Living on the edge, where broadband doesn't reach

the barn

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If you live in a city, you take a lot for granted. Not just access to stores, culture and public transportation, but also access to Internet and cellphone networks. It’s easy to get complacent when you have fast broadband access and 4G cell phone speeds. But what happens when you lose all that? I recently moved to a new place in the English countryside and, in the process, ran into problems getting basic access to the communication networks I use all the time. I eventually managed to solve those problems, but not without some money, time, and effort.

Moving to the barn

My new home—a converted barn a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon—is on the edge of small village of about 600 people. On my first visit, I saw that the cellular service there from my provider—EE—was very poor. Some times, I’d get one bar of 3G service; at others, I was stuck with slower EDGE or GPRS. And at still others, I had no service at all.

As for Internet access, my new neighbors let me know that the best I could expect was about 2 Mbps. Compared to the 15 Mbps I’d had where I lived previously, this was a big step backwards. Given that my work often requires that I download large files (each of those OS X betas are over 4GB), I needed better speed than that.

Internet from the sky

While there are vague plans afoot to bring fiber to my new neighborhood, I needed fast Internet service now. So I looked at the only other viable option: satellite broadband from tooway. Much more expensive than standard DSL, satellite Internet service offers high speeds, but has many drawbacks.

satellite dish

You may need a technician to come out and install the satellite dish.

Setup isn’t complicated, but it does require a visit from a technician. The satellite provider sent an engineer to mount a satellite dish 72 centimeters in diameter and run a cable from it into my house. This cost £130 (or about $214). The co-axial cable from the satellite connects to a modem, which I, in turn, connect to an AirPort Extreme base station.

My satellite provider says it offers download speeds of up to 20 Mbps, with uploads of up to 6 Mbps. They weren’t lying, at least not totally. I’ve seen speeds as high as 21.5 Mbps in the morning, but once the evening rolls around, speeds plummet. That’s because with satellite internet, as with cable service, you’re sharing a limited amount of bandwidth with many other people. At times, I see less than 2 Mbps in the evenings, which makes it difficult to use the satellite to watch movies. However, upload speeds are generally very quick.

Weather can affect satellite speed too, but less than I had expected. We’ve had a spate of bad weather since I moved to the area, with strong rain and wind for the past month. The Internet went down altogether a few times, and at others it was slower than usual. But, overall, the weather didn’t make as much difference as I’d seen in the past with satellite TV.

The main downside of using satellite internet is its latency (the amount of time from when you send a request for something over the Internet until you get a response). While I see latency of around 30ms to 35ms on DSL, the satellite takes about 700ms to 800ms. It’s particularly slow when loading webpages. It’s not as bad when you’re downloading files; once a file starts loading, you don’t suffer from latency any more. If I were an online gamer, it would be impossible via satellite; real-time action games would be impossible to play.

Counting gigabytes

All satellite Internet plans come with data limits. I chose the most generous package, offering 50GB per month for £65 (or about $105). While that may sound like a lot of data, HD movies could eat up that allowance very quickly. A long one like Man of Steel is 5.2GB from the iTunes Store; you need to think twice about renting movies.

But my package offers unlimited downloads from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., which means I can queue up my larger downloads to run overnight. So if I want to rent a movie from the iTunes Store, it’s best if I decide the day before, then start downloading the movie after 11:00. Initial download speeds at that time are very slow, but by the time the sun comes up, all my downloads are completed.

If you like Netflix, you’ll find that it can be costly. Since you can only stream from Netflix—you can’t download overnight as you can with the iTunes Store—you won’t want to do any box-set binges unless you’re awake in the wee hours. Similarly, you have to watch out for any video service, such as Hulu or YouTube, which can also deplete your data quota quickly.

One way to keep an eye on your gigabytes is with the $8 NetUse Traffic Monitor. It gets SNMP (small network management protocol) data from my AirPort Extreme base station and tells me exactly how much I’ve downloaded and uploaded. Because it works directly with the AirPort base station, it doesn’t record traffic to and from just a particular Mac, but also iOS devices, PlayStations, and other connected hardware that can impact your data usage. (You will need to keep a Mac running all the time to record the app’s data.) NetUse Traffic Monitor does not work on the latest AirPort Extreme base stations, however, since they don’t support SNMP; check the company’s website to find if your router is compatible.

net use monitor

NetUse Traffic Monitor

Not being able to download willy-nilly as before, I had to come up with some strategies for optimizing my download quota:

Download off peak: If you have an unlimited period as I do, download as much as you can during that period.

