Wisconsin

How Does Satellite Internet Suck? Let Me Count the Ways by Erin Wade

When the opportunity to move to the Homestead presented itself, we were generally pretty excited. In the midst of that excitement, however, there was some trepidation.

We'd been urban(ish)ites for for well over 15 years at the point that the opportunity for a pastoral life presented itself. Such a lifestyle, while largely devoid of personal privacy and the freedom to pee outside, does have it's perks: Sushi, a variety of pizza options, a movie theatre that's less than a half-hour away...

...And high-speed internet.

I feared our options would likely be limited when we started looking, and my fears came to fruition. Comcast's website made vague promises that cable might exist at that distance, but when I contacted the local(ish) office - which largely consisted only of advertising account people - they seemed confused that I would even consider it possible at our location. Verizon's website, upon scrutinizing our address, suggested that I "check back later", suggesting that, at some distant date, they might indeed offer DSL in rural Lee county. I did learn, however, that T1 service can be installed virtually anywhere. For a price.

That price? Somewhere in the neighborhood of a car payment.

When we moved we still hadn't come right down to a final decision. For a period of time we used my Verizon MiFi as a stand-in. The device works well, but it had substantial drawbacks - the largest being that I needed to take it with me during the day. I'd originally gotten it (and still use it) to have broadband data access while on the road. However, part of the benefit to this is that we use data syncing systems - Microsoft Live Sync and Dropbox (have I ever mentioned Dropbox before?...) as automatic backups - when something is saved into one of these folders when I'm on the road, it automatically syncs to the home computers. That way, should anything happen to the devices on the road I don't lose my work. Which, of course, doesn't work if both systems aren't connected to the internet.

So it was clear we'd need to do something different. I broke down and ordered satellite internet. I say "broke down", as we'd had experience with satellite internet before. My folks have internet through HughesNet at their "cabin" in Wisconsin. Our interaction with that system primarily resulted in learning about bandwidth caps. Essentially my folks had enough leeway in their contract that they could check their email and download pictures from friends and family, but when the rest of the Wades hit the wifi channel - with my brother checking, rechecking, and rechecking again on his eBay auction, Ethan watching "that cool FaceBook video" over and over, and yours truly downloading that much needed patch for Civilization 4 - well, lets just say we cross that line in a hurry.

And - when you surpass the bandwidth cap you are punished. Hobbled down to dial-up speeds, HughesNet attacking your web-surfing habits like Kathy Bates in Misery.

That experience in mind, we went with WildBlue. HughesNet claimed to have higher speed service (though the bandwidth caps between the two were nearly identical), but they counted data usage by day, while WildBlue went with a rolling 30 days of usage. This seemed more forgiving - you could have a very busy internet day, then back off for a few days and bring things back down.

The experience with WildBlue was less than stellar from the outset. It was difficult to get an installation day scheduled and, when the day came and the young man showed up to install the dish on our roof, it was raining. As the rain persisted, he kept calling back to the office and suggesting we re-schedule. The re-scheduled date was going to be several weeks away. I protested and - to his credit - he put the satellite dish up on a ladder in the rain (after I made it clear that I would do the work in the attic. For such a brave young man he was quite anxious about the attic… Chalk it up either to an unreasonable fear of spiders, or perhaps a somewhat more reasonable fear of accidentally putting one's foot through a 150-year old plaster ceiling).

Since then we've seen considerable variability in performance - the latency of satellite (combined with the bandwidth caps) makes it utterly unsuitable for watching all but the briefest of videos online, or to use it for video or audio communications. And, of course, there is particular difficulty and often a complete lack of service if there's a thunderstorm.

Or snow. Of any kind.

Or Rain.

Or a stiff breeze on a cloudy day.

Or if it just doesn't f@&king feel like working.

This last part was particularly true during a period of time in which the modem would simply stop working properly about twice a week, requiring a hard reset (being unplugged for an ungodly number of Mississippi's and then plugged back in - typically right after you'd gotten into your jammies and sat down with a beer in front of the TV…). That one went on for nearly a month due to lack of time to call in - during which I kept meticulous track of the date, times, and weather conditions (naturally), only to ultimately be told, after much fruitless conversation, that I would have to call in when the problem was happening.

It took another technical assistance call and a service call later - the latter ostensibly made necessary as they absolutely had to send out a technician to make sure there wasn't a problem with my dish alignment... ...which he did by checking on WildBlue's website - to get the modem replaced.

It was against the backdrop of these events that I was particularly interested when I heard about Virgin Mobile's new pay-as-you go MiFi plan from Merlin Mann on MacBreak Weekly. This is the same device that I already use when I travel, but without the contract or the bandwidth cap that comes with the Verizon version. All that, at less than half the cost of WildBlue per month.

So this required some research. My first stop was the Virgin Mobile website to make sure the offer was real, that "unlimited" really meant no limits (cell phone companies are apparently allowed to call the plans "unlimited" if the cap is something that a certain high percentage of their customers are unlikely to exceed - Verizon's "unlimited" plans cap out at 5GB), and whether, most importantly, there was coverage at my home.

Much to my delight, it was all true, and the Homestead was awash in a bath of orange Virgin 3G service. So my final question was whether I would experience any differences in performance if I moved from the satellite to the cellular wireless. This required some testing to evaluate, but fortunately I already had a MiFi to compare it to.

I downloaded the speedtest app on the iPad, and went to speedtest.net on my iMac, and ran a series of trials to compare both the iPad and my desktop using the MiFi and WildBlue. I expected the MiFi to be slower, but I wanted to see if the difference would be large enough to discourage me. I ran ten trials under each condition, and then compared the results by running t-tests.

The results were surprising. In download speeds there was no significant difference in most of the trials, and on the one trial in which there was a difference the MiFi was the better of the two.

The MiFi was far, far faster in upload speeds, and had significantly less latency than the satellite.

The actual numbers and graphs can be seen here for those who are interested. The bottom line, though, is that the cellular wireless was always at least as good, and was better on most measures.

So I resolved to get myself a Virgin Mobile MiFi to replace my satellite. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as they were sold out on Virgin Mobile's site, and in a number of other online locations (I may not have been the only person to listen to this week's MacBreak Weekly or to read the NY Times review of it). But a little extra searching found that they had some in stock at the Peru Wal-Mart.

Since I've gotten things set up at home I've been playing with the system and it works extremely well. Everything was hooked up quickly, and I had everything running off of the Virgin MiFi in a few minutes. I even watched an episode of the Daily Show this evening to test it - it was Magnificent!