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With new satellite tech, rural dwellers get access to true broadband

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Just three months after settling into geostationary orbit, Hughes Network Systems’ (s sats) new EchoStar 17 satellite is ready for commercial service. Hughes Net on Monday launched new plans offering download speeds as high as 15 Mbps, in the process joining the growing ranks of satellite operators bringing true broadband speeds to rural areas.

HughesNet has named the new service Gen4 and the satellite utilizes EchoStar-Hughes’ new Jupiter high-throughput technology, which expands the total capacity of the satellite to 100 Gbps. That has allowed Hughes to distribute that capacity more liberally to its customers, bumping up download speeds from 1-2 Mbps to 10-15 Mbps and upload speeds above a megabit. ViaSat(s vsat) launched a similarly brawny satellite last year, and began offering a $50/month 12 Mbps service in January.

Hughes service plans are comparably priced with cable broadband, ranging from $50 to $100 a month, but the satellite’s finite capacity does give the service some stiff limitations. Unlike its previous plans, these newer, faster tiers come with caps. At the low end customers are limited to 20 GB, while the upper tier taps out at 40 GB. By comparison cable operator Comcast recently raised its monthly cap from 250 GB to 300 GB a month.

What’s more, customers are restricted when they can consume that data -– on all plans, half of the monthly data bucket can only be tapped between 2 AM and 8 AM. But Hughes also seems to have done away with the old daily throttling policies that irked so many of its customers.

Before Gen4, customers technically didn’t have to deal with caps, but they were limited to daily download allotment from 250 MBs to 450 MBs. If they exceeded those caps in a 24-hour period, their connections were throttled back to dial-up speeds, returning to normal after another 24 hours. It’s not clear if Hughes is eliminating those fair-use policies completely, but it looks like customers are getting much more flexibility in how they consume their admittedly limited monthly data allocations.

Though it’s still not on par with its wireline counterparts, satellite broadband has made leaps in last year as a new generation of equipment has gone into orbit. That’s led to several new services that have bumped up the speeds available to a large swathe of the American hinterland and other underserved areas where DSL and cable aren’t options. In addition to ViaSat’s Exede and HughesNet’s Gen4, Dish Network(s dish) has bought capacity from both companies, allowing it to sell a broadband service called DishNet in areas ViaSat and Hughes’ respective birds don’t cover.

Improved satellite technologies have also expanded broadband access beyond rural homes and business. ViaSat’s satellite will power JetBlue’s(s jblu) forthcoming in-flight Wi-Fi service, significantly boosting the speeds available to passengers while drastically lowering the cost of delivering that data. In three years, Iridium(s irdm) will begin launching a new constellation of 66 satellites into low-Earth orbit, which will be able to supply 8 Mbps connections not just to homes in the Midwest farmlands but to any point on the globe.

7 Responses to “With new satellite tech, rural dwellers get access to true broadband”

  1. mike knight

    I work at a small website company in Oregon who has a few subscribers living ‘outside the city’ where the only choice they have is satellite connectivity. A few months ago Wild Blue started their Excede service and it has been a nightmare. Note that the website I support is an on-line database and it is not the smoothest implementation but with that said it works fine on dsl and cable connections. But because this has been my closest experience with satellite I would caution any user to do your home work before contracting such a service. Satellite compared to any other type connection seems very apples to oranges.

  2. Kevin Fitchard

    Hi Paul,

    You can do a lot with 40 GB it seems to me, but I agree with you that the policies definitely punish streaming. While you can schedule downloading in the middle of the night, a service like Netflix is immediate and unless your a night owl, it’s used exactly during peak BB hours.

    • Paul Natsch

      The other problem is the proliferation of digital downloads for software and updates. I recently purchased Empire: Total War from the Mac App Store and it was a 12 GB download! And there is also software updates. Now I don’t buy games like that all the time so in my case the 40 GB plan would probably suffice as long as I stopped using services like Netflix and HBO Go and just stuck with software updates, the occasional digital download software purchase, and maybe a few YouTube videos. This would have to be spread across several devices (iMac, iPad, and iPhone). It wouldn’t be easy, and I would be giving up a lot, but the 40 GB cap would at least make it possible to survive even though it’s kind of pricey.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Yeah, these satellite plans are never going to be friendly to heavy broadband users (then again the wirelines guys are increasingly becoming less friendly to heavy users). I looked at my consumption household consumption and I consume between 41 GB to 89 GB each month. We’re definitely not heavy users, but my wife and I both work from home, we download a few 720p HD movies a week and occasionally go on Netflix binges (which explains the huge variation month to month). Sadly underserved areas are always going to be one step behind the capabilities of their urban broadband counterparts, but I also look at this way. If I did up and relocate to the middle of nowhere, I would now be hopeful of getting a decent connection so I could do my job (but I’d be renting or buying a lot more DVDs).

  3. Paul Natsch

    It certainly has improved but I still can’t help but feel really sorry for these people. I understand in many cases they have no other choice though. Those data caps really wouldn’t allow you to do much of anything. Forget about Netflix.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Kindroid,

      DishNet is separate service requiring separate equipment. You’d have to order a special dish that send as well as receive signals (which go to a completely different satellite)