Thursday 24 April 2014

Is 4G Satellite Coming to the Algoma District?

Word on the street has it that Xplornet is in the process of transitioning Northern Ontario broadband (high-speed Internet) satellite coverage from the tired Hughes and Telesat Ka[1] satellites  to the newer  4G[2] High Throughput Satellite (HTS) - either ViaSat or Jupiter. While the 4G satellites are also Ka band, they use different transponder technology to get the higher throughput. The most noticeable difference is the use of spot beams. I posted previously more information about the HTS satellite services at these blog entries - Next Generation Satellites and ViaSat Impact on Algoma District

If the plan to introduce 4G satellite goes ahead, the immediate consequence will be universal coverage of the District, reduced costs and increased data caps. Based on the prices charged in other jurisdiction across Canada, one could reasonably expect prices and service in the following ranges[3]:

When compared to the existing 3G satellite service on Telesat, there is quite an improvement in all categories.

One of the biggest complaints about satellite service over the years has been the "Fair Use Policy" or FUP. This policy limited the amount of data an individual user station could exchange (down and up) over a designated period.  After the user exceeded the data limit, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) throttled back the speed of the connectivity for a fixed period lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours, depending on the service category.[4]  Xplornet now calls the practice Traffic Management. A full list and explanation of the variations is available at this page on the Xplornet website.

Another common complaint is a slowdown in speed during peak hours. This complaint is common to all wireless, shared bandwidth systems, be they satellite, fixed wireless (Canopy) or cellular.  Commonly called congestion, it is too many users chasing too little bandwidth.  Put another way, ISPs oversell their available capacity without regard to how the customer is using the system. As the demand for streaming video and cloud storage services grow, it takes fewer users to overwhelm existing systems.

There is a good chance that the 4G satellite will follow a well-established progression. Early adopters will be very pleased with the speed and availability of the satellite service. As the word spreads about the service, more customers sign up. Over time, the service quality gradually declines as the system receives more and more demand. Eventually, using the system becomes an exercise in frustration.

Finally, the 4G satellites will not solve the latency, (sometimes referred to as time-delay or ping time) problem. Like previous satellites, the 4G birds are in geosynchronous orbit, which means there is a minimum latency in the order of 600 ms in round trip signal time.  The general acceptance is that any latency in excess of around 250 ms will play havoc with applications that require near real-time connectivity such as gaming, VoIP and some secure Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Although there have been marked improvements in how latency is handled, it is still problem that needs to be considered by some users.

None of the above is to say that satellite broadband does not have its place in the bag of broadband solutions. In some cases, it is and will continue to be the only solution for some remote area such as fly-in camps, industrial operations[5] and isolated seasonal residence such as those along the Algoma Central Railway (ACR).  There are also small residential pockets which non-satellite ISPs do not consider economically viable.

As a matter of note, the current federal and provincial policy is to consider satellite broadband as an acceptable means of providing broadband access. In fact, ten of the projects approved in the last iteration of the Broadband Canada program (2012) relied on the use of satellite as the delivery method. (The majority were fixed wireless.)

Whether satellite broadband is a viable solution depends on how the customer wants to use the connectivity. I used the older (and slower) satellite service for over seven years and found it satisfied the majority of my needs. However, I am not a gamer nor do I view a lot of video. I did use it extensively for e-mail, web browsing, project management, academic research, government services interaction and miscellaneous this and that. Once I got use to time lag in the initial the click to display action - the latency bug-a-boo issue- it worked fine for me.

The decision as to whether or not to subscribe to a satellite service is very much a personal one based the customer's needs.

[1] The frequency range used for download and upload classifies Satellites:   C-Band - 4-8 GHz); Ku Band - 12-18 GHz; Ka Band - 26.5-40 GHz. The higher the frequency means the smaller the dish size.

