Broadband in the Boonies

With all the miraculous advances in technology, it's easy to take things such as broadband communications for granted. With DSL and cable connections becoming more widespread, one tends to forget that there are scads of people living in the hinterlands who would be elated just to achieve a connection faster than 19 Kbps on their 56K modems.

I admit to being one of those callous souls who, having had a reliable and speedy DSL connection in my suburban dwelling, thought little about what the "bandwidth-deprived" have to put up with.

No longer.

Since moving to the country about a month ago -- and discovering that the best my modem could hope for in this neck of the woods was a 26.4 Kbps connection -- I've sought swifter alternatives for connecting to the Net.

I've found a measure of salvation in StarBand, the two-way satellite system developed by Microsoft, the Dish Network, and Radio Shack. I have an always-on Web connection again -- so I can send and receive large attachments in my e-mail client in minutes rather than hours, and download files from the Web in a fraction of the time it would take using my dial-up connection. Getting to this point hasn't been easy, and problems remain, but I've made good progress. The following is a tale of what's worked (or not) for me so far, so keep that in mind before you dismantle your new investment.

My Broadband Options

I live in an area not serviced by cable television -- a satellite dish or very tall antenna is the only means to receiving more than static on the boob tube -- and it's extremely unlikely that the local phone company is going to install a central office within shouting distance of my house, so both cable and DSL are out of reach for the time being. I looked into ISDN, but I thought the price prohibitively high for the speeds I'd attain (around 128 Kbps).

Then I learned about StarBand, a brand new satellite system that boasts broadband access to the Internet. Unlike the DirectPC satellite system, which forces you to establish a modem connection for any uploads (meaning you have to dial up DirectPC not only when you want to slowly send a file to someone but also to surf the Web), StarBand offers a two-way connection to the Internet -- with promised download speeds of 400 Kbps and upload speeds of around 150 Kbps. In addition to broadband, you can sign up for Dish Networks television service, getting broadband and 150 channels for around $100 a month. The equipment -- the dish, modem, and receiver -- costs around $600.

It sounded great, but there was one catch: StarBand is meant for PCs running Windows only -- enforced by a configuration program that can only be run from a PC and a USB connector on the back of the StarBand Model 180 modem. I have a PC, and I've read enough on the Web to know that there might be ways to network the StarBand modem from the PC to a Macintosh. At worst, I'd be confined to using the PC for Web surfing and e-mail -- not something I looked forward to but preferred to the 26.4 Kbps alternative. So I checked the StarBand Web site for a local dealer and made the call.

Installation and Configuration

I ordered StarBand on a Tuesday and was scheduled for installation on Friday of that same week. (In contrast, it took Pacific Bell more than six weeks to install the DSL connection in my previous location.) At around noon on Friday two installers arrived to strap the large satellite dish to the house.

Once I settled on the idea that my house would now resemble a modern weapons facility, the installation proceeded smoothly -- taking about three hours to bolt the dish in, run the cables, align the dish, and set up the system for television reception. The first installers left and another arrived -- a guy from the local StarBand dealer who would configure the modem and PC.

I won't bore you with further details of the installation, but I will say that you won't be seeing any do-it-yourself StarBand kits down at the local Good Guys anytime soon. The StarBand modem and PC must be configured by an installer -- he carried a special installation CD not available to the public and a unique serial-to-USB cable for configuring the modem. The installer must also call into an automated phone system at StarBand headquarters and provide his or her StarBand certification number as well as the ID number for your StarBand unit so that your StarBand system can go online.

Once the proper calls were made and modem front-panel buttons pushed, the system was online and I was surfing the Web with Internet Explorer 5.5 for Windows. The minute the installer left, I began thinking about how to share my StarBand connection with my network of Macs.

Making It Mac

The StarBand Web site offers some help for sharing StarBand with a local area network, but the site assumes you're networking a group of PCs and therefore offers help with configuring Ositis Software's $60 WinProxy ( www.winproxy.com ), an Internet-traffic routing application. From information I've gathered across the Web, I believe it's possible to bring Macs into a network controlled by WinProxy -- but as a Windows novice, I preferred to seek a simpler solution.

Another solution suggested on the Web is to use a hardware router, configuring the router to act as a DHCP server and distributing IP addresses across the Mac/PC network. This solution requires that you, well, lightly hack the StarBand modem -- removing the modem's USB-to-Ethernet adapter to reveal a RJ-45 (standard Ethernet) LAN connector. While this sounded like a viable solution, it would require that I purchase a router. Before proceeding down that path I thought I might experiment with a technology I was more familiar with.

