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Satellite Guide By Bruce Stewart,

Want to bypass your local cable and telephone companies and get satellite Internet access? Learn what you need to get connected.

Are you getting tired of hearing everybody talk about "broadband" and high-speed Internet access, especially if your local cable and telephone companies aren't up to speed? Well, don't despair; there's another option that just requires some money and an unobstructed southerly view: satellite access to the Internet.

While the hype and the bandwidth of cable modems and DSL services have many of us chomping at the bit, high-speed satellite access is here today, and can be had almost anywhere. Hughes Network System's DirecPC service is currently the primary U.S. provider, offering coverage throughout the country.

This article describes the ins and outs of satellite Internet access, defines the terms used in the industry, and examines how it works, who can get it, and what it costs. We'll also take a look at what you need to get connected, and go over the steps involved in actually getting online.

Bruce Stewart is a freelance technology writer. He covers Web software, operating systems, the wireless industry and contributes regularly to ZDNet.

Getting your Internet feed from a satellite is not all that different from getting your TV signals from one. In both cases, data is being sent from the satellite to your equipment, and then translated and decoded on your end.

Of course with the Internet, you're interacting a lot more than with your TV signal. One previous limitation of consumer satellite technology was that it could only send data from the satellite to your receiver, and not the other way. To get around this problem, a workaround was put in place that requires a separate ISP connection to send data to the Internet, typically over an analog modem. This connection works in conjunction with the satellite feed; as information is requested via the modem line, the data is sent back via the satellite.

Last December, Hughes announced the launch of its first consumer two-way satellite Internet service, called Direc PC Satellite Return. With the new offering, satellite Internet users no longer need to maintain a separate analog modem connection for sending uplink information.

Although DirecPC became available in December, it is only operational in limited areas. At this time, the service is really just being deployed, and it is very hard to get information about where it is currently working, or how many units have been shipped. In general, DirecPC is expected to be widely deployed by the second quarter of this year.

The other high-speed satellite Internet service is called StarBand and has just recently come to market. Working with the DISH satellite network, StarBand claims download speeds of up to 500 kbps and minimum speeds of 150 kbps. This system offers a two-way satellite connection, so you don't have to tie up a phone line for the upload portion of your Web surfing. Starband users can expect upload speeds up to 50 kbps. RadioShack is one of the national distributors of StarBand, and sells computers that come with the satellite service included.

This article will focus exclusively on the features and setup of DirecPC. There are many different satellite access systems available for companies, campuses and large installations, with different capabilities from the system available for home use. These systems are beyond the scope of this article.

Although it's been somewhat ignored amongst the current high-speed Internet methods, satellite technology has one strong advantage over cable modems and DSL: accessibility. While cable companies and telephone companies are struggling to upgrade their facilities to support these technologies, the infrastructure exists today to provide 400kbps (kilobits per second) of bandwidth to almost anyone with a 21" satellite dish.

The basic idea with the traditional satellite system is that you request Web pages over an analog modem line, and the pages get sent to your computer over the satellite feed to a satellite modem card in your PC. With the newer two-way system, all communications goes over the satellite link.

It may be hard to imagine that bouncing your requested pages 22,200 miles up to the Hughes satellite and back down again would make for faster access. However, the 400kbps rate at which you receive data is almost eight times faster than today's fastest analog telephone modems, and three times faster than ISDN. However, it is not as fast as today's cable modems or DSL services, which both can provide over megabits of bandwidth.

DirecPC satellite access isn't quite as enticing as cable modems or DSL, for a couple of reasons. Currently, both those access methods are cheaper and faster than today's satellite system. But odds are you can't get either of them anyway.

You can most likely buy and install a mini-dish satellite receiver and satellite modem for a couple hundred dollars. The 21" dish systems are readily available and fairly easy to install, although DirecPC recommends a professional installation. The satellite modem is a standard PCI card, easily inserted into any modern PC with an available slot. There is also a USB version available.

Like cable modem systems, DirecPC is a "shared bandwidth" pipe. This means that your download performance may vary depending upon other users of the satellite transponder. You will probably notice slower download speeds at peak times, typically early evenings.

The DirecPC system only works on Windows machines today, though they are working on developing their service for other platforms. Macintosh users can still access DirecPC service via a third-party proxy server package, and there are other pricing options for using DirecPC with a LAN.

Monthly service plans from DirecPC will run you anywhere from $20 to $50 per month, and you can even spend more depending on your usage. This is a little more than you'll pay for comparable cable modem or DSL access, but can be worth it for many. There are not typically low-usage cable modem or DSL options that compare to the low-cost DirecPC plans, so if you're a light Web user, this pricing may work out well for you. To use DirecPC as your ISP as well will cost an additional fee a month.

Originally the DirecPC service required that you also maintain a separate ISP account for dial-up access for your upstream communication and e-mail, but they have upgraded their service so they now offer that functionality as well. And of course, if you are using the new, two-way system there is no need for this.

It may cost you a few bucks, but 400kbps is a significant step up from today's analog modem speeds, which top out at a never-realized 56kbps. Suffice to say, satellite Internet access will blow the socks off most jaded Web surfers.

To get satellite Internet access virtually anywhere, all you need is a place to mount the dish with a clear view of the southern sky (if you're in North America), and a fairly basic Windows based PC.

