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Hughes tries to relaunch satellite Internet's image

Satellite-based Internet access suffers from a reputation as the broadband of last resort: It should work anywhere with a clear view of the southern sky, but it's expensive, it's slow, it limits your use, it can suffer the same "rain fade" as satellite TV, and the 44,472-mile round trip data takes to and from a satellite parked in geosynchronous Earth orbit hobbles many interactive services.

That image doesn't exactly excite potential customers. It also makes it easy for government officials charged with expanding broadband coverage to overlook satellite service. And so the largest satellite Internet provider, Germantown-based Hughes Network Systems, spent Monday and Tuesday demonstrating current and upcoming services in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel -- next door to the offices of the Federal Communications Commission.

When I stopped by late Monday afternoon, the first thing the company's reps wanted to communicate was, "Hey, we're not that bad." For the occasion, they said Hughes had set up a dish on the hotel's roof and split that connection among a variety of devices: a handful of computers logged into such streaming-media services as an Internet video call and Pandora's Web-radio service, a phone hooked up to an Internet-calling service and a Blu-ray player streaming a high-definition Netflix movie to a flat-panel TV.

The videoconferencing and VoIP showed a lag of maybe half a second between my saying something and the other person hearing it: notable but not too bothersome. The laws of physics ensure that you'll always have some latency to contend with in a satellite service; the executives at the demo agreed fast-paced "twitch" games wouldn't work for that reason, but said Hughes had helped developers of some interactive programs, such as Citrix's remote-login software, tweak their applications to function better over high-lag connections.

Everything else seemed to perform as it would in a garden-variety cable or DSL setup. The Hughes reps credited the amount of bandwidth available to the Spaceway 3 satellite launched last year, which allows for download speeds of up to 5 million bits per second (Mbps) and uploads of up to 1 Mbps.

Those speeds cost a lot more than under cable or DSL, though. While Hughes's basic connection starts at $59.99 a month for 1 Mbps down and 128,000 bits per second (Kbps) up, a full 5 Mbps download will run $349.99 a month. The required receiver hardware is expensive as well, at $399.98 before mail-in rebates to buy or $9.99 a month, plus a $99 upfront fee, to rent.

Hughes's primary competitor in the U.S., WildBlue, offers similar service plans up to 1.5 Mbps but doesn't match Hughes's faster speeds.

(Both companies engage in the irritating habit of requiring visitors to plug in a Zip code before seeing prices. I used The Post's 20071 at Hughes's site; WildBlue said no service was available there, so I plugged in Zip codes from rural Nevada and Texas instead.)

Then you have to factor in the "Fair Access Policy" of Hughes, which throttles back the connections of users who download more than 200 megabytes of data a day. WildBlue's policy is based on slightly more complex math, as laid out in a PDF on its site.

That can be a tough sell to consumers, and the Obama administration's broadband visionaries may not be too keen on it either.

In terms of specific policy goals, Hughes would like to see the government adjust its broadband-deployment incentives to reward area-wide services such as theirs -- possibly through subsidies to individual customers -- instead of focusing on town- or county-specific deployments.

Hughes promises faster connections through the Jupiter 1 satellite it plans to launch in 2012. That should offer downloads up of to 20 Mbps, although uploads will continue to top out at 1 Mbps. Marketing vice president Arunas Slekys said service and hardware prices would probably match today's, but with much faster speeds -- he suggested a starter plan could offer 3 or 5 Mpbs down and 1 Mbps up. Like today's service, this one will require a .98-meter (roughly 3.2 feet) dish and professional installation to lock it onto the satellite's signal.

And what about the FAP that so many satellite users have complained to me about? "Obviously we'll have more bandwidth to work with," Slekys said, but "there will be some form of constraint."

Between now and 2012, many things could change -- for example, wireless carriers will have had plenty of time to roll out longer-distance services running on the 700 MHz spectrum acquired in recent FCC auctions.

I'd like to hear from current satellite-Internet subscribers: Would you describe your service as the broadband of last resort, or would you rank it higher? What's your take on possible improvements like the ones Hughes described to me?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 18, 2009; 1:02 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Telecom  
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Comments

Satellite

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

service

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

works

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

fine

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

for

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

me.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 18, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Well played, sir. Well played...

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 18, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I am a former Direcway/HughesNet subscriber. The "Fair Access Policy" is what drove me away from the service. Fair for who, I could never figure out.

Sure, I could imagine that they didn't want subscribers who would access BitTorrent streams 24/7, but that certainly didn't describe me. However, if I were to purchase a couple of albums on iTunes Store (content which was fairly paid for), or attempt to watch Saturday Night Live on Hulu, it wouldn't take long to hit the magic threshold and get throttled back for 24 hours. That throttling back was severe enough to impact even email downloading, not to mention web browsing. Not only that, but the suggested 1MB/sec download rate was more typically 300-500 kb/sec, and that was _before_ encountering FAP.

