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Dishing the dirt on satellite surfing

June 24, 1998
Web posted at: 2:45 PM EDT

by Steve Bass

(IDG) -- "I'm tweaking the azimuth," I hollered to my neighbor. I was on the roof, balancing myself against the chimney. I had a wrench in one hand, a manual in the other, and I was cursing vigorously.

My editor knew I was an Internet cowboy. I already had an ISDN line capable of butt-kicking speed--128 kilobits per second. He wanted to know if I'd be willing to try faster satellite access. "Yep," I said, taking an entire nanosecond to decide.

Now, with six months of satellite service under my belt, I can tell you that its speed is utterly stunning. Netscape Navigator's download gauge once clocked a .zip file's speed at an astonishing 57 kilobytes per second. The same file transferred at 14 kbps over my ISDN link, and at a paltry 4.6 kbps using a 56-kbps modem.

There's more to the story, though, and it's not all good.

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Up on the Roof

Hughes Network Systems' DirecPC satellite dish is a 21-inch elliptical antenna that looks like the TV dishes found on finer roofs everywhere. The apparatus, which costs about $300, includes software, a mounting kit, and a PCI card. For $100 extra, I opted for the DirecDuo model--an extra device on the dish receives digital television signals from a second satellite.

Keep your checkbook handy, though, because you'll need to install the dish as well. Since I'm not as handy as I look, I ended up watching two Hughes guys spend 4 hours on the installation. A simple one can cost as little as $100, but in my case wires had to run through my home's crawl space and attic, so the installation cost about $400.

And that's not the only extra cost. You'll still need an Internet service provider, along with a phone line. That's because the DirecPC dish is one-way: When you ask your browser to download a file or a Web page, the request goes to your ISP by modem. The satellite then beams the data you requested down to your dish.

Naturally, you'll have to pay a monthly charge to Hughes as well as to your ISP. Hughes's fees range from $20 a month for off-peak times to $130 for round-the-clock service. By comparison, ISDN service costs me about $40 each month (prices vary by region).

Getting DirecPC's software and card configured and working on my Windows 95 system was a lengthy and anguishing experience. A new version may alleviate the problem for future buyers, but I could not get my hands on the latest software in time for this column.

I also had to fiddle with Windows 95's networking configuration, messing with (and messing up) settings and addresses. After days of major futzing--and with the help of Hughes engineers--I finally had a strong, solid connection.

Move Over, ISDN

I saw a remarkable--no, unimaginable--speed difference with most of the Web sites I visited. It was like switching channels on TV: Images appeared almost instantly. But the mileage varied depending on the site. The dish couldn't make slow sites faster, and it's not immune to the typical Internet logjams. Sometimes downloads hiccuped or stalled for seconds at a time. Even rain can interfere with the signal. "The column is late because of El Nio," I told my editor. And it was true.

Should you consider DirecPC? Definitely. If ISDN or cable modems are too pricey or are unavailable where you live, the dish may be your best choice. But if you mostly send and receive e-mail and only occasionally surf the Web, stick with a modem.

Still not sure? Do yourself a favor and check the alt.satellite.direcpc newsgroup and the unofficial DirecPC site at Also, "Bandwidth on Demand" in the August 1997 issue and "Satellites, Radio, and Super Wireless for New High-Speed Net Access" in October 1997's Top of the News provide further details.

Meanwhile, the cable company is working on cable modem access. Stay tuned.

Contributing Editor Steve Bass is a licensed marriage and family therapist and president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group.
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