video side. This usually won’t make a difference except in rainy weather. Otherwise, your antenna will require an unobstructed view of the southern sky.

The 44,000-mile roundtrip distance for the bouncing signal introduces speed-of-light drag, resulting in a noticeable (half-second) pause between a request for a feed and the start of the stream. This latency makes a satellite path too clumsy for tasks requiring immediate feedback, such as multiplayer video games.

Satellite data speed is often slower than land-based links. Providers advertise 500 Kbps for the downstream link and 80 Kbps for the upstream link. Again, this is a theoretical best case. It can be slower when rain fade degrades the signal or when you do not have a completely clear line of sight to the satellite.

This happens often enough to merit the installation of a dialup backup if you are running a full-time application. It will launch automatically if contact with the satellite is lost. Your screen will display a message when contact is restored, so you can manually shut down the phone link.

Your service provider may subject users to what is euphemistically termed a fair use policy. Such a policy states that if you download more than 170MB of data in a 1- to 4-hour time period, the company might strangle your bandwidth to slow speeds for another 8 to 12 hours.

During offpeak hours, defined as 2:00 A.M. to 5:00 A.M., users can download 225MB of data. If you think you need more guaranteed throughput, you can buy more, but it will cost more. Providers advertise a two-week interval between order and turn-up.

Internet service may either be bundled to include 10 email accounts and 10MB of web page host space.You may be allowed to keep your present ISP, depending on which satellite company you choose. Their ISP cost is $60 per month with a one-year commitment.

Equipment and other initial setup costs (typically $500) make it more expensive than your other choices, if you have any. That’s pricey, but if you live in the Yukon Territory, it will get you on the Web, and you can also use it to watch TV during those long polar nights.

At least one of the satellite TV companies is selling DSL service that actually comes over a phone line, just like the phone companies. That may sound confusing at first, but it has nothing to do with your satellite dish.