Hackintosh

In order to get the StarBand modem out of the realm of the PC and into something more universal, you must work around the modem's USB port -- and void your warranty. Be warned!

To use the modem's RJ-45 Ethernet port, I shut off the power to the StarBand 180 modem, removed the power cord, and removed the two screws at either end of the back of the modem. With the screws gone, I pulled off the modem's cover.

I then removed the two screws near the plate that held the USB port -- the plate that carries this warning: WARNING THIS CARD IS NOT REMOVABLE.

That warning is, of course, nonsense.

By gently pulling up on the card that holds the modem connector, a simple USB-to-Ethernet adapter, I was able to remove the adapter. I had to be careful not to bend the pins at the bottom, since I may want to replace this adapter someday.

Once I removed the card, I could use the RJ-45 Ethernet port below it -- that's the port I used to eventually connect my Macs to the Internet.

Apple's Miracle Technology

While I respect Apple's work, it's not often that I get all giddy about something Apple's cooked up in the lab. This is one of those rare, giddy moments. I may name my first child AirPort in tribute to how powerful, flexible, and just-damned-cool this technology is. While others across the Web were screwing around with WinProxy and routers, all I had to do was plug my stuff into an Ethernet hub and an AirPort Base Station, and I was rocking on the Web in no time.

For those of you with an AirPort Base Station and Ethernet hub who are familiar with network and AirPort configurations, here are the short instructions for what I did. I strung an Ethernet cable from the modem to the hub and another from the hub to the AirPort Base Station, attached my Macs to that hub via Ethernet, configured the Base Station to act as a DHCP server, and enabled AirPort-to-Ethernet bridging -- that's basically it.

If you're itching to try to get this to work for you -- as well as void that warranty -- I'll be more specific.

Wiring

For this example, we'll use a network that includes an Ethernet hub, an AirPort Base Station, a PC that includes an Ethernet card (if your PC doesn't have one, you'll have to get one and install TCP/IP), a desktop Mac that lacks an AirPort card, and an AirPort-equipped PowerBook.

Using Ethernet cables, connect the hub to the StarBand modem, AirPort Base Station, PC, and desktop Mac. The PowerBook will reach the network via its AirPort card.

AirPort Configuration

Launch the AirPort Admin Utility (this will run on either the PowerBook or desktop Mac), click on the Base Station's name in the list, and then click on Configure. Enter the password, if necessary, and click on the Internet tab. Select Ethernet from the Connect Using pull-down menu, and then select Using DHCP from the Configure TCP/IP pop-up menu. Click on the Network tab.

In the Network window click on the box next to Distribute IP Addresses, as well as the Share A Single IP Address (Using DHCP & NAT) option. Also, check both the Enable DHCP Server On Ethernet and Enable AirPort To Ethernet Bridging options. When you save your settings, the AirPort Base Station will configure itself and restart.

Mac TCP/IP Configuration

In the TCP/IP control panel of the PowerBook and desktop Mac, select Using DHCP Server from the Configure pop-up menu. On the PowerBook the Connect Via pop-up menu should read AirPort, and on the desktop Mac, Ethernet should appear in the Connect Via pop-up menu. Likewise, in the AppleTalk control panel you should select AirPort in the Connect Via pop-up menu on the PowerBook, and then select Ethernet in this same pop-up menu on the desktop Mac.

You should now be able to log on to the Web with your Macs via the StarBand modem. After doing so, open the TCP/IP control panel and take note of the number that appears under Name Server address (it should begin with 148). That, as you might imagine, is the DNS address for your StarBand connection. You'll need that number for the next step.

Windows Configuration

On the PC you have to configure TCP/IP, as well. The TCP/IP protocol is not automatically installed with Windows, as it is on a Mac. If you open the Network control panel in Windows and don't see a TCP/IP entry that accompanies your NIC (Network Interface Card), you must add the TCP/IP protocol. Use Windows' Help function to learn how.

Once you have TCP/IP installed on the PC, open the Network control panel, click on the TCP/IP entry that's linked to your NIC, and then click on the Properties button.

Click on the IP Address tab and choose the Obtain An IP Address Automatically option.

Click on the WINS Configuration tab and select the Use DHCP For WINS Resolution option that appears at the bottom of the window.

Now click on the DNS Configuration tab, select the Enable DNS option, enter the name of your computer in the Host field, enter starband.net in the Domain field, enter the Domain Name Server address (that 148 number I mentioned earlier) in the DNS Server Search Order field, and then click on Add.

