Broadband in the Boonies, Part II

When last I checked in, I was a fairly happy Mac user taking advantage of a reasonably fast connection to the Internet via the StarBand satellite system. Thanks to a hidden Ethernet port and the router capabilities of my AirPort Base Station, I was able to share a broadband connection with my PC and a host of Macs.

Then came the "update" and my troubles began. Here's my story:

The Announcement

On June 19th I received an e-mail message from StarBand with the subject heading: New StarBand Satellite Modem Free Offer. This message informed me that I was eligible to sign up for a free upgrade to StarBand's new model 360 modem. The message promised a modem that was smaller, sleeker, and offered more ways to connect with both Ethernet and USB options. A modem that was, in short, "designed with you -- our customer -- in mind." The message also said installation of the new modem would take only an hour or so.

What the message failed to mention was that this "free" upgrade was anything but free or optional. Despite the wording of this upgrade offer, StarBand does not offer you the option to skip the upgrade. The company intends to drop all support for its original model 180 modems and cut off service to those individuals who fail to upgrade. Therefore, in order to remain with StarBand, you must upgrade. Also, when you accept the upgrade offer, you must also accept the condition that you extend your StarBand contract for an additional 12 months. This is another non-negotiable condition. Either extend the contract, or lose your service.

Okay, so the upgrade policy is a bit draconian. I understand that StarBand can maintain only a single network of modems and if the model 360 really provides better service, then an upgrade -- enforced though it may be -- makes sense.

The Arrival

The modem arrived in early August, about a month after I signed up for the free upgrade. It wasn't delivered to the address I gave StarBand, but I had the modem in hand after no more than an additional week's delay.

I unpacked the device to discover that the model 360 modem was indeed sleeker than the enormous stereo-amplifier-sized model 180. The modem, small enough to put on a desk, was an attractive, wedge-shaped device that featured six green status lights on the front and, on the back, RF-In, RF-Out, Power, Ethernet, and USB ports. Unlike the model 180, the model 360 offers a plainly visible Ethernet port.

I was anxious to plug the 360 into my Ethernet hub and see just how much faster this baby would run when, scanning the manual, I spied this notice:

"Please note that the Ethernet port cannot directly be connected to a router or other home networking device. Home networking is possible, but requires the satellite modem to be connected to a PC functioning as the gateway to the other home networking devices."

Uh oh. . . .

Praying that this notice wasn't intended for me and my carefully wrought AirPort network, I attempted to plug the 360 directly into my Ethernet hub.

No go.

StarBand wasn't kidding. The model 360 is utterly incapable of working in a network unless it is directly connected to a PC either via USB or an Ethernet crossover cable. If you want to share your StarBand connection with the model 360, you must either connect the modem to the PC with a USB cable or use two Ethernet network interface cards -- one for the modem and the other for the network. Additionally, you must run a program from Ositis called WinProxy and leave your PC on whenever you wish to access the Web or your e-mail. Thankfully, StarBand includes a copy of WinProxy in the box.

Setup: Part 1

I knew a bullet had to be bitten so I paged back to the beginning of the StarBand manual and began the installation process. This process entails removing the model 180 software from the PC, installing the model 360 software, shutting down the PC, connecting the satellite cables and Ethernet or USB cables (you can't use both) to the modem, switching on the modem, and then firing up the PC. This was the process that StarBand promised would take an hour.

In my case, StarBand's estimate was off by only 43 hours. I didn't have the new modem up and running for two days. Here's why:

At first, my PC running Windows ME refused to load the model 360 driver, though in the past it had had no problem with the model 180 driver. After finagling one thing or another, I eventually got the driver installed. The modem then refused to recognize the satellite. Later, when it finally did see the satellite, it refused to load the acceleration software that allows you to surf the Web at anything other than a dreadfully slow crawl.

After waiting on hold for more than an hour, I spent the better part of another hour with a polite technical service representative who, failing to find the cause of my problems, finally asked "Have you thought of initializing your drive and reinstalling Windows?"

"Heavens no!"

"Well you may want to try that. But in the meantime, I'm going to elevate your status and have someone call you back who can provide you with more detailed instruction."

Six days later, and I still haven't received that call.

Setup: Part 2

After a couple of days of no returned call, I decided to follow the tech's advice and wipe my PC's hard drive and reinstall Windows. I've never had this pleasure before. For those who are considering such an action, I might suggest that, in comparison to performing a similar procedure on the Macintosh, it's a bit of a chore. If you've done it, you know. If you haven't, let me give you this little hint: A weekend encased in a very large block of ice would be more enjoyable.

With a clean hard drive and a freshly installed copy of Windows (and the many requisite drivers I had to load from one floppy disk or another) I began the StarBand 360 installation again. This time, except for the several Windows crashes I'd learned to expect, the process went fairly smoothly. After the promised hour or so (oh, and those intervening two days) the PC recognized the modem, the modem recognized the satellite, and I recognized that I deserved a hearty clap on the back for making the whole mess work.

Now, to the important stuff: networking the Macs.

Networking

Realizing that the easy-as-pie AirPort-networking solution I'd devised for the model 180 modem was not an option with the 360, I turned to WinProxy, the only networking solution supported by StarBand. The CD's cover looked promising enough: "Get Connected with WinProxy for StarBand. The ultimate Home Network Sharing Solution."

