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