Click on OK in both Network windows. Windows will now tell you that you must restart in order for these settings to take hold. Grudgingly acknowledge this request (and be thankful that the Mac OS doesn't require this kind of foolishness) and wait for Windows to reboot. Once it does, you should have access to the Web on your PC, as well.

Air Turbulence

As thrilled as I am that I'm able to share my Web connection with my entire network of Macs, I have to report that problems remain.

Problem one is that Web pages on the Mac sometimes load slowly -- or not at all -- and often carry corrupted graphics. Ironically enough, Internet Explorer seems the most prone to this kind of corruption.

Netscape suffers as well but is a bit more cooperative about opening pages that IE won't touch. Because iCab downloads images completely before displaying them, it produces the best looking Web pages of the bunch, but it, too, can download pages very slowly. AOL's browser displays pages well, but it's an inherently slow browser to begin with -- what you gain in clarity you lose in speed.

To be fair, StarBand clearly states that when networking a StarBand modem in ways not recommended by StarBand, you could run into problems -- specifically, some software may not perform as expected. Therefore, if viewing clean Web pages is of paramount importance to you, you're better off browsing the Web from the PC (just be sure to wash your hands afterward).

While problem two may not be related to this setup, it's worth mentioning. For whatever reason, mail sent through StarBand's SMTP server can take a very long time to be delivered -- if it arrives at all. In the week that I've had this system up and running, several e-mail messages have yet to be delivered. I've also had messages delivered in an instant, so there's no telling what kind of success you'll have.

Fortunately, I have access to another SMTP server and have been able to skirt the problem to an extent. If you have this kind of access as well, you might consider using it until a better solution to this conundrum arrives.

Problem three is certainly not related to my network but is rather a gentle warning about your expectations of StarBand. This is a brand new system -- there's nothing else like it on the market -- and it's still a work in progress. Download times can vary wildly. I've done as well as 600KB/sec during late-night Web sessions and as poorly as having my downloads stall out during peak hours (similar to cable, around 5:00 p.m. is the worst). There's real potential for this to be an outstanding way to get to and from the Internet, but there will be growing pains. Be patient.

To-do List

With my access (however occasionally spotty) to the Web established, I'm loath to touch anything. But I can't help wondering if it wouldn't work a bit better with a router. Web reports indicate that this is a worthy avenue to explore, and I may do so when I can afford to take my network offline.

Update

Since this article was posted, Macworld Forum member jhammy piped in to tell me how to clear up the corrupted images problem. A little background first:

According to jhammy, the StarBand system sends images one at a time and due to an inherent lag of about a quarter of a second when sending and receiving data, these images can take a long time to get to your Mac. StarBand has come up with something on its server called an Internet Page Accelerator (IPA) to address this problem. The IPA accelerates page downloading by sending you all the images on a web page in a single burst rather than one at a time. When StarBand is installed on a PC, an IPA client is installed as well. This client negotiates this single-burst transfer.

There is no such client on the Mac. However, the laudable jhammy provided me with a workaround--one that channels the data sent and received by the Mac through the PC's IPA client. Here's how to set it up with the AirPort Base Station configuration I describe:

To begin with, you need the IP address of the PC. Because the setup I describe uses DHCP, you won't find the IP address in Windows' Network control panel. Instead, you have to find it this way:

Select Run from the Start menu and enter "WinIPcfg" (without the quotes) and press the Enter key. In the resulting dialog box you'll see the IP address for the PC. Let's say it's something like 10.0.1.22.

Then on the Mac, open Internet Explorer, select Preferences from the Edit menu, scroll down and select Proxies, click the Web Proxy and Use Web Proxy For All options in the Use Web Proxy portion of the window, click the Settings button, and enter the IP address in the Address field (I entered 10.0.1.22) and 9877 in the Port field. Click OK and you're connection will be channeled through the PC and you should no longer have any problem with corrupt graphics on the Mac.

There is a caveat, however. For this setup to work, the PC must be on. Once you turn it off you won't be able to access the Web or check your email without first turning off the Web Proxy option in either Internet Explorer or the Firewalls section of the Advanced tab of the Internet control panel.

One other gotcha: If you're running a software firewall such as ZoneAlarm, you must allow access to Port 9877 on the PC.

Anyone interested in StarBand -- or who has information that can help me get my own network running more smoothly -- should check out our StarBand message thread in the Macworld.com Forums.

Click here to get the latest details on the "Broadband in the Boonies" story.

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