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Review: Satellite-based Web access
(IDG) -- Eager for broadband, but tired of waiting for DSL or cable to reach your home or business? Things may be looking up -- if you have a clear view of the southern sky.
Satellite-based access to the Net isn't new, but until recently the services were rather kludgy. Hughes Network Systems' existing DirecPC service, for example, has fast, 400-kbps downloads, but requires a modem for uploads.
Now, however, two satellite services -- including one from Hughes -- let you receive and send data via satellite at speeds similar to DSL's. The StarBand service promises download speeds up to 500 kbps and uploads at 150 kbps; Hughes' new DirecPC 4.0 pledges transfer rates up to 400 kbps downstream and 125 kbps upstream.
Neither is inexpensive, and bad weather can slow performance, but for the broadband-deprived they may be the answer.
StarBand offers a USB modem and dish for $400 -- it charges $200 for installation and sells the service for $70; partner EchoStar resells StarBand hardware and service at the same rates.
Microsoft's StarBand service is packaged with MSN for $60 per month in conjunction with RadioShack, which sells a preconfigured Compaq PC and satellite dish for $1,200 (installation is free through April).
Hughes and its partner Pegasus Communications both sell DirecPC 4.0 for existing PCs. At press time, the hardware cost $400, and installation was $200. Pegasus charges $70 per month; Hughes charges $60 per month.
Both StarBand- and Hughes-based services also offer satellite TV with select services and the right hardware, and for an additional fee.
We tested a preproduction DirecPC 4 setup at Hughes's offices and examined a shipping version of StarBand's PCI card-based hardware installed in a home computer. In our informal tests of download speed, StarBand outpaced DirecPC 4.0 by an impressive margin: 600 kbps versus 200 kbps, on average. Neither service hit its advertised top speed for uploads -- both averaged about 50 kbps, less speedy than we expected.
That said, two-way satellite Web access is a big improvement over a dial-up connection. Both services improve browsing speed and make fast work of downloading MP3s and streaming video. Plus, the always-on connection makes access easy while liberating your phone line.
The relatively slow uploads can be a hindrance, however, especially when issues such as latency (signal travel time) compound the problem. For example, online multiple-player games don't work well because the upload rate, in conjunction with the time a signal takes to travel from Earth to satellite and back, makes game play too sluggish.
Some technical glitches occurred when the system was first set up. For example, at one point we lost service, and StarBand advised us to remove our Napster software to restore it (the strategy worked).
We were also warned that severe weather could degrade service, but the arrival of a little rain didn't slow us down.
Users should also be aware that both companies can curb speeds to keep their networks running smoothly. StarBand download speeds drop significantly when you use file-sharing programs such as Napster. And Hughes may reduce your surfing speeds for up to an hour if you use too much bandwidth during a short period of time.
Which of these services do we recommend? Hughes has a longer customer track record, but tests of its preproduction service revealed some speed problems. StarBand was faster, but we experienced an outage with it.
Both services are early versions and feel a bit jury-rigged. But if you live in one of the estimated 50 million U.S. households without access to conventional broadband, the satellite services' high speed -- restrictions and glitches aside -- is likely to fire up your inner surfer. Still, consider waiting to sign up to let each work out remaining kinks.
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