Aliant satellite high-speed Internet: After one month

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Technology
December 14th, 2006 • 11:24 am

I have now been using my phone company Aliant’s high-speed Internet via satellite service for a month, and I figure it was time to take stock and discuss how well the service works.

As I expected from the very beginning, the reality is a mix of good and bad.

The good is that this service works transparently with Apple hardware and software. After years of having to share a single dial-up connection (peaking at 28.8 kbps) with two, and sometimes three, Mac computers via an AirPort Base Station with built-in dial-up modem, we are now able to share an Internet connection that peaks at 512 kbps (download) and 128 kbps (upload) via our AirPort Extreme Base Station.

This obviously means that both my wife and I can now surf the net at the same time without testing the patience of the other person. It also means that, most of the time, Mail no longer complains about POP servers that don’t respond and no longer takes my accounts offline without my permission, or ask for my password when it knows full well that the problem is not my password. (I say most of the time, because unfortunately, it still happens sometimes.)

It also means that I am able to use Speed Download to download files (mostly music files from music blogs) in the background at a limited rate of approximately 7 KB/s. (Speed Download is much more than a download accelerator and has a “bandwidth throttle” that lets you limit the amount of bandwidth it uses and effectively is the exact opposite of a download accelerator.) I can do this and it still doesn’t impact the rest of my Internet-related activities in a significant way.

I limit the downloads to 7 KB/s per hour because, in theory, the Internet connection with Aliant comes with a download limit of 27 MB/hour. This is obviously intended to prevent abuses and share the available bandwidth more evenly across the user base. In theory, if you download more than 27 MB in less than an hour, for the remainder of the hour the system throttles you back down to dial-up speeds. But in reality, I have yet to experience this limit. Based on what customer service representatives have told me, the throttle only kicks in when necessary. In other words, you can get away with downloading more than 27 MB in less than an hour as long as it doesn’t impact the service significantly for other users. I have actually managed to download large software updates (over 150 MB) by simply starting them before going to bed. In the morning when I went back to the computer, the updates were there. So in effect the download limit is not a huge problem for us. (When I really do have to download lots of large files, I usually go to my employer’s office 10 minutes down the road.)

The lag (time that elapses between clicking on a link and the download actually starting) due to the distances travelled by the signal is certainly noticeable, but overall I don’t find that it is much worse than the response time I used to get when I was on dial-up. And when the downloads actually start, they are obviously significantly faster.

Things also work reasonably well with secure connections—better than I expected, actually. It’s not ideal, but it works for the relatively small amount of work that I have to do online via secure connections.

Now on to the bad news… This system is most definitely sensitive to weather conditions. In the first month of use, I have already had several outages caused by either heavy rainfall (usually with wind) and snow storms with heavy, wet snow and icy conditions. When things are not too bad, the connection drops just for a few minutes, and then comes back up. But on several occasions already, I have lost the signal for several hours.

On one occasion (last Friday), we actually had a mix of rain and heavy wet snow and temperature that dropped below freezing in the evening. This caused a complete loss of signal while the snow was still falling. Then after a few hours, when the snow stopped, in the late afternoon, I got the signal back, and it worked fine for a few hours. And then around 8 pm it stopped working altogether, even though there was no rain or snow, just cold wind.

When I got up in the morning, things were still not working. I went outside and checked the dish, and it was perfectly clean, with no build-up of ice or snow. So I got on the phone with the tech support staff. They got me to try a few things, and concluded that there was indeed a problem. They told me that, most of the time, the problem is with a build-up of ice or snow on the dish itself—which wasn’t the case here—and in some rare cases with a build-up of ice or snow on the so-called low noise amplifier or “LNBF,” i.e. the part that sits in front of the dish and actually receives/emit the signals.

The tech representative said that it was either that or a defect in the hardware, so he arranged to get a new kit sent to me on the following Monday. In the mean time, I was supposed to use dial-up instead. The satellite high-speed Internet comes with 5 hours of dial-up access per month in case of such outages, but the representative told me that I could use it for more than 5 hours and just get the company to cancel the extra charge due to the outage and the wait for the new kit.

We were away on the Saturday, and when we got back on Sunday, the weather had actually substantially improved and the temperature was well above freezing again. So I went to test the system and, sure enough, after restarting the AirPort Base Station, everything worked fine again. So I phoned the company to tell them to cancel the shipment of the replacement kit, and they told me that they would try to stop it, but it might still go out. And indeed I got the kit on Tuesday. I will just return it untouched, because obviously there is nothing wrong with the equipment.

Yesterday (Wednesday), we had heavy rain for a while again, and again we lost the signal. Frustratingly, the system didn’t come back up automatically, even after the rain had stopped. But I found that restarting the AirPort Base Station did get things rolling again.

The conclusion here is that such outages and the subsequent troubleshooting steps are probably going to become part of our regular routine—because there is just no way that we are going to avoid nasty weather, especially in the winter here in Nova Scotia. My hope is that dry snow that does not stick will not cause as many problems, but we’ll see.

There is also probably not much point in trying to complain about this with the company. They are not going to advertise their satellite high-speed Internet service by warning potential customers that it is significantly more sensitive to weather conditions than satellite TV. It’s just something that you can only find out after you’ve installed the system, and that obviously varies significantly depending on where you live and the actual weather conditions that you experience.

As far as I am concerned, the bottom-line here is that, when outages happen, I can always drop back to dial-up. It’s just a matter of accessing the AirPort Base Station via the AirPort Admin Utility, changing its Internet access config, and restarting it. And dial-up is what I used to have. So it’s not any worse than it used to be. At worst, it’s the same as what I used to have. Otherwise, when the weather is not too nasty, it is substantially better. And since the overall costs of a second phone line and dial-up service is not significantly lower than this satellite high-speed Internet service, I have no reason to go back to dial-up only.

I wish it worked better and were less sensitive to weather conditions, but as far as I am concerned it’s just something that we are going to have to live with—until we finally get some kind of ADSL or cable Internet service around here. (There are fresh rumours of ADSL becoming available soon in my area, but they are just rumours at this point.)

The more frustrating aspect of these outages is that the system does not always recover gracefully once the weather conditions are better. Sometimes it does. Other times, as indicated above, I have to manually restart the equipment to get it to work properly again. I don’t know if it’s a flaw in Apple’s AirPort Base Station or in the satellite modem, but it means that there is a certain amount of monitoring and troubleshooting that needs to be done on a regular basis. It is not a huge issue for me, of course, but I can imagine it would be an issue for people who are not comfortable with this type of technology to begin with.

So, all in all, I am still pleased with the satellite high-speed Internet service, because on most days it works fine, and is of course significantly better than dial-up. But obviously I am still impatiently waiting for cable or ADSL in our area, which would offer more competitive speeds, higher reliability, and lower costs. I guess we’ll have to keep hassling and lobbying the companies involved until it finally happens. (Our provincial premier has, for the third time, repeated his promise that everyone in the province will have high-speed Internet by 2010, but of course it’s just a politician’s promise, with no indication of who will pay for it and how the plan is actually going to be implemented.)

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