Well, here I am out of the frontiers of science again. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after the devious Jim Hammill had coerced me into testing all this experimental RV stuff, but noooooo, I’m at it once more, this time with a superfast version of mobile satellite internet. It’s experimental – at least the mobile part is. It took me and the people I am working with a while to get it running, but we are officially in business and I am glad I took a chance on it. It’s blindingly fast.
I talked about it a bit last week when Mike and I were discussing boondocking on the podcast, and I have had mobile satellite internet for almost the entire time I have been on the road, first with Hughesnet and recently with Starband. However, Starband kicked all us little guys off to focus on corporate and military accounts, so I’ve been dishless since October. In looking around for a replacement, an opportunity presented itself – somebody needed a test pilot. Despite my better judgment, I volunteered.
The new stuff is Ka band, as opposed to the old slow Ku band internet I had had for the past five years. Ka band is very high frequency – download is 20 gigahertz and upload is 30 gigahertz, compared to the Ku band 12-18 gigahertz. The other big difference is the Ku band stuff was one big weak signal sprayed out across the entire continent, and the Ka band is a series of spot beams, just like local TV stations on satellite TV – each beam is about 150 miles in radius and it takes dozens to cover the country. With a concentrated signal, speeds go way up. The Ku band stuff was nominally 1 megabit per second, but usually half that or less during high traffic periods. You could surf the web, but forget streaming video. Besides, the data plans were maybe 6 gigs of data a month for $60, about the same as a datacard. The Ka band stuff is consistently 20 to 22 megabits per second so far, and data plans are 30 to 50 gigs a month for $120ish. Definitely a move into the modern age.
However, first we had to figure out how to move this stuff around. As soon as I got my new system and tried to set up in a new place, we hit a snag – Hughes NOC (network operation center) would send a fault code signal saying they had detected a move, and a move is not allowed. My guess is that Hughesnet doesn’t want to be getting service calls from people dragging their dishes all over the country and whining about how they won’t work anymore because they can’t aim them properly, so any time the system detects a move they disable it. The workaround is to buy service through a VAR, a value added reseller, who buys connectivity from Hughesnet and resells it to consumers. The VAR is responsible for any service issues, not Hughes, so Hughes will disable the move blocker software only if you buy through a VAR and that way they won’t have to listen to all the complaints.
The software in the modem is a thing a beauty – you put in your location, latitude and longitude, and it selects the frequency and polarization parameters for the beam you are in, spits out the three numbers you need to aim the dish – altitude, azimuth, and skew – so you hook up an inline signal strength meter and find the satellite. I have never had much problem doing that, it’s pretty much the same drill as the last five years. It’s a one-wire system now, not separate receive and transmit lines, so I now have enough cable to set my dish up in the next county. Polarization is circular and either left- or right-handed, not vertical and horizontal like the Ku band stuff, so sometimes you have to detach the feedhorn (the little trumpet-shaped thingie) and rotate it 90 degrees.
All this stuff is on the new high throughput Echostar 17 satellite at 107 west longitude, which has spotbeams covering the eastern half of the country, the west coast strip from San Diego to Seattle, plus three other beams for Phoenix, Denver, and Spokane – the orange part of the map.
They’re sending up another satellite, Echostar 19, in a couple of weeks that will go into position at 110 west and will be covering the rest of the country in a few months after they do all the calibration and testing – unless the rocket blows up. I will be rooting for that rocket to have a predictable and boring flight. These satellites are as big as a bus and have more solar than I do – about 16 kilowatts.
If all goes well, I will have lots of fast reliable internet all over the country as I travel in the future. It will definitely be worth the aggravation of getting it all sorted out. Barb Nolley and Joe Laube at mobileinternetsatellite.com have been my main resource in getting and staying online these past five years, and now that I have been stomping around out here locating all the land mines, it’s safe for others to get this system too, and enjoy gobs of wickedly fast bandwidth anywhere they care to set up, coast to coast.