Comm Powe

StarBand Broad Band Internet Service

Todd King ©2001 Todd King

Getting an internet connection in an urban area is mostly a decision-making process. You can choose from phone line internet providers, digital subscriber links (DSL), T-lines, and cable-based systems. For a rural homestead, the choices narrow, and until now, all but disappear for the very remote home. But a new system exists for anyone in North America, whether you live in town or not. It's called StarBand.

The StarBand system is a high speed satellite Internet product that allows you to access the Internet from a personal computer with no traditional modem or phone connection. This system allows up to 500 kilobits per second (kbps) download and 150 kbps upload, directly through coaxial cable and a satellite dish. Depending on the time of day, speeds may even exceed these values. More users impact the server and slow it down, but I have never seen my system go below 400 kbps.

StarBand generally markets the download speed as ten times faster than the fastest dial-up service. I have seen the speed at fifty to sixty times faster than phone-based connections. StarBand allows real-time audio, video, and data through a broad-band, high speed, two-way Internet connection that's always on and has no dial-up. There are no Internet providers involved other than StarBand.

Product Info

The system consists of a 24 by 36 inch (60 x 90 cm) satellite dish, usually mounted on a pole (2 inch schedule 40) at least 5 feet (1.5 m) above ground level. Two coaxial lines, one for sending and one for receiving, run from the dish to a satellite "modem." (It's not technically a modem, but that's what StarBand calls it, since it has the same function.) The modem plugs into a USB port on the back of your existing computer. Most computers manufactured within the last year will have a USB port.

Computer Requirements

This two-way Internet access system requires a fairly powerful computer. But most people have a minimum system already, or could easily upgrade with aftermarket products readily available from a number of

The author's StarBand dish—his first intstallation.

The author's StarBand dish—his first intstallation.

different suppliers. Basically, the minimum computer capabilities are:

• Pentium class CPU

•10 MB of free hard drive space

• Windows 98, Windows98se, Windows 2000, or Windows Me. (Sorry MacHeads, the StarBand system is not yet Mac OS compatible. So far, networking Macs to the Windows StarBand machine is the only choice.)

If your existing computer meets these minimum requirements, you can hook the StarBand system directly to your USB port. If your system doesn't have a free USB port, you will need to add a USB expansion card or hub.

Installation

StarBand installation requires an authorized installer. I was one of the installers chosen for a six-month beta test of their prototype. It arrived in several boxes via UPS ground. The manuals were very clear and easy to read. The process for installing was straightforward, with only a few terms that I did not understand without the manual's explanations.

The dish comes with wall mounting hardware. If it is installed on a pole, the pole must be 5 feet (1.5 m) high, with another 3 feet (0.9 m) in the ground in concrete. The hole should be about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) in diameter. I used an 8 foot (2.4 m), 2 inch schedule 40 pole that was purchased locally. I set the pole in concrete and verified that the pole was plumb (vertical). This is extremely important! The satellite is approximately 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above earth, and one degree of misalignment on earth equals miles of error at the satellite.

I let the concrete cure for two days. While I was waiting for the concrete, I assembled the satellite dish with the enclosed instructions. The system comes with the hardware and wrenches required for assembly.

I referred to the charts provided to establish the elevation, skew and azimuth angles for my latitude and longitude. I set the elevation and skew before I put the dish on the pole. Elevation is the angle up and down. Skew has to do with the angle needed when the dish is rotated. The azimuth is the angle side to side. When the concrete had cured, I set the dish on the pole and slid it all the way down to the seat, a tab that keeps the dish collar from sliding too far down.

I ran two RG-6 coaxial cables from the satellite modem to the dish, and crimped on standard coaxial

StarBand—A User's Testimonial

Richard Perez ©2001 Richard Perez

The Way It Was

Over the last fourteen years, we have had seven different radiotelephone systems spanning the 6 mile (10 km) distance between our editorial office and the nearest telephone line. We've never been able to get any modem to move faster than 7,200 bits per second (bps) on a radiotelephone system. Most of the time, our modem speed varied between 2,400 bps and 4,800 bps. The scene during deadlines was ugly—six stressed-out nerds fighting over a single slow data connection.

The Way It Is

We now have a blazing fast Internet connection, with download speeds averaging around 500 kbps and upload speeds about half that. This is over one hundred times faster than our fastest radiotelephone connection, and about ten times faster than a modem-based hard line telephone connection.

And best of all, we have had up to eight computers using the single StarBand "modem" at the same time, with no noticeable slowdowns. No more fighting over the data communications line—everyone can do email and surf the Web at the same time. The speed increase has made telecommuting blossom for us. No longer do I have to let my computer run all night just to download a 4 MB file from one of Home Power's advertisers or authors. Now that file arrives in a matter of a few minutes at most.

Computer Details

We are a Macintosh office. StarBand is currently available only for PCs running Windows. We solved this problem by installing a PC and making it both an Internet proxy server for the StarBand system, and a file server for all the Macs. My rationale for using this PC as a file server is that since it's a PC, no one in this office will want to use it as a stand-alone computer—we are mostly Mac jockeys.

The PC is connected to the StarBand SB180 "modem." We use WinProxy software as an Internet proxy server and it services both PCs and Macs. We use PCMacLan software to emulate AppleTalk, which enables our Macs to use the hard drives on the PC just as if they were Mac drives on a network.

