Taking the Next Step in Satellite Internet Access

After a moderately successful long-term experience using the original Hughes Network Systems DirecPC Classic dial-return satellite Internet connection (see p"Hughes DIRECWAY Satellite Internet Access," ), I decided to move to a two-way satellite system and try Hughes Network Systems' DIRECWAY Satellite Return System (http://www.direcway.com). In this configuration, the satellite handles both uplink and downlink capabilities, so you don't need to use a modem connection during usual normal operation. (Install a modem on the host computer, however, to dial into Hughes' registration server to activate the satellite ground station and to use as a backup in case you lose your satellite signal.)

I wasn't unhappy with the DirecPC Classic dial-return system I'd been using; performance was acceptable and reliability was good. But I didn't like the fact that I had to reconnect to the dial-up network every 6 hours. Because I use the connection for both home and office Internet access, I had to teach my wife how to maintain the connection when I was away on business. She's easy to teach, but she doesn't have much interest in computer technology. For her, the system is a tool, and she didn't think she should have to know how to run the DirecPC application.

In contrast, the DIRECWAY Satellite Return System features an always-on connection. Its only system requirement is that the host computer remain running and, because I'm running Windows XP, that the user account always be logged oin.

Getting up and running with the DIRECWAY Satellite Return System is a bit more difficult than using the dial-return system. I installed the dial-return system, but you need a certified installer to set up the two-way satellite. I called Hughes to order the system, and the installer called me back within 24 hours, hoping to schedule the installation the next day. I scheduled the installation later in the week, and the installer arrived with the equipment, as planned.

The installation process took about 90 minutes, which included taking down my existing DIRECWAY dish (a combined DirecPC/DIRECTV antenna), assembling the DIRECWAY antenna and adding the DIRECTV upgrade kit so that the new dish could work with both TV and PC services, installing and pointing the new antenna system, and running a second cable along the same path as my original DirecPC installation. The second cable is necessary because the system's individual transmitter/receiver devices are connected to the computer through a single USB cable and the driver recognizes them as the USB satellite receiver. I installed the host software myself while the installer set up the hardware.

Hughes claims that the DIRECWAY 4.0 system delivers performance speeds of 400Kbps downstream and 80Kbps upstream. So far, my download speeds have averaged between 900Kbps and 1200Kbps. I've performed sustained, large-file downloads faster than 1.6Mbps for an a file that was larger than 5MB file and as fast as 3300Kbps for small files (about 500KB)..

Uploads aren't as successful, however. I've experienced brief moments when upload speeds exceeded 70Kbps, but my average upload speed is in the 30Kbps to 40Kbps range. I didn't expect high-performance uploads, and because most Internet access involves moving information downstream, I can't complain about the overall performance.

A few days after the installation, a series of nasty storms moved through my area. The longest time I lost satellite connectivity was about 10 minutes, and the system automatically launched the backup dial-up connection I had configured. To run the automatic launch, you must have a dial-up service (dial-up ISP service isn't included as part of the DIRECWAY service). A negative aspect of this feature is that although the dial-up connection automatically launches, it doesn't automatically disconnect. Instead, you receive a message that says the system is now communicating over the satellite and that you must click the disconnect button to hang up the dial-up connection.

You should consider two other negative aspects of the DIRECWAY Satellite Return System: one is technical and the other is a Hughes business process. The technical concern involves the combined DIRECWAY/DIRECTV set (i.e., the combination of two satellite technologies into one dish). Because the satellites the two services use aren't physically close together, the DIRECTV upgrade kit mounts the TV satellite antenna at an angle to the satellite PC connection's primary antenna. This positioning degrades signal quality, despite the fact that the two2-way Internet satellite dish is larger than the DIRECirecTV dish. With my previous setup, the average signal strength on most transponders was in the 90-plus+ range (on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the strongest). With the DIRECWAY setup, TV signal strength on most transponders is in the 70 to 80 range; only one transponder reliably provides signal strength higher than 90. Signal strength is important for maintaining a clear connection during bad weather.

The business-process problem concerns the Fair Access Policy, which applies to all DIRECWAY satellite services. Hughes believes that a few subscribers abuse the system and use more than their fair share of the available bandwidth. To keep this abuse in check, users must agree to the Fair Access Policy, which states that if you download more than 169MB of data in a poorly defined 1-hour to 4-hour time period, the company might throttle your bandwidth to modem speed for another poorly defined 8 to 12 hours. During off-peak hours (2:00 A.M. to 5:00 A.M., Eastern time), users can download 225MB of data. Hughes now has business plans that provide different usage limitations—for significantly higher prices.

I don't have a problem with the policy as much as I do with the company's lack of hard and fast rules, especially because Hughes pushes DIRECWAY as a streaming-media solution. If you use streaming-media resources, you will easily exceed the current bandwidth restrictions.

I paid $480 for the DIRECWAY Satellite Return System hardware (you can pay the entire amount up front or as a $40 monthly fee) in addition to the $59.95 per month ISP fee for a 1-year period. The system isn't competitive with wired solutions, but for the millions of us who don't have wired broadband access, DIRECWAY is almost the only game in town.