Fantasy broadband league

27 Jul 2005

Davey Winder goes in search of the perfect picture and joins the broadband elite

Last month, I made passing comment about the fact that I was trying out a new and rather fast satellite broadband service. What would you call fast? 2Mb, or maybe 4Mb? Or moving into the realm of fantasy, say you are lucky enough to live in a city-centre location where one of the new 8Mb DSL services is operating, would that fulfil your need for speed? Well, just for once, the sleepy South Yorkshire village of South Leverton where I live and work is striding ahead in the broadband revolution. How does 16Mb, right here, right now, grab you? And this is happening just as the village becomes DSL-enabled, albeit far enough from the nearest exchange (two villages yonder) that a 1Mb line is the best I'm being offered.

Having been used to a reliable, but relatively slow, one-way satellite service for my connectivity for years, this move to a 16Mb downlink was an almost surreal experience. Of course, the separate uplink may still be anything from a slow dial-up modem through BT's ISDN to the far more attractive proposition of (as of last week) an ADSL line. Unfortunately, my trial period of the satellite didn't overlap with the ordering of my ADSL service (from PC Pro award-winner Zen Internet www.zen.co.uk), so I'm unable to report on the effectiveness of them in combination, although I can happily imagine 256Kb uploads coupled with 16Mb downloads.

The technology on the ground is all pretty simple. Just plug a PCI DVB card, such as the TechniSat SkyStar 2 (www.technisat.com), into your PC and connect it to a satellite dish pointing 33 degrees east. That happens to be the same direction for a Sky TV feed, so it is possible to use the same dish for both digital TV and fast broadband with just a change of LNB. However, being a true geek, I have a separate, and much bigger, dish for my data reception. The dedicated PCI DVB card is the most important component: it may not be as straightforward as a USB box, but seeing that most of the compatible USB devices transfer at a maximum 8Mb/sec (and can sustain perhaps 5Mb/sec) it is the only sensible option. I would been using an Ethernet broadband satellite modem for my old service, (a Manhattan BSM 2 from BeyonDSL www.beyondsl.net), which was far and away the best device I would encountered until then, but even this was limited to 10Mb/sec. The DVB card is capable of processing 60Mb/sec and is currently the only way to sustain a 16Mb/sec data rate.

The company behind what it calls 'Extreme Broadband' in the UK is Broadband Satellite Solutions (www.broadbandss.com), and it has access to two transponders on the E-bird satellite, each capable of transmitting up to 40Mb/sec. In essence, it is the same principle as the slower OpenSky systems (or Sky TV for that matter) using DVB-ip technology, but skyDSL that operates the feed has simply turned the data-rate knob up to 11. It is proving to be quite successful in Europe already, so much so that AOL Germany is reselling it.

Setup was straight-forward, and it came as quite a shock to see data flowing in at rates as high as 2.74MB/sec or 21.92Mb/sec. Take a look at the screenshots above and tell me you do not feel just a twinge of jealousy. Of course, such rates are only sustainable during large FTP downloads, and you face the usual pauses when browsing the Web, since the satellite adds additional latency thanks to that slow uplink and the lengthy round trips the signal has to make. And do not forget that a web server with a limited output speed of 1Mb/sec is only ever going to provide that rate, no matter how fat the pipe you wave at it. Throw in some bandwidth congestion and the normal Internet traffic jams, and the web browsing experience is not that much different from bog-standard ADSL. But, oh boy, when you start downloading files...

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