All the various computers communicate via an Ethernet local area network (LAN). Most of the machines are operating at 100 base T speeds. This means we can move about 1 MB per second over our LAN. So all the Macs are talking to the PC proxy server at high speeds, and they all have very fast Internet connections via the StarBand system. Pretty slick, and it works great!

connectors at each end. I applied heat shrink tubing to the crimped connections to make sure these connections stay watertight. I ran a #6 (13 mm2) bare, solid copper ground wire from the dish framework, the LNB (low noise block converter), and the coaxial ground block to a dedicated 8 foot (2.4 m) ground rod.

With the elevation and skew already set, all I had to do was find the azimuth. Most installers will use a spectrum analyzer to arrive at the best azimuth for your area. This is an expensive meter that measures the strength of the signal received by a satellite dish. But I live in a remote little town, and the closest spectrum analyzer was about 100 miles (160 km) away. Fortunately, there is a computer-based signal strength meter provided to StarBand installers. It is used to set the dish at the best azimuth.

With the signal strength meter on my computer screen, I approximated the degrees azimuth out at the dish and just kept turning it back and forth until I got the highest reading. For my installation, I was able to get a signal strength of 83 percent. I did hit 84 percent once, but was never able to get it back again.

A signal strength of 70 percent or better is needed for reception. Most installers achieve reception strength somewhere between 75 and 85 percent. There are too many factors involved to get 100 percent—dust, clouds, solar flares, trees, buildings, pollution, etc. After I'd tuned to the best signal I could get without a spectrum analyzer, I tightened all the nuts and bolts to keep the dish from moving.

The system was wired! Now the software had to be loaded onto the computer, and a few parameters needed to be set manually. This went fairly easily with a call to StarBand's toll-free technical support number. They ran me through the setup, and helped me plug in the right parameters for my zip code. After about a half an hour on the phone, I was surfing!

For new installations today, there is no on-screen signal strength meter. I have to call and set up the bandwidth before I get to the site. After installation and rough antenna alignment on site, I call an automated system to check the co- and cross-polarization figures. Co-polarization is the signal strength and cross-polarization is the noise involved in any broadcast signal. They are a ratio and must meet FCC criteria in order for the StarBand system to be activated.

Performance & Power Requirements

The system is extremely fast. Live stream video and audio require no downloading—it's instant and clear, with great reception and no static on the audio. Surfing is enjoyable, with Web sites loading faster than I have ever seen.

A friend with a Digital Subscriber Link (DSL) at his home in the San Francisco Bay area recently visited me. He couldn't believe the speed of StarBand. Remember, StarBand is a digital satellite unit—not a link to a phone-based system somewhere else. It is not shared with anyone; it's always on and has no dial-up.

I ran the prototype unit on a Trace 2012SB modified square-wave inverter for an off-grid test, and had no trouble whatsoever. I hooked all the power supplies for the system to a watt-hour meter to see if the system would easily kill a small battery bank. Here are the results:

• With CPU, ink jet printer, 15 inch (38 cm) monitor, speakers, and modem turned on, startup drew 130 to 135 watts.

• With CPU, ink jet printer, 15 inch monitor, speakers, and modem turned on, it drew 120 to 122 watts.

• With CPU, ink jet printer, 15 inch monitor, speakers, and modem turned on, surfing drew 125 to 140 watts.

• With only the CPU and speakers on, the system drew 72 watts.

• With everything plugged in, but not running, there was a phantom load of 2 to 8 watts.

System Cost

Assuming that you will use your current computer, the system costs will be determined by what you want to receive in programming. The satellite system costs US$400, including modem, dish, wall mount, and software. You own the equipment. Installation will run US$200 local—more for travel. Unlimited Internet access only is US$70 per month. Unlimited Internet, 150 channels of digital TV, and 30 channels of constant music, through Dish Network is US$100 per month.

Please note that you can be on the Internet and watch TV at the same time. There is some additional cost to Dish Network for parts and installation of the components needed to access digital TV. Dish Network receivers start at US$100.

Internet Off-Grid!

Never before has there been such a product for the private homeowner. All other satellite Internet systems thus far can only download from the net and must use a phone line to upload. This is of little help to the remote home. These systems needed to tie up the cell phone at exorbitant rates, or operate through a radio phone at the normal slow rate of data transfer.

The StarBand system can be used anywhere in North America. Trees, hills, snow, etc. will affect reception. The satellite footprint can be viewed on the StarBand's Web site. The "modem" is a significant phantom load, so you have to turn it off when it's not in use. Sometimes the system will need to go through a short "wake-up" period after being turned off.

Communications

The very reliable StarBand components have been used for many years in other countries and for commercial purposes. The FCC has made this technology available to the common consumer now, and it is sure to be used extensively by urban and rural dwellers alike. The benefit to the off-grid home is invaluable.

Until now, Internet access was the last great technological hurdle of off-grid living. If a person wants to live remotely and communicate with their ".com," or wants Internet access on a reliable basis for any other reason, the StarBand system is just the ticket.

Access

Todd King, New Frontier Solar and Satellite, 106 East St., Alturas, CA 96101 • Phone/Fax 530-233-5219 [email protected]

Richard Perez, Home Power, PO Box 520, Ashland, OR 97520 • 530-475-3179 • Fax: 530-475-0836 [email protected] www.homepower.com

StarBand, 1760 Old Meadow Road, McLean, VA 22102 800-4STARBAND • Fax: 703-287-3010 www.starband.com

Dish Network • www.dishnetwork.com

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