Well, I thought my previous setup was quite the thing -- if not the ultimate thing -- but who was I to disagree? I inserted the CD, ran the installer, and got yet another surprise. This copy of WinProxy, far from being a free networking solution to replace my previous free networking solution, was a 30-day evaluation copy. If I cared to share my broadband connection for longer than those 30-days, I must pay an additional $60 for the privilege.

Okay, StarBand never once said that it supported my Mac network hack and the company certainly never provided its Windows users with a free way to share the satellite connection (other than the network-sharing capabilities built into Windows ME and 2000), but I have to admit that it stung just a little to discover that this "free" upgrade had, so far, cost me two days of excruciating frustration as well as 60 bucks.

But my business depends on being able to get to the Web with my Macs in a fairly brisk manner, so I bit yet another bullet and proceeded with the installation.

Although WinProxy is, by no means, the most user-friendly application you're likely to stumble upon, it's not terribly convoluted either. Reading the Quick Start Guide got me up and running. This is how I did it:

After installing WinProxy and restarting the PC I opened the Network control panel, clicked on my Ethernet card, clicked on Properties, clicked on the IP Address tab, and checked the Specify an IP Address box. I then assigned the Ethernet network card an IP address of 90.0.0.1 along with a subnet mask of 255.255.255.0. I then clicked on OK and restarted, as Windows requested.

I opened the TCP/IP control panels on all my Macs, specified the protocol they use to connect to the network (either AirPort or Ethernet), and selected Using DHCP Server from the Configure pop-up menu.

My AirPort Base Station had been set up as a router (see " Broadband in the Boonies ") and to share its connection to the Web with Ethernet-based computers. This had to be changed since WinProxy would now operate as the router.

To configure the Base Station, I opened the AirPort Admin Utility, clicked on the Network tab, and disabled all the router functions -- sharing a single IP address as well as the two Sharing an Ethernet connection options. The Base Station then simply acted as a connection to the hub and the rest of the network.

I restarted my PC and the many Macs and -- hallelujah! -- the PC as well as the Macs were able to get to the Web and retrieve e-mail.

Service So Far

To say that the 360 has been "up and running" for the past five days would be overstating the case. The satellite connection routinely disappears, StarBand's page-acceleration software crashes (producing Windows' dreaded Blue Screen of Death), and StarBand's SMTP server (the server that allows you to send e-mail) has refused to accept outgoing mail from one of my Macs. StarBand users on Macworld forums and on the StarBand newsgroups have reported similar problems. As I write this, I have been without access to the Web or e-mail (from both the PC and Mac) for over two hours, yet StarBand's tech support line recording reports that all network systems are functioning normally.

Okay, so it's apparent that there are still a few kinks to work out in this upgrade process. When the system is actually running, how does it fare?

Download speeds on the PC are impressive -- offering transfer rates of between 600 to 800 Kbps . Download speeds over the network are not quite as impressive. For the most part, I've been able to download files on my Macs at around 300 to 400 Kbps . Upload speeds are another matter. Although StarBand advertises upload speeds of around 150 Kbps, this figure is misleading because StarBand uploads files in bursts -- a burst of 150 Kbps, followed by a three- to four-second pause, followed by another 150 Kbps burst. StarBand support reveals that users should expect no more than overall upload speeds of 40 to 60 Kbps (speeds comparable to a clean 56K modem connection).

Certain kinds of uploads don't work at all. For example, I attempted to upload a 1.7MB QuickTime movie to my iDisk. It took approximately three seconds to upload a single kilobyte of information. Had I not cancelled the operation, it would have taken 85 minutes to upload that movie.

Current State

Given my recent StarBand experience, how would I rate the service as an option for those in the boonies who need broadband access? Very poorly. If I wasn't under contract to StarBand and there was a Mac-based alternative, I'd kiss my $600 investment good-bye and cancel the service without hesitation. Let's go over the reasons why:

* My model 180 worked well enough with my kludgy network that I could get on and off the Web reasonably fast. Uploads were never terribly sprightly, but fast enough to get my work done. I understand that StarBand needs to do what it thinks is best for its business and, perhaps, for its customers, but the model 360 should have been tested more thoroughly and StarBand should have ensured that the resources necessary to support this device were in place before unleashing it on its customers.

* Although there were occasional service outages with my model 180 (perhaps one or two short outages a day), StarBand was up and running far more consistently with the 180 than it has been with the 360.

* The design of the model 360 makes it inherently less reliable because it depends on too many other factors. If Windows or the StarBand software crashes or becomes corrupted, you completely lose access to the Web and e-mail services. There are times when you have to power-down the modem and restart the PC a couple of times before StarBand works again. With the model 180 and my network hack, there was no need for the PC to be on at all to send and retrieve e-mail.

* Currently StarBand does not have the kind of tech support resources in place to handle the many problems customers are having with their systems. Although a recording tells you that the time you could wait on the phone may exceed 30 minutes, users have reported that wait times can exceed three hours. In my own case, it's been nearly a week since my problem was elevated to "call-back status," yet I haven't heard a peep from StarBand. If I hadn't finally taken matters into my own hands, I'd still be without service.

* Forcing an upgrade to what can hardly be termed an "improved" product and, at the same time, demanding that customers extend their service contracts in order to keep from losing their service is shameful. If StarBand can't deliver the service it promised -- an "always on connection" with upload speeds of 150 Kbps -- it should offer its customers some kind of compensation for its inability to deliver on those promises or let customers out of their contracts and refund the unused portion of their initial investment.

Share your experiences on this topic in our Broadband in the Boonies message thread.

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