Watch out for updates: Don’t download updates to OS X or iOS automatically. On OS X, go to the App Store pane of System Preferences and uncheck Download newly available updates in the background. You’ll still want to be notified of updates, but you certainly don’t want to download what may be several gigabytes of updates without warning.

When possible, download updates from the Apple website, rather than the App Store app. You can only do this for certain updates, such as iTunes, or general OS X updates, but if you do, you can transfer the update disk images to any other Macs you have, so each computer doesn’t have to download the same content. When you update apps from the App Store app, you have no choice: You can’t copy those apps to another Mac. So each Mac will have to download its own app updates.

itunes prefs

To save on usage, don't tell iTunes to automatically download new music or apps in iTunes.

Don’t double-download: Don’t automatically download purchased apps and media to all of your devices. There are settings in the App Store preference pane, and in iTunes (iTunes > Preferences > Store) for automatically downloading apps and music to your various Macs. You should turn these off, so you don’t end up downloading that 1GB game on your laptop, after you’ve got it on your desktop Mac. Download all iTunes content to one Mac, then copy it to other Macs, if you have more than one, and sync to your iOS devices.

Take advantage of other Wi-Fi networks: If you update iOS apps on any of your devices when on a Wi-Fi network away from home—at work, say, or at school—copy those updates to your iTunes library. To do this, connect the device to your Mac, right-click on it in iTunes, then choose Transfer Purchases. If not, you’ll end up re-downloading the same apps at home. And if you have a laptop, try and grab your updates on someone else’s dime.

Say goodbye to streaming: Do you like Netflix? Do you use Spotify or iTunes Radio to listen to music? You will have to think twice about using any of those streaming services when you’re on a limited bandwidth diet. Depending on your data allowance, these services could cost you a lot. Check how much data each one uses, and decide whether it’s worth keeping. Music uses less bandwidth than video, of course, so you may be able to keep your favorite music service with little impact to your quota. Just don’t leave it running all the time if you’re not listening.

Watch out for Dropbox: If you use Dropbox, and especially if you’ve shared folders with friends or colleagues, you’ll be downloading data each time files in those folders are updated. You may want to only launch Dropbox when you need to access files, letting it update occasionally, rather than leaving it running all day long.

Smart TVs, not so smart: In the first couple of weeks, I saw a lot of data being used, even though I was very careful to not download too much. A technician from my provider suggested I take any smart TVs I might have off the network. Even when such TVs are not actively connected to the Internet to download content, many of them still use up data all day long.

All in all, this is a new way of working with the Internet. I had never had data caps in the past, but now I’m aware of them all the time and think twice before clicking any download links.

Cell phone coverage in forgotten areas

The cell phone problem was actually easier to solve. It turns out that EE sells something it calls a Signal Box—in other words, a femtocell. This device costs £106 (about $174), connects to the Internet, and provides its own local 3G cellular service. I now have four to five bars anywhere in my new house; I can even sit outside in the garden and still have cell-phone coverage.

But not many phone companies offer these devices in the UK. Only Vodaphone sells them to the general public; EE only let me buy one because I have a business account. Depending on where you live, and your provider, you may or may not be able to get one.

Two networks

To be safe, I did get 2-Mbps DSL service as well. I felt it would be useful for three reasons. First, if the satellite goes down for any reason, I’ll still have a connection, albeit a slow one. Second, I can download unlimited amounts of data, so if I want to download something during the day, there’s no quota; it’s just a lot slower. Finally, the femtocell seems to work much better with DSL than with the satellite.

So I use the DSL for our iOS devices: two iPhones, two iPads, one iPod touch. I’ve put the smart TV on the DSL as well. And I occasionally switch networks on my Mac, when I want faster Web access, and don’t need to download anything large. (And, as a plus, Netflix actually works fairly well on a 2-Mbps connection, just not in HD.)

All this was complicated; it took a lot of research to figure out the best solution. And it’s expensive: I’m paying £86 (about $141) a month for internet access. But I live in a beautiful stone barn, surrounded by lovely countryside; the Internet and cellular hassles are just a price I pay for that.

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