Sunday, February 05, 2006

A new high for cottage country
Jan. 30, 2006. 07:54 AM
TYLER HAMILTON

"Everyone ... is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial"

—Former Star Web editor

It may be the end of January but the unseasonably warm weather has probably got you thinking prematurely about cottage season.

And if, as a city dweller, you're hooked on broadband Internet for work and play, then satisfying the northern need for speed can be a challenge, given the lack of high-speed cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) infrastructure in cottage country.

Face it: Dial-up is no longer acceptable.

This column has been written before about a new broadband satellite service introduced last year, via Telesat Canada's Anik F2 satellite. Now it's time to look at how well the service actually works and whether it's as affordable as first promised.

Telesat kindly offered to let former Toronto Star Web editor Dean Reeds try out the service at his cottage up in Kinmount, a Kawartha Lakes community about two hours northeast of Toronto. Reeds is developing a second property up there, so he uses his cottage these days as both his main residence and home office.

Getting the service set up was probably the biggest hassle.

Reeds, who already subscribed to Bell ExpressVu satellite TV service, was a little disappointed he couldn't put the new satellite dish on the same mounting pole. That's because the TV and Internet services use separate satellites, which are positioned in their own orbital slots.

When they finally did find an appropriate place to mount the Internet dish, trees surrounding the area — this is cottage country, after all — blocked the line of sight. Reeds had to get permission to install the dish on his neighbour's property, but then the dish was too far from the cottage. To compensate, the installer used a higher quality cable to carry the signal back.

"The installer was exceptional in every regard — friendly, knowledgeable, professional, tidy, and very enthusiastic to get the signal in a tough place," says Reeds. "My gut feeling is that heavily treed lots will be a constant difficulty for installers."

Reeds got the basic service, which is pitched by reseller Barrett Xplore Inc. (http://www.xplornet.com) as "perfect for email and light surfing." It offers download speeds of up to 512 kilobits per second, or roughly 10 times faster than a dial-up modem. This is similar to "lite" cable and DSL packages.

Barrett calls this basic service the "KaZam" option, which costs $54.99 a month with a two-year contract. One step higher is "KaZoom," offering 1 megabit per second downloading for $89.99 a month. The "KaBang" and "KaBoom" options, priced at $134.99 and $179.99, respectively, are more ideal for power users with speeds ranging from 1.5 to 2 mbps.

Reeds has been happy with the basic KaZam option. "It destroys dial-up," he says. "The download speeds are consistently above 400 kbps, even in marginal weather, and even when satellite TV service is spotty." His previous dial-up service frequently lost its connection because of older phone lines in the area. The only outage he experienced with the satellite was during an ice storm, a much better record than his Bell ExpressVu service, he says.

Since installing the service, he's been able to edit his website in real time, use instant messaging, download the odd song, and make phone calls through the Internet using Skype. "When I use Skype the voice of the person I'm calling is very clear, but on the other end, they report that the quality of my voice isn't great, so I only use Skype for shorter conversations."

Uploading large documents or massive files is a different story. "Downloading is fine, but if I try to upload a whole bunch of images to my website, it's slow."

Even so, Reeds figures he saves $10 a month using Skype for long-distance calls and another $10 to $15 a month by sending fewer long-distance faxes, because images and large documents can now be sent as email attachments.

And as with all high-speed services, Reeds can be online 24 hours a day without fear of tying up the phone. This means he can have Internet weather reports on his computer screen at all times, is notified if his "buddies" log into their computers, and is alerted when new email arrives, allowing him to be more responsive to friends, family and business colleagues.

On top of that, he has networked two computers in his cottage — a Mac and a PC — through a home Wi-Fi wireless system. The router lets him take a laptop down to the dock where he can surf sites and enjoy his morning coffee. At some point he hopes to test out a cordless phone system that will let him use Skype almost anywhere on his property.

There are other benefits. As Reeds explains, "I can quickly use the Internet to check questionable Scrabble words, or to settle a dispute via Wikipedia, or look up various animal tracks that appear around the cottage after snowfall, or bird varieties after seeing a newcomer to the bird feeder."

He freely admits these are things that could be done with dial-up, but the hassle of connecting meant he rarely did.

Fact is, says Reeds, "everyone who lives up here full time is envious when they learn that I have a high-speed satellite trial," to the point where it has become a reference point for some real estate agents in the area.

"My next-door neighbours have their place for sale and I received a call from a potential buyer's agent inquiring about the satellite. They would only consider making an offer on the cottage if high-speed satellite was available to them."

When the trail ended, Reeds was decisive: he wanted to keep the system; he was willing to pay the $500 cost of the equipment.

Compared to cable and DSL services in the city, the service is still quite pricey. On top of the $500 equipment charge, customers typically pay a $99 installation fee and one-time $75 system access fee. But given the lack of alternatives, and the pent-up demand for broadband in the bush, many cottage owners — like Reeds — probably wouldn't blink. "In short the service is reliable and performs well," he concluded.

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