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. 


  1. I hope they offer the service and I hope it works better than their current offering here

  2. A few things I think are interesting:
    - their overage charge (starting Jun 1) is $2.00 / GB which is cheaper than the fixed wireless competition rates (the exception being deferral account rates, which AFAIK are not yet advertised..?)
    - their new traffic management scheme seems somewhat "fairer" now, in the sense that it no longer indiscriminately throttles any user back to some unusable speed based on a ridiculously low traffic threshold. But I'm biased - for power users (gamers, etc), the reality is that they will get a "limited" experience compared to me (not a gamer) yet pay the same price. It would be nice if the ISP's also throttled back the bill for the users who see the service degrade. Guess that's not a realistic expectation though.
    - the "peak" time spans 19 hours - it almost seems a bit silly to have such a small off-peak time, but anyone surfing @ 3:00 a.m. will probably appreciate it.

    I hope this ends up being a reasonable solution. If the newer service proves itself and takes some of the strain off the other services (like fixed wireless) over time then everyone wins.