Product reviewers don't often get to live with a product for a long time before they write about it. But I'm basing this review of the Hughes DIRECWAY satellite broadband setup on months of firsthand experience.
When the ISP that provided my leased-line Internet connection went bankrupt about 24 months ago, I needed a fast Internet connection to replace the frame relay setup I had been using for 6 years. Unfortunately, I couldn't simply switch providers. I had purchased the frame relay service through a promotional deal and had managed to keep the price fairly low during the life of the contract. Switching to another provider meant new service fees of near $1000 month. I couldn't stomach this four-fold price increase, so I began searching for consumer broadband Internet access.
Although I live between two major cities, I found that no high-speed Internet access was available to me. Cable isn't available (the cable company has trouble delivering TV service), DSL is unavailable because of the distance to the telecommunications company, wireless services aren't available in my area, and even ISDN was prohibitively expensive because of its by-the-hour fee structure. After evaluating my limited options, I headed to the local big electronics retailer and picked up a DIRECWAY (formerly known as DirecDuo) satellite broadband setup with DIRECTV Internet access.
I already was a satisfied DIRECTV subscriber, so I decided to give the company's satellite Internet access a shot. Promising 400Kbps downloads and 56Kbps uploads, the service wasn't a perfect solution. But for less than $200 for the equipment and a $50 monthly access charge, the service was more affordable than any other relatively fast Internet access.
Installing the service was simple; I just replaced my existing DIRECTV satellite dish with the DIRECWAY dish, which combines a one-way platform (formerly called DirecPC) and DIRECTV service into a single dish, and ran another cable along the run I had created for the DIRECTV line into my office. Having the DIRECTV setup before I started simplified the installation in another, more important way. One of the toughest aspects of installing the DirecPC dish is pointing the dish at the satellite; the setup needs to be fairly precise, and the aiming target is small. But the DIRECTV aiming point is significantly larger, and after you've set up a strong DIRECTV signal, you're fairly well focused on the DIRECWAY satellite, too.
For the dial-return system, which uses a modem for upstream connections, the host computer requires a USB port and a modem. The USB connection is necessary for the satellite adapter, which is an external USB device. I installed the software on a computer running Windows 2000 Professional. Software and hardware installation took only a few minutes; installing the dish and running the cable took me about an hour. (Where I live in Pennsylvania, the DIRECWAY dish simply needs a clear view of the southwest sky; the same as the DIRECTV requirement.) You can use the system's antenna-pointing application to tweak the signal strength. But even with low signal strength, I was able to connect to the Internet with no problems.
Using the satellite connection required me to change my Internet habits. First, the IP traffic latencies are very high (averaging well over 500 milliseconds—ms), making online gaming impossible. The DirecPC software also caches much of your Internet traffic, meaning that if you use sites that update frequently, you might not see updates. I eventually turned off the software caching. In fact, I quickly stopped using all of the software features except for the Internet access.
Because of the way the software works, you need to use a good FTP client for uploading data—one that can handle satellite latencies without timing out and that works well in passive mode. I tried several products and eventually chose GlobalSCAPE's CuteFTP Pro, which lets me do Web site maintenance with little trouble.
The bimodal nature of the connection also means you need to think about the size of the files you want to transmit. You can send multimegabyte files (either as FTP uploads or email transfers), but the process takes time. You might want to run uploads in the background. Large uploads don't seem to affect the speed at which you can browse the Internet from other sessions.
Download speeds range from acceptable to incredible. Even though DIRECWAY product literature claims speeds of "up to 400Kbps downloads," my average download speed is usually about 800Kbps. I've seen bursts of speed up to 1.2Mbps on individual downloads, and I've had sustained data transfers at 1Mbps or greater when simultaneously doing multiple downloads from different computers. Download speed is measured at the satellite adapter on the host computer.
The flip side is that I've lost satellite connectivity completely at times—although not often, and when you lose connectivity you can switch the software to a "terrestrial only" mode in which all traffic is sent over the 56Kbps modem connection. Connectivity failures usually happen because of bad weather conditions. In my experience, weather-related interruptions usually lasted only a few minutes; the longest outage was just under an hour during a major blizzard.
I've also had persistent email problems. (I use Hughes as my ISP; you can use any ISP.) Hughes claims to have fixed these problems with an email upgrade that the company completed last week.
Hughes recently released a Windows XP-compatible version of its DirecPC 3.0 software, and I switched my host computer to XP. The software still seems a bit buggy; using the non-XP version of the software on XP works more reliably. Hughes states that it will be fixing that problem, too.
Technical support has been suspect at times. Hughes uses a three-tiered support model. Level 1 provides support from people who can ask you basic questions about how your equipment is set up but don't have any real technical knowledge. If they get stumped, they can pass you on to level 2. The level 2 support people can answer more detailed questions and know the product fairly well. I've waited on hold for up to 90 minutes for these folks, but the call is toll free and they've been able to solve some complex problems. Level 3 is engineering support, and these technicians are available only as a call back. I've dealt with them twice and had a 50 percent success rate. The first time, they called back promptly and found a solution to my problem. I've been waiting for the second situation to be resolved for a week, and I'm still waiting for a call that was supposed to come within 48 hours.
Would I use DIRECWAY if I had another reliable, cost-effective broadband Internet access solution? Probably not. But given the situation I'm in, and one that isn't uncommon, DIRECWAY beats dial-up access.
Another option is 2-way satellite service with all communication being done through the satellite dish. The equipment is expensive (about $500), you can't install the system yourself because of FCC regulations), and you don't get the easy terrestrial backup system. But 2-way satellite service gives you fast upload capability, and there's no need for a local dial-up phone number. I'm having the DIRECWAY 2-way satellite service installed at the end of this week, so stay tuned for a review of that service in a few months.