- Straightforward to install and set up
- download speeds up to 4Mbps via satellite
- user-selectable 'gears' delivering lower contention rates
- good range of free offline services.
- Requires conventional upload link (modem, ISDN)
- relatively hefty installation charge
- LAN and VPN support not yet in place
- some offline services yet to be localised for the UK.
If you live in one of the many (mainly rural) parts of the country marked ‘here be no terrestrial broadband’ on the map, and you’re frustrated by that, then you’re likely to be interested in SatDrive from Interactive Satellite Services. Launched in September this year, the £14.99 a month SatDrive is a one-way service that provides download speeds of up to 4Mbps via a satellite link, but relies on a conventional upload link, or ‘back channel’, using a dial-up modem or ISDN connection. This makes it much cheaper than two-way satellite services such as BTopenworld’s Business 500, although it does mean that your Internet connection is severely asymmetric, will generally require a dedicated phone line, and isn’t ‘always on’ in the conventional sense.You pay a pretty hefty installation fee for SatDrive (up to £450 inc. VAT), and low-contention download bandwidth costs extra on a user-selectable sliding scale. However, we think that SatDrive has a lot to recommend it as long as the provision of terrestrial broadband services remains in its present patchy and urban-biased state. ZDNet has been trialling SatDrive for several weeks in a village in rural Bedfordshire – a resolutely ADSL- and cable-free zone, despite the proximity of urban centres such as Milton Keynes, Luton and Bedford. Apart from the general requirement for a faster Internet connection, a major impetus behind this review was to establish whether SatDrive could enable successful teleworking and alleviate a punishing daily commute to and from central London.
SatDrive’s satellite capacity is provided by Eutelsat, via multiple 38Mbps transponders on the Telekom 2D satellite located at 8 degrees west. Eutelsat also provides the satellite uplink station containing SatDrive’s proxy server. The user’s receiver hardware (PCI card or USB box) and software is from German company TELES, operator of the SkyDSL service (whose logo still appears on the Cockpit software). If you don’t already have a suitable dish, SatDrive will provide and install a 60cm dish with 10m of coax cable. You can use existing equipment to access SatDrive, but the company won’t support it if you run into problems. The software is compatible with Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 and XP. Information passes from your computer to the SatDrive proxy server at the uplink station via the conventional back channel (modem or ISDN). Data returns (at high speed) from the proxy server via the satellite and your receiver equipment. If you haven’t activated SatDrive, the conventional connection is used for downloads as well as uploads. Switching between the SatDrive proxy server and conventional transmission happens dynamically via a local proxy server that supports HTTP, HTTPS, FTP and Socks services. SatDrive supports download speeds of up to 4Mbps – eight times faster than a typical 512Kbps ADSL connection. The service is contended, meaning you have to share the available bandwidth with other users, but you can reserve bandwidth for yourself by selecting one of the five ‘gears’ via the software: Gear 1 is the most contended, and access to this is included in the £14.99 monthly subscription; Gears 2 to 5 are progressively less contended, and cost between 6p and 19p per megabyte during peak hours (5am to 7pm), and from 3p/MB to 11p/MB in the off-peak period (7pm to 5am). There’s a sixth gear that supports downloads at up to 8Mbps, but this is reserved for a forthcoming LAN version of the service. Internet connection sharing over a network isn’t officially supported by the standard version of SatDrive – it’s possible, but only one networked system can access the satellite bandwidth at a time. It’s worth noting in advance that the USB receiver box won’t be able to handle the 8Mbps sixth gear, just the PCI card.
Installation and setup
Our test installation was the SatDrive USB Package, comprising a 60cm dish with 10m of coax cable, a (rather bulky and utilitarian-looking) USB receiver box and a CD containing the SatDrive software and a PDF manual. This carries a one-off £450 installation fee, with the first month’s rental (£14.99) free. The PCI card version costs £399 to install; if you already have a suitable dish, the prices are £265 and £225 for the USB and PCI versions respectively. If you have a dish and a receiver, the software alone costs £149 (all prices including VAT). But remember, you’re on your own as far as support is concerned if you don’t use SatDrive-supplied equipment. The one-off fee covers the installation of the dish (which is handled by a third party, IT Installs) and the cost of the hardware and software. You are expected to install the USB box (or the PCI card) and the software, and configure the system. Luckily, this is a relatively straightforward process, and only very inexperienced PC users are likely to have problems once the dish is assembled and pointed at the satellite (which is done for you). After connecting up the USB box to your PC (or inserting the PCI card), loading the drivers, and connecting the dish’s coax cable, the receiver’s firmware should automatically find the satellite (if it has been aligned correctly by the installer). You then install the software, entering a SAT-Number to confirm your subscriber status, and restart the system, whereupon the SatDrive Connection Wizard automatically starts up and leads you through the configuration process. The wizard first makes sure that you are pointing at the right satellite, and that the signal strength is sufficient – an on-screen display (with optional audio feedback) helps you achieve the optimal dish position if adjustments are required (they weren’t in our case). Then your ISP connection is tested to ensure that a suitable back channel is in place, and a connection is made to the SatDrive Server Station, where you are logged on as a customer. The final test makes a brief satellite connection in first gear (which carries no extra cost); your local proxy settings are checked at the same time, and if you get the thumbs-up, you’re ready to roll. All this may sound long-drawn-out, but if you don’t encounter any problems (and we didn’t) you can be up and running within 15 minutes of the dish being installed.