Then there came the day a couple of years ago, when I discovered a local company that distributes internet via some sort of microwave set-up. There's a square (diamond?) shaped antenna on my roof, pointed at a water tower a couple of miles away. For just five dollars more than HughesNet charges (still a steep price compared to similar-speed DSL plans), I reliably get 3.5-5.0 MB/sec download speeds, and perhaps 1.5 MB/sec uploads. I'm a happy camper for now, even though I don't quite get the (up to) 10 MB/sec download speeds they advertise.

Heaven help even these saviors, though, should DSL ever make it out to my semi-rural neighborhood. My intown office gets reliable downloads of 4.5 to 5.0 MB/sec for about half what my "microwave" service at home costs. I'll switch in a heartbeat if those speeds at those prices arrive at home.

Posted by: elaineftw | November 18, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

One final comment:

Hughes Net doesn't oversell their service. All they claim is that for those who have no alternative other than dialup, they are better. You really can't argue with that.

What they won't tell you is that, even in rural and semi-rural settings, there are now far more alternatives than just dialup. And most of them are faster than HughesNet and priced competitively as well.

Posted by: elaineftw | November 18, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Current Fair Access Policy is a joke for users. My parents live in a place where satellite is the only option - they bought a roku box that streams netflix to their computer, and it will work on the hughesnet connection but FAP kicks in about 60 minutes into a movie, preventing them from using their service. They are incredibly light users of broadband, but get no credit for all the data they *don't* download. Just punished when they want to use broadband for one of it's core features: streaming media.

Until Hughes can get enough bandwidth to let users stream media, they will remain a backwater, no matter how much PR they engage in with artificial demonstrations at swanky hotels (what are the odds that their FAP policy was turned on for the service being demo'ed at the Mandarin?)

Posted by: unequivocal | November 18, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

At one time a decision was made to run power lines to anyone who needed one, no matter how rural the area. I wonder what went into that decision, and why power companies did not cherry pick customers in more densely populated areas?

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | November 18, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I live in rural southwest Georgia so for me Hughes is not the service of last resort, it's the only service available if you don't count dial up. We are supposed to be getting a wi-fi service within the next two years and I can hardly wait to switch. I hate the FAP and have been caught by it a few times.

Posted by: BuddyEidson | November 19, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

We've subscribed to WildBlue for over three years, our only option other than dial-up. For $50 a month we get a nominal 500kbps down (which drops dramatically during the evening hours). Upload is abysmal, usually under 75kbps, much too slow for even the lowest res video chat.

Access to secure sites is horribly slow. During prime time, it can take minutes (2, 3, 4, even 5) *per page* when I pay my credit card bills. Time outs (usually Flash heavy) plague many sites. If it weren't for AdBlock Plus, I couldn't even load many sites.

But the caps are the worst. A rolling, 30-day, 7.5GB cap. Period. Streaming video or internet radio? Not going to happen. Netflix "instant" view? Nope. VOIP? Never. Video chat? Well, I can hear the other party but that's all. We find ourselves bumping into the FAP zone much too often as is and we're not into games or P2P or any of the bandwidth guzzling activities.

Satellite is NOT broadband, not at a semi-affordable price point. Friends & family pay far less for far, far more without the ridiculous cap.

If we had another option, I'd leave WB in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, AT&T has no interest in that last mile. All customers, they say, have broadband access now that AT&T has partnered with WB.

Posted by: washpost50 | November 19, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the other poster that satellite is not broadband in any real sense.

I had Wildblue for a year. It was the pits. Rain fade is terrible in the Ka band, much worse than satellite TV. The latency inherent in satellite service is a killer for many internet applications. I never saw the promised data rates. Service would go out randomly for hours or days. Customer service was a bad joke. Eventually I found an alternative and gave up on WB several months before the contract expired. I didn't even try to terminate early, I was just so happy to end that miserable marriage.

Posted by: waaag | November 19, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I was one of the earliest users of Hughes / DirecWay / DirecPC, and I stayed with them until last year. The biggest problem was the so-called "Fair Use" policy. My subscription was not at the lowest level, but trying to download one serious system update would have me violating the measly 250MB per day that they allowed me. Understand that on many days I had no trouble staying under the limit, but it's not like the bandwidth I _didn't_ use counted toward my occasional big download. It became intolerable. And BTW, I couldn't use Skype over Hughes, and there were other sites I had trouble using via Hughes that work fine over DSL. And then, as a final insult, I had to pay a $300 fee to leave Hughes. Three hundred dollars after all those years as loyal customer? Caveat emptor. Big time.

Posted by: CandaceVan | November 19, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

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