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Satellite access helping rural customers bridge digital divide

There is a great “digital divide” between the haves and the have-nots in Mississippi when it comes to access to high-speed Internet services. Businesses in rural areas without fast-access capabilities are at a competitive disadvantage. New businesses may even decide against locating in an area because of lack of high-speed service.

But there is an access option with satellite Internet. Experts say just as the mini-dish and digital receiver revolutionized the subscription television market, it was only a matter of time before this same technology was used to deliver Internet access.

Satellite is a good option for people who can’t get DSL, cable modem or wireless Internet connections. For costs starting at $49.95 per month, residents anywhere in Mississippi can have access to high-speed Internet.

One service provider is Alaweb Pioneer, which is based in Andalusia, Ala., 45 miles north of the Florida line. The company will go anywhere in Mississippi to install WildBlue satellite dishes.

Celina Newton, tech support manager, Alaweb Pioneer, said the service is just as fast as DSL. With the $49.95 package, there is a download speed of 512K and upload speed of 128K.

“That compares favorably with most DSL providers,” Newton said. “There are other packages. The $69.95 middle package has a download speed of 1 MG and an upload speed of 200K. The pro package, $79.95 per month, has a download speed 1.5 MG and upload speed of 256K.”

Equipment fees are higher than with most DSL packages. It costs $299 for the equipment, and there is a requirement to sign a one-year contract.

One of the biggest complaints by satellite Internet users is that storms can interfere with transmission.

“All satellite service is the same,” Newton said. “If there is a heavy cloud cover, there is going to be some interference. But generally it is real good service with very little downtime. There will be downtime with the weather occasionally. It is just the nature of the beast. There is nothing we can do about it. But satellite Internet provides high speeds for people who have no other options.”
Alaweb just recently got into the Mississippi market. While customers haven’t been beating down the door, the company thinks that it is only a matter of time before more people find out about the offering.

“We are starting to get more and more customers,” Newton said. “It is just a matter of getting the word out. People are not familiar with our name there in Mississippi.”

There is one other consideration to keep in mind. As with Direct TV or the Dish Network, a satellite dish has to be mounted on a pole or on the house. Newton said some people don’t like that.

Overall, satellite Internet is available all over the U.S. There are very few places that you can’t get it. But the dish won’t travel with you on, for example, a motorhome.

“You can’t do that with DSL either,” Newton points out.
Another issue with satellite Internet services is some can suffer performance degradation during peak usage hours (typically weekday evenings). Potential customers may want to check the company’s Web site for a goal for lowest peak hour performance.

Another provider of Satellite Internet in Mississippi is EarthLink. Its service costs $69.95/month including complementary dial-up service. EarthLink service is available everywhere in the state.

Hal Schlenger, senior product manager for EarthLink, said it has had satellite customers in Mississippi since 2000.

“We have very satisfied customers,” Schlenger said. “As far as for a business, it is definitely a great alternative when the only choice for Internet access is dial up. Improvements in the past couple of years make it very compatible with home networking. The speeds have increased over the past two years. This crosses the digital divide where cable and telephone plants are not able to go.

“With this service, you choose where to live or work without first having to make sure that it has cable or telephone DSL. Many of our customers are writers, sales representatives and lawyers who choose to live where they want, and need the high-speed Internet access.”

The speeds are up to 700K downstream and up to 60K upstream. EarthLink, which charges $599 for the hardware and professional installation, first comes to visit the home or business and do a site survey to make sure there are no barriers to connectivity.

“If we can get connectivity, it is hooked up and is all your’s,” Schlenger said. “If we can’t get line of site to the satellite, there is no risk to the customers. We come out, install it, test it and it is good to go.’

Like other satellite Internet providers, EarthLink has a shared access policy that limits that amount of data that may be transferred in a given day. Downloading songs won’t be a problem, but something like downloading multiple movies will use your capacity.

“E-mail, sending files and photos, and listening to Internet music all day long, you won’t have a problem,” he said. “However, if you try to download movies at a fast pace, you will use up the amount of capacity we allow you for that day. We do that so everyone has shared access.”

Like with other types of ISPs, when choosing a satellite Internet provider, it is important to look at the quality of technical support you get by phone, and the applicationstools that come with the service such e-mail, spam blocking and virus blocking.

“That is what EarthLink has built its reputation around,” Schlenger said. “One other thing to realize before you pick up the phone and talk to us or our competitors is the hardware involved will transmit a signal from your home to a satellite that is 22,000 miles away and the size of a school bus. Make sure the antennae is connected correctly. There is some skill involved here.”

Some problems that users might blame on weather could be related to incorrect installation of the antennae or it shifting over time.

“If someone has a problem like that, we encourage them to call and we will send someone out to fix it,” Schlenger said. “It is part of our service. We tend to deliver 99.5% of the time. When it rains, that is not a problem. In Mississippi you rarely have to worry about snow. Rain and wind are not a reason for service to go out.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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