Living out here in rural Bumsquat, USA it has been almost impossible to live at the technological cutting edge our city brethren take for granted. We Bumsquatters are pretty much limited to dial-up using our telephone lines or satellite from Hughesnet or Wild Blue. A few are lucky enough to be within range of ADSL or cable systems but they generally consider themselves better than the rest of us and are generally hostile.
Before any of this will make sense you have to understand the basics of two things, bandwidth and caps. Think of bandwidth as a door whose width is fixed. The width of the door’s opening determines how many people can come and go without bumping into each other and slowing things down. Caps are the limits on how many times you can come and go through the door. The best of all worlds would be a door of infinite width and no limits on how often you could use it. As in everything, however, there is no perfect world. All Internet systems have limited bandwidth and some kind of caps. The whole Internet system has limits. Like any highway system it can only handle so much traffic and during peak times the traffic can come to a crawl.
I’ll not bother applying these ideas to dial-up but here’s how they apply to “broadband” systems, beginning with satellite providers. Satellites are very expensive to put into orbit and they have very narrow doors. To make them profitable companies like Hughesnet and Wild Blue “over sell” their bandwidth. They assume not everyone will want through their door at the same time so they offer the service to more people than they can possibly support. They also place a cap on how often people can utilize the door. In the case of Hughesnet the basic plan permits one to download a maximum of 250Mb of data per day. If you exceed the cap your service is slowed down to a literal snail’s pace for a penalty period.
If you live near a cell tower cellular wireless may be an option. It too is expensive and bandwidth is also effected by volume of users and most cellular companies place caps on usage. Download speeds will be determined by quality of cellular signal, proximity to a tower, type of technology being employed by your nearby tower. I can connect to the Internet using my Apple iPhone and experience 1Mb average download speed. Living in a woods means the quality is effected by season. The more leaves, the slower the speed. All the AT&T towers in our area are 3G (3rd. generation) and some are advertised as being 4G (also called HSPA+). A third technology is 4G LTE but is available in only a few select markets at present and Bumsquat didn’t make the list.
I purchased an AT&T Elevate hot spot that is capable of using all current levels of wireless technology. Over the last three weeks I’ve been experimenting with it to see if it would be a practical ISP for me. The results are very mixed. While driving to and around Florida I ran a series of speed tests. Where 4G was available the download speeds averaged 4Mb. In the Atlanta and Saint Petersburg areas I found LTE available and experienced download speeds as high as 18Mb with the typical being closer to 10Mb. Here in the woods the speed and performance is diminished. When I’m able to stay connected here at home, I am seeing speeds around 2Mb. Staying connected is a problem, however, because the leaves wreak havoc on the signal.
AT&T charges $50 a month for wireless ISP and places a 5Gb cap or limit on it’s use. Additional bandwidth is billed at $10 per Gb. Overall for me, cellular ISP is not the answer unless I can obtain a more reliable and consistent signal. Maybe they’ll erect a tower in my back forty!
Things are about to change for us Bumsquatters, however. Satellite ISP, up to now the sphincter of broadband service, is entering a new technological phase. The Wild Blue company has been purchased by ViaSat and is now offering a new service called Exede. I’ll not get into the technology other than to say it overcomes several of the problems associated with all current satellite ISPs.
Here’s what a day with Hughesnet (and Wild Blue) is like. You’re promised download speeds of up to 1Mb and early in the morning that’s what you’ll receive. But, as the sun rises and people in central and western America wake up and log on the door gets crowded and the system slows. By 9 p.m. don’t even think about watching a YouTube video.
The Exede system is different. Instead of everyone using the same satellite Exede divides the nation into zones and assigns a specific door to each so in your assigned zone you are not competing for door time with those in California. This should work pretty well in the beginning but I can foresee Exede overselling the zones. Exede also uses some new technologies to greatly increase download speeds. They claim that using their new technology you can expect download speeds up to 12Mb but with a monthly cap of 7.5Gb of data. All this cost you $50 a month plus some installation charges and a 2-year contract.
Not to be outdone Hughesnet has announced it will be launching a new satellite in July and will be offering something called 4Gen technology. There are almost no details available but the rumored claim is they will offer downloads of up to 20Mb. I talked to Hughesnet this morning about how this would affect existing customers but came up with zero for an answer.
I suppose for the time being I’ll just have to tolerate the inherent, but familiar, limitations of Hughesnet, along with their army of Indian technical support centers. Trying to get technical assistance from some guy named Danny in Calcutta is fodder for yet another story.