[2] Satellite 4G should not be confused with cellular 4G networks. They are different technology.
[3] I copied this from the Xplornet website in Feb 2014 for service in Alberta and New Brunswick.
[4] This is the same trick used by some cellular service providers that offer "unlimited data". After a core cap of anywhere from 2-4 GB at 4G speeds, any data  overages are throttled back to 3G or even 2G speeds in some cases.
[5] There are dedicated commercial satellite ground stations operators that can provide better quality service than some residential quality ISPs. 

Saturday 19 April 2014

Bell Deferral Account Report Released 17 Apr 2014

The latest Bell Deferral Account quarterly status report was released through the CRTC website  on 17 Apr 2014. This report covered the period Jan to Mar 2014 and like previous reports was heavily redacted with much of the information of value to potential customers blacked out under the pretence of "competitive information."  (I am sure the new cell site in Wawa, Goulais and St. Joseph Island would go completely unnoticed by the competition unless they were identified in the report.)

There were no problems or delay identified for the Algoma District Deferral Account areas and the previously published activation schedule still applies:

Deferral Account Area
Activation Date*
Echo Bay
31 Aug 2014
31 Jul 2014
31 Jul 2014
St. Joseph Island
30 Jun 2014
31 Jul 2014
                        Latest planned date. Could be earlier if all is ready
 By way of clarification these dates apply to the activation and availability  of the special Deferral Account service rates . Most of the tower and associated cell sites  in Goulais, St. Joseph Island and Wawa are completed and are operating in a normal fashion as part of the standard Bell Mobility network. This means that anyone using a data hub or a data stick connected through these new sites constructed as part of the Deferral Account project are currently paying the normal rates.

I am not sure of the policy that will apply after the Deferral Account service rates become available: will customers be moved onto the new rate plan immediately or will they be transferred only after their existing agreement expires? 

Below is the proposed rate structure accepted  by the CRTC for HSPA+ wireless based version of Bell Deferral Account service.( The original proposal back around 2004 called for a DSL based solution.) It has been fined tuned over the years: - the activation fees has been waived and the monthly rental fees dropped. For some reason, Bell is keeping the details very close to the chest. Bottom line is that $46.95 + plus tax ( $41.95 Home Zone Wireless Plus + the $5.00 insurance for an extra 40 GB), one can get 65 GB. 

Proposed HSPA+ Retail Broadband Services
Service Name
Home Zone Wireless
Home Zone
Wireless Plus
Monthly Rate
Download Speed
Up to 2Mbps
Up to 7 Mbps
Upload Speed
Up to 1 Mbps
Up to 3 Mbps
Monthly Usage Allowance
2 GB
25 GB
Monthly Charge for Additional Usage
$2.50/GB, maximum of $30 per month
Usage Insurance
$5.00 per month for extra 40 GB
Activation Fee
Turbo Hub: $3.95 monthly rental fee

The final rate structure is not readily available at this time but a Bell representative accidently quoted a basic rate of $37.95 for 20GB to customer in East Algoma but quickly withdrew the offer saying the plan was not available in the customer's area.

 Even though there are area in other parts of Ontario where the plan has been launched, there is nothing on the Bell website and I have not been able to get hold of the plan's official  rate structure. Unlike the tower/site locations redacted in the report, I accept the rate structure as legitimate "competitive information" at this time.

Bell will be conducting a marketing campaign with more detail once the service is ready to accept customers.

 The other big unknown is how will the other cellular service suppliers react to the new competition.  Will they match the new rates for their data hub services?

Sunday 13 April 2014

St Joseph Island Cell Activation

Bell has activated the Deferral Account sites on St. Joseph Island but there is no indication that they are yet offering Deferral Account service. See for additional details.

Deferral Account service is supposed to be considerably less expensive than their conventional data hub offering.  

Deferral Account service is scheduled to become available later this summer. Potential user contemplating getting access to the new service now need to ask if they will be eligible for Deferral Account rates, when it will be available and can they convert to the new Deferral Account rate plans without penalty when they become available. Be sure to get the answer in writing and the ID of the Bell employee providing the information.