In a Macworld article that was published today, I describe the trials and tribulations of getting a decent level of internet access at The Barn. I moved to this nearly-rural property in December; it’s on the edge of a village a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a lovely area to live, but it’s poorly served by both broadband and mobile phone providers.
The Macworld article discusses the overall issues involved, but I wanted to write more specifically about the satellite broadband service I’m using, because I’ve had a number of queries about it from others in my situation.
tooway is a satellite internet provider which offers “high speed internet” to 55 countries in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Using the Eutelsat KA-SAT satellite, this company provides broadband access at “up to 20 Mbps,” which is sold through a network of distributors. There are several in the UK, and I chose Avonline Broadband, because their offer corresponded best to what I needed.
I remember early satellite internet which used a combination of a satellite dish for downloads and dial-up internet for uploads, but the technology has improved. Satellite internet now uses a two-way satellite dish, which has a diameter of 77 cm. As long as you are in line of sight to the satellite, you can get internet access just about anywhere.
Avonline sent a technician to install the satellite dish. Given the configuration of The Barn, it was easy to install, and isn’t very visible. A cable runs along the outside of the house and enters my office, which is where I have the satellite modem. I connect this, in turn, to an AirPort Extreme base station, and use an AirPort Express on the ground floor of my home to extend the network. Since I live in a stone house, wi-fi doesn’t propagate very well, and I need the extra boost downstairs.
As these companies say, you can get “up to 20 Mbps.” As with all internet providers, the theoretical maximum speed is not something you will see all the time, but you will get that speed occasionally. I have seen speeds up to about 21.5 Mbps in the morning, but later in the day, speeds drop, often to around 2 Mbps in the evening. And that’s the problem with this satellite internet: when I want to download a movie, I need to think ahead. Last Saturday evening, I wanted to rent a movie from the iTunes Store. I initiated the rental, and my Apple TV told me it would take about 5 hours. So I stopped, and downloaded the movie the following afternoon.
Peak periods, as I have seen, tend to be from 6 pm on weekdays, and much of the weekend. So getting faster speeds then is a problem. However, one advantage of Avonline’s offer is unlimited downloads from 11 pm to 7 am. I use this to download large app updates, movie rentals, etc., without affecting my quota. Because that’s another problem with satellite internet: you can’t download all you want. My plan has a 50 GB limit per month (not counting the unlimited period), but other plans offer less. The first month, I used up data very quickly, and found that my “smart” TV was sucking data, in small amounts, all day long. When I took it off the network, my data usage dropped a lot.
So you need to juggle two variables: speed, which can change from blisteringly fast to a trickle during the day, and a quota. With 50 GB, I can safely download the updates and apps that I need to do my work, and still have room for a movie or two. But I check my data usage every few days to make sure I’m not getting close to the limit. There’s a page I can visit to check the status of my modem, as well as my data usage. It’s not presented in numerical form, unfortunately, but in seven steps, each corresponding to 1/7 of the total data allowance for the month. (In my case, each square represents about 7 GB. In the example below, I’m one week from the end of the month, so I have no worries about downloads over the next seven days.)
As you can see above, my “default” speed is 20000 kbps down, and 6000 kbps up. While download speeds vary a lot, I’ve found that the 6 Mbps upload speed is pretty stable. I’ve never had uploads that fast in the past, and, while I don’t often need to upload a lot of data, it’s good to know that I can when I want to. (If you have satellite internet already, read my Macworld article for some tips about how to best optimize your download limit.)
The other main issue with satellite internet is latency: the time it takes for a request to be received and acknowledged. With satellite internet, this is between 700 and 800 ms, whereas with DSL, I get about 30-35 ms. Because of this, web pages load very slowly, and things like checking email can take longer than they do with normal broadband. But this only affects the first connection, so once a web page starts loading, any images on it do download quickly, at least when the speed is high enough.
However, it seems that tooway throttles some internet services. When I couldn’t download that movie to my Apple TV last Saturday, I stopped the download, went to my computer, and ran a speed test. I got about 6 Mbps downloads, which was more than enough to stream a movie from the iTunes Store. I’ve seen other times when downloading music from the iTunes Store where speeds were slow, and given my experience with the iTunes Store, it’s a lot more likely that this is the satellite provider throttling access than Apple’s servers being slow.
As for Avonline, they’ve been good enough, but not great. The technician who installed the satellite dish was excellent, and very helpful in explaining to me how the system works, and how to best use it. Customer support has been iffy: I’ve only had to call them a few times, but the wait can be very long. I’ve sent some questions by email, and have gotten replies to some, and others have been ignored. On the other hand, they were very helpful in the first few weeks, when I couldn’t figure out how I had used so much data. The support person suggested that I take my TV off the network – I’ve switched it to the DSL – and that make a huge difference in usage.
Avonline offers a “technology guarantee,” saying that if fiber is installed, you can cancel your contract with 30 days’ notice. I have a 12-month contract to start with, and it’s good to know that I’m not locked in should the telecom companies decide that areas like mine deserve better internet access.
All in all, I’d rather not have had to choose satellite internet. The speeds are too variable, and the fact that I have a monthly quota is annoying. But I don’t have much choice: the DSL I got (as a backup, and to use when I’m just surfing the web) is 2 Mbps, far too slow to download 1 GB updates to iOS, or OS X betas, which can be 4-5 GB. There are currently no plans to improve the broadband where I live, so I’m stuck for now.
Satellite internet is the internet of last resort, and its price and quality make it something you don’t really like. I had 15 Mbps DSL in York, before moving here, at less than half the price. But it’s better than nothing, and it’s a lot better than the overpriced DSL access I get here. (I pay the same amount for my DSL access here as in York, for 1/7 the speed.) And I get to live in a beautiful barn, in a lovely area. Life is made of compromises.