Choosing Internet Access (Wireless)

You probably connect to the Internet using DSL or cable modem service, both of which deliver data over fat broadband connections, meaning they feature fairly wide bandwidth and allow data to download fairly quickly. (If you’re going online via a dial-up connection, I hope you’re considering switching to broadband access before venturing much farther into this topic. Speedier broadband access is practically required for connecting to the Internet nowadays, if you don’t want to spend your life in front of your computer, waiting for Web pages to load and programs to download.)

But what if you live in an area that doesn’t have either DSL or cable modem broadband service? What’s a computer user to do? If you live someplace where the local telecommunications providers haven’t gotten around to offering broadband service, or if you live too far out of range of them to be able to offer you a high-bandwidth pipe, you can always turn to at least one other option.

In many cases this option is satellite Internet access. In some areas, you might be able to subscribe to something called fixed wireless, which means the company broadcasts a signal directly to your home (and you back to them). Both of these options can be expensive, but they are options.

I cover another wireless Internet technology that uses the cellular telephone network elsewhere in the topic.In addition, some cellular carriers have launched so-called 3G (third-generation) networks that provide mobile data services, and 4G is on the way.

Using Satellite Service

Just like satellite TV services deliver television programming directly to your home, satellite Internet providers provide you with broadband access that you can use to do anything you would do on the Internet over DSL and cable modem services.

Satellite service is great for folks who are off the beaten path (or don’t even have a path nearby). The service might also be an alternative if you simply dislike your current DSL or cable modem provider, but beware some downsides:

♦ You need a clear view to the south, as that’s where the satellite is in geosynchronous orbit — right over the equator.

♦ Bad weather can slow or cut off your Internet access, just like heavy rain and snow tend to disrupt satellite TV service.

♦ Trees that grow in your satellite path are not your friends. And as I learned the hard way, don’t set up service in winter, when the trees have no leaves. As soon as spring comes, those leaves will grow back and obstruct your once-great, clear view to the south.

♦ Expect more latency than you experience with a typical cable, DSL, or fiber broadband connection. It takes time for the signal to get from the satellite to a receiver/transmitter dish, and a similar amount of time for the signal to get from the dish to the satellite. Thus, some time-sensitive Internet activities such as gaming and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) don’t work well with a satellite connection.

StarBand by Spacenet

StarBand by Spacenet satellite service is available throughout the entire United States (yes, even Alaska and Hawaii), Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s a two-way, always-on broadband service similar to DSL and cable modem service. It works with PC and Mac, Linux, and Unix, although tech support only provides help with Windows 2000 Professional, Windows XP Home, and Windows XP Professional and Mac OS X — that’s according to the FAQ on the company’s page.


Traveling with connections

StarBand evidently used to have a service that let you mount a satellite antenna on your RV so you could stay connected no matter where you traveled in the United States. Now, according to the FAQ on the Web site, that’s not possible. The antenna both transmits and receives information to and from the satellite, and such a connection requires too precise an installation to allow travel.


Fair use policies

Both StarBand and HughesNet employ something they call fair use or fair access policies. In a nutshell, the policies may limit how much bandwidth you can consume in a given time period. They’re designed to keep a small number of users from monopolizing the services.

StarBand "reserves the right, and will take necessary steps, to prevent improper or excessive consumption of bandwidth used," according to its fair access policy. It does, however, relax the policy during the wee hours of the morning. As for HughesNet, it too relaxes its fair access policy in the middle of the night. "Currently, you can use your HughesNet service for several hours during the middle of the night (the "Download Period") with relaxed application of the Fair Access Policy. The hours of unrestricted use shall begin no later than 2:00 AM and end no earlier than 7:00 AM eastern time."

Monthly service fees start at $69.99 for Nova 1000, a tier with download speeds up to 1 Mbps and upload speeds up to 128 Kbps. A one-time equipment fee includes the satellite dish and satellite modem, and that costs $299.99. An installation fee also applies, as StarBand requires that a professional install the equipment. Self-installation is not allowed.

A second tier of service, called Nova 1500, offers download speeds up to 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds up to 256 Kbps, and it starts at a monthly rate of $99.99 (plus equipment and installation charges).


HughesNet, formerly DirectWay, which itself was formerly called DirecPC, offers a satellite Internet service very similar to StarBand’s. For its home package, it advertises up to 1.0 Mpbs for download and 128 Kbps for upload.

The service provider also limits to 22 the number of concurrent Internet connections. Unlikely a problem for simple Web surfing, but once you have a Web browser, e-mail program, music download software, and other Internet applications working all at the same time, the 22 connections begin to want for more.

HughesNet has many pricing plans, offering Home, Pro, ProPlus, Elite, and more, each of which has different tiers of bandwidth both upstream and down. Furthermore, you can choose whether to purchase or lease the necessary equipment. The sheer number of possibilities makes it impossible to list all the prices you might pay for HughesNet service, but expect to pay between $99 and $299 upfront for equipment and $59 to $349 monthly for bandwidth.

Maxing Out with WiMax

A lot of people in the wireless arena are asking, "Whatever happened to WiMax?" WiMaxstands for world interoperability for microwave access. It’s a broadband wireless service that has the capability to provide service for people who get around.

One firm predicted that by 2009, more than 7 million subscribers worldwide would be using the fixed version of WiMax (not including mobile uses). What’s so great about WiMax is that it’s like having ubiquitous Wi-Fi access. Whether you’re in your home, in your backyard, or in your car, you would have constant Internet access. Somehow, WiMax didn’t jump into the center of the arena like many people thought it would.

WiMax had, and still has, the possibility of providing fast Internet access throughout a metropolitan area (unlike a local multipoint distribution system, which I describe next). Think about cell phones and how they continue to work as you move around. You don’t have to turn off your cell phone when you leave your house and then turn it on again when you get in your car, so why should you have to do that with wireless Internet access? If WiMax ever makes the kind of splash that pundits once predicted, you won’t need to do that.

WiMax requires new access adapters in desktop and laptop computers because it’s incompatible with Wi-Fi technology. While it’s been slow to catch on, there are a few WiMax devices on the market — it will be interesting to see if they take off or simply fizzle out.

Next post:

Previous post: