Broadband at last (sort of)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Technology
November 14th, 2006 • 3:44 pm

Long-suffering Betalogue readers have had to endure my complaints about Mac OS X computing with a dial-up Internet connection for many years. So it’s only fair that I should post about the fact that I have finally managed to get out of dial-up hell—sort of.

See, the reason I’ve been stuck with dial-up for so long is that I live in a rural area in southwest Nova Scotia, Canada, and I am unfortunate enough to live in a specific area that is not covered by any of the usual options.

More specifically, there is no DSL because the phone company has yet to upgrade their systems/network to extend their reach to our specific area. I suspect that the problem is a combination of distance (DSL has a limited range over land lines) and land line quality. I have been stuck with dial-up for more than ten years now and I have never been able to get above 28.8 kbps, regardless of which flavour of 56K modem I was using, even though the dial-up service supposedly supports speeds up to 56 kbps. This to me seems to indicate that my phone lines are not even good enough for dial-up. (I don’t hear any static or any noise in voice communications, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lines are perfectl)

There is no cable because the local cable company has never bothered to expand its cable network to include our particular “loop.” We are not on the main highway, but there are other areas in the region that are not on the main highway and have had cable for years just the same. For some reason, there has never been cable down here. Of course, today most people in our loop have satellite TV, so the cable company has no real hope of converting a great number of potential customers from satellite to cable TV. But even if they had potential customers for both cable TV and Internet access, I am not sure that they would come. The last discussions with them indicate that, in their view, the initial investment for them to provide cable to the 120-odd households in our area would be $300,000 CDN. With a typical subscription rate of $40/month, they feel that it would take them far too long to recoup their investment, so there is no business case for them.

There have been discussions between local elected officials and the cable company about local wireless, with a tower somewhere central in our area, but even that would be an investment of more than $100,000, and the cable company still won’t do it without an influx of funds from outside (i.e. a government grant). These discussions have been going on for years, and nothing has happened. So there certainly doesn’t appear to be any hope in the near future.

The phone company is not coming because they would probably have to upgrade their equipment, and they also have a near-monopoly on dial-up access locally, so I suspect they are pretty happy to continue charging us $25/month or so for dial-up (which probably costs them very little in maintenance) instead of $40/month for high-speed (with competition from the cable company and higher costs). The cable company feels that the investment is not worth it.

What can you do?

You can turn to “grey market” solutions, including experimental local wireless set-ups designed to share an Internet connection from a nearby neighbourhood that does have cable or DSL. I have been exploring this for the past year or so with a local guy, but we are not going anywhere either. There are engineering challenges (getting high enough above the trees, relaying the signal over several miles) and there is little incentive for the guy to work on this, since it is not exactly “legal” to share one’s household Internet connection with someone several kilometers away, and the technological challenges are significant. As far as I know, he’s still working on it, but it’s been a year now since I first gave him some money for the hardware to get started, and he still hasn’t delivered. I haven’t given up on it, but for all I know it could take another year before anything happens.

The last solution is satellite-based high-speed Internet access. For several years, I resisted the idea, for various reasons. One of them was that it was pretty expensive: something like $2,000 for the equipment, and then monthly fees in excess of $100/month. As well, originally, satellite-based Internet access was only one-way, and it was PC-only, with a USB modem. Another reason was that there was no well-known, established provider. I didn’t exactly fancy spending all that money on equipment and connection fees, only to get shoddy service or see the company go out of business. There were also concerns about weather conditions and how they would affect the reliability of the system.

Finally, there was the latency issue. There’s no way around it: the signal takes time to travel to and from the satellite. (There is little hope of anyone breaking the speed-of-light barrier any time soon.) This latency means that satellite-based Internet access is not appropriate for real-time applications (like on-line gaming) and can be pretty slow for transactions that require a lot of back-and-forth between the client computer and the server, such as secure connections.

(It also helped that, in the past several years, for large downloads I have always been able to go to the head office of my employer to use their Internet access, which currently goes up to 8 Mbps. It is a 20-minute round trip, so it’s not an ideal solution, but it certainly is something that I can use.)

The bottom-line is still that satellite-based Internet access is the only alternative to dial-up for me in my home office at this point in time, and that there are no indications that this will change any time soon.

Recently, the local phone company itself started offering a satellite-based high-speed service. I heard about that, checked the information, and decided that I couldn’t wait any longer. This is a service offered by the local phone company, so there is hope of getting at least a minimum standard of reliability and service quality. The prices are more reasonable than they used to be—although still significantly higher than either DSL or cable: the basic package requires a one-time investment of between $599 and $999, and the monthly fees start at $59.95.

The rates are not particularly impressive: 512 kbps for downloads and 128 kbps for uploads. (You can get better rates if you pay more.) And there is also a “Fair Access Policy” (not mentioned on the web site) that effectively limits your downloads to 27 MB per hour (for the basic package). If you exceed that limit, you are throttled back to dial-up speeds for the rest of the hour. The policy is not strictly enforced—it all depends on overall levels of system usage by all customers. But it is something else to take into account.

Yet, even those rather unimpressive numbers are nearly 20 times better than dial-up, at least for downloads. When you take into account the fact that, in order to be able to use dial-up in my home office environment, I have to have a second phone line, with a basic cost of nearly $40/month, you soon realize that, whatever the drawbacks of satellite-based Internet access are, it is still a better alternative, as long as the initial cost is not too great and it works reasonably well.

So when the local phone company launched their service a couple of months ago, I decided to take the plunge. I ordered the system a couple of weeks ago. There were a couple of glitches: the company managed to send me the wrong type of contract, and then the installer didn’t show up last week on the originally scheduled date. (Too bad for them: It was a beautiful, sunny day.) But the installation team was here this morning—and they had to work in the rain and wind, of course.

The installation took them a couple of hours, during which they managed to damage the wood flooring in my office with their drilling (fortunately not in a visible spot). Once the satellite modem finished downloading its own software update, it started working as expected, and Mac OS X was able to obtain an IP address without difficulty. (No configuration required.) I had Internet access!

We tested the actual bandwidth with the Bandwidth Speed Test site, and established that we had a sustained rate of approximately 250 kbps, which was half of what the service promised. But the installer told me that it was probably due in part to the weather conditions and that it would be better on a clear day. I tested it again this afternoon (still windy, but no rain), and indeed I got a better rate of nearly 400 kbps, which the tester program said was “not bad.” Guess not. It certainly is better than dial-up!

Changing the set-up of my local area network to accommodate this new source of Internet access took me a few moments. For some reason, the AirPort Extreme Base Station was not able to get the IP address from the satellite modem right away, but after a few minutes of fiddling, it eventually did start to work, sharing the Internet connection both wirelessly and via Ethernet.

I also had to change the wireless security options for the network and add encryption, since I now have a better connection than dial-up, although the security risks in my neighbourhood are pretty low. I used 128-bit WEP, since I wasn’t sure about the other options. I’ll have to look into them later.

How well does it work? Well, it certainly is much better than dial-up for many tasks, including, of course, loading sites with large pictures or video files, etc. It is undoubtedly much slower than the 8 Mbps connection at my employer’s office, and I certainly will still be able to use the multi-tasking skills that I have developed and perfected over many years of using dial-up, but it is a relief to see simple things like pictures load much faster, to be able to get NetNewsWire to download more than one RSS feed at the same time, and more generally not to have to worry too much about what each Internet application is doing when you are running several of them (Safari, NetNewsWire, Speed Download, Mail, etc.) at the same time.

While I am a “creative” user of the Internet and do a fair amount of uploading or remote management as well, there is no denying that a lot of my Internet access is spent downloading stuff, and so I don’t expect the difference between the download speed and the upload speed to be too much of a factor.

The satellite-based Internet package comes with 5 hours of dial-up access per month, for “weather outages” and for use while travelling, so I expect that I will be able to cancel my dial-up subscription very soon, and get rid of this second phone line as well. If the system works reasonably well in weather conditions such as the ones we had this morning (wind and rain, at times heavy), I hope that it means that it will work reasonably well most of the time. We’ll see what happens with the first snow storm, and also when the leaves come back in the spring—but so far, so good.

I already had one “outage” today, however, with the system not responding at all after I tried to download a very large web page. I ended up unplugging the satellite modem and plugging it back in, and things went back to normal. I also had another outage of a few minutes during a period of very heavy rain and wind, but the system fell back on its feet once the worst was over. Hopefully these were fairly isolated incidents, and not something that will happen too often. (The second one was definitely weather-related. Maybe the first one was too.)

I have tried a couple of secure web sites (including my banking service) and it seems to work reasonably well. It’s not worse than dial-up, anyway.

The latency is definitely noticeable in various circumstances, but it’s just something that I will have to learn to live with. It’s not a huge inconvenience when you have been forced to make do with dial-up speeds for 10 years. There are some things that I will still not be able to do over the Internet, like playing on-line games in real time or using voice over IP services, but I wasn’t able to use these things with dial-up either…

So there we are. It was a relatively painless transition (since the company is the same as with dial-up, the SMTP server is still the same), and Apple’s software and hardware were reasonably well equipped to adjust to the new situation (apart from the brief period during which it looked like I would need network voodoo). We will see over time how well things work, and whether it is worth the extra $35/month to get 1.0 Mbps download speeds and a higher hourly threshold. At this point, however, I am quite content with a solution that costs me little more than what dial-up with the extra phone line used to cost, and is certainly significantly better overall.

It’s not quite the “Broadband at last” post that I would have written if I had finally been able to get DSL or cable for my home office—hence the “(sort of)” in the title. Cable or DSL might still happen in the future—I certainly hope that it will not be another 10 years before I move beyond satellite-based Internet speeds. But for now it is a relief to finally be able to say goodbye to dial-up.

3 Responses to “Broadband at last (sort of)”

  1. Arden says:

    Welcome to the high-speed world. We hope you enjoy your stay. :)

    Have you ever looked into any of the wireless high-speed providers out there? They use cellular towers and a dish to deliver the Internet at DSL-comparable speeds. Where I live, the dominant company is Clearwire… are there any options like this in Nova Scotia?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Thanks. I am sure I will get used to it very quickly. :-)

    There are probably some wireless high-speed providers in urban areas in Nova Scotia, but definitely no one around here. To give you an idea, we can barely use our cell phone (pay-as-you-go, only for emergencies while on the road) in our own house. The signal is very poor.

    Those are the very real drawbacks of living in the country, I am afraid.

  3. Betalogue » Lion and Internet bandwidth says:

    […] might remember, in my previous location, for many years I was limited to dial-up. Then I had to use satellite-based Internet access. And finally I had access to a local wireless service. But none of these options was ever […]

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