So, what can you do with SatDrive once it’s installed and configured? In addition to ‘live’ Web browsing and file downloading at user-controlled speed, you can get various offline services that don’t require the back channel to be operational. These include email, file download and browsing, plus – in the future -- streaming TV and radio. SatDrive is straightforward to use for general Web browsing and file downloading. You control download speed using either the on-screen Cockpit display – which uses a dashboard metaphor -- or by right-clicking on a system tray icon and selecting from the pop-up menu. The latter also gives access to the SatDrive Settings dialogue box. When you select a gear that carries an extra per-megabyte charge, the system tray icon changes to a yellow colour to remind you that the meter is ticking. Web browsing with SatDrive enabled is quicker when you access content-rich sites, thanks to the accelerated download speed -- this is effective even in the ‘free’ first gear. File downloads are a joy, the megabytes fairly rushing onto your hard disk. If you use a separate FTP client, you’ll need to configure its local proxy settings – this is well described in the excellent PDF manual. SatDrive Email is perhaps the most useful of the additional services. Once you have registered on SatDrive’s customer service home page and signed up for a POP3 email account, you can receive emails via satellite automatically, as long as your PC is left on -- you don’t need to connect to your ISP via the back channel. So if you want to receive your work email at home, for example, you can simply forward it to your SatDrive account. If your PC is turned off, email is stored on the SatDrive server for 30 days with a 60MB limitation, so you should be able to collect it later. Obviously, SatDrive’s fast download speeds come in handy when large attachments are involved. Outgoing email is not handled by the satellite, so you’ll need your ISP connection active in order to send mail. Another offline service is Favourite Internet Pages (FIP), where up to 10 Web sites are selected from a list on the customer service site and downloaded automatically via satellite. Downloaded pages are accessible via a listing in the SatDrive Always On Control Center – you just double-click or right-click on the URL in the list and browse away offline. The cache size for downloaded Web pages is set by default at 1GB, but you can change this via the SatDrive Settings dialogue box. Information in the cache is constantly updated. The only drawback with this system is that almost all of the currently listed sites are German – testament to SatDrive’s TELES/SkyDSL heritage. SatDrive plans to create its own list of FIP sites, targeted at small businesses and homeworkers. In addition, an online magazine called SatMagz is being created to demonstrate the advantages of ‘multicasting’ content to closed user groups as a cache file. Request For Download (RFD) allows you to download Web pages or files offline using HTTP or FTP. You simply post an order in the RFD Client, which is accessed via a system tray icon, and the download arrives as an email attachment in your SatDrive email account. You can download up to 60MB of data a month for free, with a limit of 30 requests a day and 10 files per request. You’ll need to leave your PC on having placed your RFD order, as the data is downloaded as soon as possible -- but only once. SatDrive is also negotiating with a number of content providers to stream UK-focussed MPEG4 video content via satellite -- this is likely to be business and current affairs content plus a few music channels.
One of the key attractions of a broadband connection is speed, and SatDrive’s 4Mbps maximum download bandwidth looks very tempting for anyone who needs to grab a lot of data off the Internet. That’s eight times the 512Kbps of a typical ADSL connection and 73 times the speed of a 56Kbps modem link. But what’s it like in practice? To find out, we used ZDNet’s Bandwidth Speed Test repeatedly over several days, at different times of the day, to get an idea of the average download speeds you can expect in different SatDrive gears. The results suggest that, at the moment, the no-extra-charge Gear 1 is an excellent deal. Although there’s a lot of variation, we recorded an average download speed of just under 230KB per second (1.83Mbps) -- that’s 51 times the average speed we got with SatDrive disabled, using a conventional 56Kbps modem connection. Higher gears do boost the average download speed, but not by a great deal. Clearly, while SatDrive’s UK customer base remains small (around 100 users as of the beginning of December 2002), you can generally expect to get very good download speeds without spending extra on the low-contention Gears 2-5. Of course, at busy times, you may need to engage a paid-for gear to get the download speed you require. Given the attraction of Gear 1, it’s worth noting that SatDrive has a ‘fair use’ policy to guard against abuse: the bandwidth available to the heaviest Gear 1 users at any particular time will be automatically reduced as contention ratios rise, and SatDrive will notify persistent offenders if this is deemed necessary.
Service & support
As far as service and support is concerned, SatDrive serves its customers pretty well. The PDF manual on the supplied CD is clearly written and illustrated, and the Web site supplies a good range of FAQs, software downloads and documentation. The user forums are lively, and you can expect prompt and helpful responses from support staff. Hopefully this will continue as the user base grows.
SatDrive will shortly launch a LAN version of the service that’s aimed primarily at small businesses with between 2 and 50 PCs. Another development in the works is a VPN-friendly solution, which will be keenly awaited by many homeworkers wishing to connect to a company network over a fast Internet connection. We will report on these developments in due course.
If you can’t get ADSL or cable, SatDrive looks well worth considering. A one-way satellite service isn’t going to suit everyone, though: if you really need fast upload speeds, you’ll have to consider a (more expensive) two-way service; some homeworkers will also want to wait for the VPN version. But if you can handle the installation fee, £15 a month currently gets you excellent download speeds, plus a range of free offline services that are about to become more UK-focussed.