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Living on the edge, where broadband doesn't reach

Kirk McElhearn | Feb. 12, 2014
If you live in a city, you take a lot for granted. Not just access to stores, culture and public transportation, but also access to Internet and cellphone networks. It's easy to get complacent when you have fast broadband access and 4G cell phone speeds. But what happens when you lose all that? I recently moved to a new place in the English countryside and, in the process, ran into problems getting basic access to the communication networks I use all the time. I eventually managed to solve those problems, but not without some money, time, and effort.

Weather can affect satellite speed too, but less than I had expected. We've had a spate of bad weather since I moved to the area, with strong rain and wind for the past month. The Internet went down altogether a few times, and at others it was slower than usual. But, overall, the weather didn't make as much difference as I'd seen in the past with satellite TV.

The main downside of using satellite internet is its latency (the amount of time from when you send a request for something over the Internet until you get a response). While I see latency of around 30ms to 35ms on DSL, the satellite takes about 700ms to 800ms. It's particularly slow when loading webpages. It's not as bad when you're downloading files; once a file starts loading, you don't suffer from latency any more. If I were an online gamer, it would be impossible via satellite; real-time action games would be impossible to play.

Counting gigabytes
All satellite Internet plans come with data limits. I chose the most generous package, offering 50GB per month for £65 (or about $105). While that may sound like a lot of data, HD movies could eat up that allowance very quickly. A long one like Man of Steel is 5.2GB from the iTunes Store; you need to think twice about renting movies.

But my package offers unlimited downloads from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., which means I can queue up my larger downloads to run overnight. So if I want to rent a movie from the iTunes Store, it's best if I decide the day before, then start downloading the movie after 11:00. Initial download speeds at that time are very slow, but by the time the sun comes up, all my downloads are completed.

If you like Netflix, you'll find that it can be costly. Since you can only stream from Netflix — you can't download overnight as you can with the iTunes Store — you won't want to do any box-set binges unless you're awake in the wee hours. Similarly, you have to watch out for any video service, such as Hulu or YouTube, which can also deplete your data quota quickly.

One way to keep an eye on your gigabytes is with the $8 NetUse Traffic Monitor. It gets SNMP (small network management protocol) data from my AirPort Extreme base station and tells me exactly how much I've downloaded and uploaded. Because it works directly with the AirPort base station, it doesn't record traffic to and from just a particular Mac, but also iOS devices, PlayStations, and other connected hardware that can impact your data usage. (You will need to keep a Mac running all the time to record the app's data.) NetUse Traffic Monitor does not work on the latest AirPort Extreme base stations, however, since they don't support SNMP; check the company's website to find if you're router is compatible.


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