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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March, 2003, 11:52 GMT
A way out of the broadband wilderness
By Paul Rubens

Countryside - picture by Freefoto.com
No fancy phone lines here...

The Holy Grail for web users is an internet connection where pages load almost instantly. For those in rural areas, beyond the reach of standard broadband services, do satellite-based packages deliver what's promised on the tin?

Where I live in rural Buckinghamshire there is no chance of getting a fast broadband internet connection using my phone line. My local exchange is not equipped to offer BT's ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service, which offers an always-on connection and download speeds up to 10 times faster than a normal modem, and is unlikely to do so for years to come.

Like millions of others in the broadband wilderness, the only way I can possibly get fast internet access is by using a satellite-based service, but as the dish, receiver and transmitter required cost thousands of pounds, I resigned myself to the fact that living in the country meant the broadband revolution was going to pass me by.

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The irony is that it is precisely those who live outside large towns or cities that need broadband access the most; those who work from home or run a business from a nearby office, and overcome their physical isolation by using the internet.

But now low-cost satellite internet services are springing up, offering broadband speeds for prices broadly similar to ADSL. All that's needed is a small, cheap dish - in some areas an existing satellite television dish can be used without interfering with television reception - and an inexpensive receiver.

There's no need to buy an expensive transmitter because the new services are "one way"; you still need to connect to the internet using a modem to send e-mails or requests for webpages and downloads, but everything coming from the internet is sent to your computer by satellite - e-mails, webpages and downloads are beamed back at speeds as high or higher than ADSL.

Initial excitement

My choices are to connect with Hampshire-based Silvermead for about 195 in equipment and set-up charges plus 24 a month, or Warrington-based SCS Broadband's Jetstream service, which costs about 230 to install and monthly payments of about 36. Both are broadly in line with standard ADSL rates of 25 to 30 a month.

Computer user at a keyboard
The dream is pages that load fast

Once up and running with Silvermead, my download speeds are initially astonishing - a program which would take the best part of an hour to get using a modem can be downloaded in minutes.

So no more envying my ADSL-equipped friends? Sadly not - the first disappointment is that surfing the web is not noticeably faster. Due to latency - the half second or so lag while data is sent up to the satellite and back down - only graphics-intensive web pages or those with multimedia content seem to appear any quicker.

But at least there are the superfast download speeds to enjoy? Only true up to a point, because operating a satellite is expensive and satellites have limited capacity. There's simply no way to offer a satellite broadband service to a large number of people at a price comparable with ADSL without imposing severe limits on the amount of internet traffic that can be received.

Data speed can slow as follows:
Silvermead: not normally below 256k but may go almost modem speed (64 kbps)
SCS Broadband: about three times modem speed (128kbps)

While most ADSL customers can receive thousands of megabytes of data at high speeds every day, these satellite broadband services can only guarantee users fast download speeds for about 75 megabytes a day (Silvermead), or 500 megabytes a month (SCS Broadband). After these quotas have been used up, data speeds may slow considerably.

Stephen Craggs, Silvermead's managing director, says slowdowns are unavoidable. "If a user tried to download an 800 megabyte movie it would affect the whole network, so instead of flying though it would slow after a while and take a little longer."

Only option

But Tom Law, a computer networking expert who has tried Silvermead's package, says the slowdowns, if too extreme, completely defeat the purpose of a broadband service.

I experienced speeds at times far lower than a modem connection - that's not acceptable
Tom Law, Silvermead user

"People who want broadband expect to be able to download massive amounts of data at high speeds, but after about 75mb of data a day, which I used up rather quickly, I experienced speeds at times far lower than a modem connection. That's not acceptable. Any satellite service offered at a cost comparable to ADSL will always have to have throttling, but if speeds were guaranteed never to drop below 128k, they would still be worthwhile."

For the moment, this is the only way for people like me to get broadband internet access, and while it falls far short of ADSL, it does offer a limited amount of downloading or graphics intensive web browsing at high speeds which were previously unimaginable. It's not ADSL, but it's a start.

In the meantime I'll continue to dream of ADSL coming to my exchange, and look on with envy at those broadband customers of cable operator NTL who are up in arms because they are restricted to downloading 1,000 megabytes a day. I should be so lucky!

Send us your comments:

I cannot get broadband since my house is too far from the exchange and BT have expressed no interest in this problem. Cable internet is out of the question because my street isn't covered, and I can't even enjoy free-to-view digital TV - wrong postcode, apparently. Where is this technological black hole - the Outer Hebrides? Snowdonia? No. Brentwood, 25 minutes from central London. On a main "A" road, no less.
Keith Griffiths, Essex, UK

One isn't allowed simple access "just the facts", one has to take the whole bite offered, the webpage complete with unwanted puffery. We need another dimension to be on offer from sites as a first offering. If the facts satisfy the inquiry, then one could click on the fuller version. It's the websites that need to become limited, not the subscribers' access. The solution looks like a two-stage offering: a bare bones bit, then a clickable full course.
Joseph H Broyles, US

I help run a local campaign to bring ADSL to my local exchange. As part of the campaign we've spoken to several different Wireless Broadband suppliers. Most can offer a service better than BT and at a comparable cost. If you can get enough people together to make it viable, it's an ideal solution for rural communities. If not, wait until BT start rolling out the mini-DSLAMS.
Tim Mustill, UK

I live 15 minutes from Glasgow Airport, 25 minutes from the city centre and am surrounded by towns with cable and broadband access, but not in my village - recently touted as the most affluent in Scotland. We could only manage 75% of BT's target to enable our exchange for DSL, so if I want access to broadband to work from home I have to move closer to the city!
Tony Monaghan, Glasgow, Scotland

There is light on the horizon for those of us who live their .net life over narrowband connections. Scottish Hydro Electric have run successful trials of broadband delivered over the national grid. The infrastructure exists to make this widely available even in the most rural areas, which is an encouraging thought. The inventor of this technology was a real bright spark.
David McMurdo, UK

It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't constantly receive CDs for broadband, ads for broadband, teasers for broadband. BT's only reply to my complaint (we are a spur road which was omitted from the installation of cable and too far from the exchange for ADSL) was to hype up the satellite option "coming soon". Your article shows just how mediocre an option that is. The government gets very het up about social exclusion - what about technology exclusion? I'm not in the countryside, I'm in St Albans!
Angela Wilson, Hertfordshire,UK

I cannot get broadband although my exchange is equipped to allow me to do so. The reason? When my house was built 3 1/2 yrs ago, BT used cabling to connect it to the exchange, which is incompatible with ADSL.
Chris Edwards, UK

The problem isn't restricted to rural areas. It seems BT has been using optic fibre to supply telephone service to the vast swathes of new housing developments in the South-East. Until they start putting the DSLAMS in the green boxes rather than just the exchange, the huge influx of people into new housing developments may also find themselves in the broadband wilderness.
Steve Simmons, UK

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