Minimum requirements for the PC are a Pentium class machine with either an available PCI slot or USB port. It needs 16MB of RAM and 20MB of hard drive space. You may want a little more room on your hard drive than that for all the files you'll start downloading when you see how fast it is, however

You'll also have to buy a DirecPC package, like the DirecPC Personal Edition which includes the 21" satellite dish, PCI satellite modem card, software and documentation. This package sells for around $300, and there is usually some sort of rebate or promotion being offered that will cut up to $100 off of this. There is an additional installation kit for around $50 if you plan to mount the dish yourself.

It's worth noting that while Hughes also markets the line of mini-dish based home satellite television systems, DirecTV, the standard DirecPC system cannot receive television signals, or vice versa. There is however a combo unit, called the DirecDuo, that for another $150 will perform both functions for you.

Many major retailers like CircuitCity, Good Guys and Staples offer satellite packages. If you're looking for a deal on the Internet, online retailers like MicroWarehouse, CDW, and PC Connection also carry them, as do a large network of independent local dealers. To find a dealer, check the DirecPC Web site.

Once you have the equipment, it's just a matter of installing the PCI satellite modem card in your PC, installing the mini-dish, and running a line from the dish to the modem. If you've opted for the USB version you won't even have to open up your computer; you'll just need an external satellite modem that connects to a USB port on your PC.

Installing the dish isn't too difficult if you're mechanically inclined. DirecPC provides good documentation and software tools to help with the installation and alignment. The DirecPC dish is not quite as sensitive to placement as the DirecTV model, and therefore easier to install.

They do recommend a professional installation, and if you're at all uneasy with this type of thing, it's probably well worth it. Installation will run you around $200, barring any unusual building situations. It includes installation of the satellite modem and the DirecPC software, as well as mounting the dish. This can be arranged by calling 1-800-DIRECTV; most local dealers will also provide this service.

If you choose the do-it-yourself route, once you've popped open your PC and installed the PCI satellite modem card, and mounted your dish, all you need to do is install and configure the software. The software installs easily: Run SETUP from your CD drive with the DirecPC CD inserted, and it will walk you through the installation process.

Once the software, modem and dish are installed, with cable connecting the dish to your satellite modem, you are ready to rock. Just double-click on the DirecPC icon on your desktop, and follow the instructions for registering and activating your account. Of course, have your credit card ready.

DirecPC's Internet service gives you more than just fast Web access. Included in all of their plans are their push versions of selected Web content (including ZDNet) and a usenet newsfeed, called Turbo Webcast and Turbo Newscast respectively. Version 3 also comes with an easy-to-use Electronic Program Guide to navigate through all the services and features available from DirecPC.

Clearly the largest advantage DirecPC has over other high-speed access methods is its widespread availability. No other option comes close to providing the range of coverage that DirecPC does. For many it is today's only high-speed option.

With the release of the long-awaited external USB satellite modem, you can now use DirecPC with laptop computers, and other machines where installing a PCI card is impossible. This option will only work with machines running Windows 98.

Limitations include lack of support for platforms beyond Windows; higher costs relative to other high-speed access methods; and potential problems associated with severe weather. In addition, one concern with satellite access is how adverse weather conditions may affect the service. In severe snowstorms and heavy rain, you may experience signal fade. DirecPC acknowledges this can happen, but maintains that a proper installation will keep it to a minimum

One powerful aspect of satellite technology is its ability to reach areas that are otherwise difficult to establish contact with. Remote areas have naturally gotten shortchanged when it comes to establishing services like cable or DSL that require good cable facilities and close proximity to the provider's equipment.

In this sense, satellite technology may be the great equalizer. The ability to provide service just as easily in the Sahara desert or the Sierra Nevada may give satellite technology the winning card in the high-speed access game.

For a glance at what's coming up in the not "too" distant future of high-speed satellite access, check out Spaceway and Teledesic, two sites that highlight major satellite initiatives currently under way.

Spaceway represents Hughes' next generation of broadband satellite delivery systems. The initial deployment consists of two Hughes-built HS 702 geosynchronous satellites, which will make possible bandwidth measured in Mbps (Mega or million bits per second) not kbps.

More ambitious and newsworthy has been the Teledesic project, founded by Craig McCaw and invested in by Bill Gates, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, Motorola and Boeing. Motorola will divert the existing work they have done on their Celestri project into this effort. This company, founded in 1990, plans to deploy a constellation of 288 low-Earth-orbit satellites to cover the globe.

Teledesic promises to be the first worldwide broadband satellite system, claiming they are building a "global, broadband Internet-in-the-Sky." With expected bandwidths of 64Mbps and above, the application possibilities are exciting. Designed to support millions of simultaneous users, Teledesic is projected to cost $9 billion.

Maybe we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. As a caveat, remember that the Spaceway service will be offered "as early as 2002" and Teledesic promises to have services available in 2005.

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Common terms defined Not quite as daunting as the many flavors of xDSL, there are still plenty of confusing terms and industry jargon to sort out when looking into satellite Internet access.

Here's the lowdown on the most important ones:

Upstream: data sent from you up to the Internet

Downstream: data sent from the Internet down to you

Earth Station: any system that can transmit or receive signals from satellites, including mini-dish satellite receivers

Uplink: data sent from an earth station up to a satellite

Downlink: data sent from a satellite down to an earth station

Transponder: the circuitry on a satellite that receives the uplink signal, amplifies it, and retransmits it as the downlink signal

VSAT: Very Small Aperture Terminal, small satellite dish used in high-speed satellite communications

DirecPC: the consumer high speed satellite Internet access system that uses a 21" satellite dish

DES: Digital Encryption Standard, DirecPC uses a 56-bit DES to encrypt information

CAS: Condition Access System, another security system used by DirecPC






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