I got this new kind of satellite internet dish last fall in Arizona, and got it working when “home” in Florida for the holidays, visiting my family. My earlier report covered its blazing speed and gigantic data allotment. That's all fine and well, but the real test is… how does it do out on the road? The whole purpose of mobile satellite internet is to be able to get connected no matter where you are – if you can't do that, it's useless. I needed to test it out as I moved around the country.
The difference between the old Hughesnet and Starband satellite internet systems and the new one is modern technology. The older Ku band systems sprayed one big signal across the whole continent, which was great for coverage, but bad for signal strength and bandwidth. I even used it up in Canada when marooned in Kitchener – my data card wanted to charge me crazy prices for internet, but the satellite is out there in international waters, and didn't care where I was shooting from, as long as I had a good line of sight.
The new Ka band system has spot beams – individual transmitters and receivers for localized areas, like satellite TV does for your local channels. Each beam is about 150-200 miles in diameter, so if you move out of the beam you're in, you need to get on another one. I was one of the first people to get this new system and have the system configured so I could switch beams. Stationary installations are locked – try to move it and you'll get the dreaded “satellite dish move not allowed” error message. I worked with my satellite guru, Barb Nolley, to get mine unlocked, which happened when we were in Florida.
So we hit the road in March, west on I-10 and headed for the California coast. We drove pretty much nonstop until Texas, using our datacard, but decided to stop for a few days. I tried out the dish. Success! A beam that wasn't even on the old map I had, beam 4, was right there, and I was online. It's the Oklahoma City beam, and I was southwest of the center of it, right across the river in Wichita Falls, TX.
One thing about this latest and greatest system – it's not complete yet. The eastern half of the country and a strip up the west coast are covered with beams, plus a few extra beams for Phoenix, Denver, Spokane, etc., but everything in between is waiting for the next satellite, EchoStar 19, to go up later this year. So we drove straight through to Cambria, CA, where we finally got on the big blue water, and out came the dish again. Sure enough, we got right on beam 19, which was sitting there waiting for us.
As we moved north, we've gone out of beam 19 into beam 35, and are now on beam 27 as we leave California and enter Oregon. There was one scary moment when the system gave a strange error – “no satellite available for your location” – but I figured out how to cheat by lying about my location to the software and get online anyway. The system is self-ranging (it calculates the distance from the dish to the satellite automatically), so the location input is pretty much just to assign a beam. I was able to share this information with the other prototype users through Barb Nolley – we're all learning as we go, so it's a cooperative venture as we all figure out how to make this stuff work.
I am VERY happy with this new system – it's 40 times as fast as my old Ku band system (20 Mbps compared to 500 kbps average) lots more data per month (50 gigs of anytime usage a month as opposed to a quarter gig a a day – use it or lose it), and much more stable – no losing the signal when clouds pile up overhead or an inversion layer sets in. It will stay up for days at a time, as reliable as cable in a sticks and bricks house. But the really rewarding part has been being one of the pioneers who started this whole mobile Ka band stuff, and learning as I go.
So join me in praying for a successful launch for Echostar 19 later this year, so that we'll have spot beams coast to coast. There's a lot of good camping out there in the interior of the west. Meanwhile, I'll struggle along this summer with what I have – the Pacific coast 😉