Over the years satellite internet has been offered as an alternative for broadband in places where bears do their business, but as we've seen it's never really worked. Bandwidth has been low, latency high and pricing on the tall side of average have made services like WildBlue and HughesNet untenable to all but the most dedicated wilderness lovers.
Now a new player approaches, and the offerings certainly sound compelling. It's called Exede from ViaSat and it promises speeds of up to 12Mbps down and 3Mbps up -- comparable to your average household "broadband" connection. However, with monthly fees ranging from $50 to $130 depending on how much data you need, this has the potential to be considerably more costly. Worth it? Put on your best pair of overalls then click on through to find out.
ViaSat Exede reviewSee all photos
Usage of satellite services necessarily requires a receiving dish to catch all that internet that's streaming down from space, and such is the case here. The Exede service relies on a 28-inch dish that can be mounted in a variety of ways. Typically it'd go on the side or roof of a home, but it can be positioned on a pole sunk in concrete if circumstances allow. For the purposes of our testing we opted for a temporary mount on the roof.
What you will need is clear sky pointing to the south (246 degrees at a 46-degree elevation, to be precise) but, despite the testing taking place at a home in a densely wooded lot, ViaSat's technicians were able to spot a gap in the trees and make the data flow. From there a coax cable runs to a modem positioned in your home. It's made of black plastic and is reasonably sized, but features obnoxiously bright blue LEDs that will ensure you can safely traverse your entire house at 2am without relying on a single nightlight. Anyone who hates blinkenlights will be reaching for a healthy roll of electrical tape after powering this up.
The modem features obnoxiously bright blue LEDs that will ensure you can safely traverse your entire house at 2am without relying on a single nightlight.
The modem has Ethernet and USB connectivity for piping into some other network hardware or, if you must, directly to a PC. We did most of our testing connected to a Netgear N750 router, and we'd definitely recommend you use something similar to aggregate the signal and keep your private infos hidden behind a firewall.
And of course make sure you lock that wireless signal down with some sort of protection system. Bandwidth thieves live in the country, too, and with the rigid usage caps here you'll want to make sure your flow of data is kept under lock and key.
We'll get right to the important numbers. As mentioned above ViaSat advertises "up to" 12Mbps down and 3Mbps up. We actually managed to best that in testing a few times -- on the down side, at least. Over the course of a weeks-long trial we naturally ran countless speed tests and a few clocked in as high as 14Mbps down. Those were rare, though, with average speeds falling in the 5 to 8Mbps range. Upload speeds averaged 1.8Mbps.
Those are fairly respectable numbers in the grand scheme of things, but a serious internet user will know there's one more statistic that's vitally important when it comes to online satisfaction: latency. This is the measurement of how long it actually takes your request to actually make it out to the internet and back, and it's where Exede necessarily stumbles compared to terrestrial-based options. Typical latency was in the 700 - 800ms range, figures that are upwards of ten times greater than your average cable or DSL broadband connection.
This is most noticeable when you're frantically Googling for something, clicking on a bunch of links in search of this, that or some other bit of random trivia. With each click you're looking at nearly a second's delay before anything really happens, and rapid-fire web surfing can be a frustrating experience.
That said, after a few days of exclusive use we almost got used to it. Stick with this for long enough and you won't mind that pages take longer to appear than they did back in the Internet Explorer 3.0 days. But, should you get a taste of lower-latency surfing elsewhere, you'll quickly feel constrained again.
Stepping away from frantic online activities, we found Exede to be more than serviceable. Netflix movies streamed in HD without complaint, though they did take a little longer to buffer at the outset. Large file downloads and uploads hummed along without a problem and anything that doesn't require a lot of back-and-forth network traffic was more than respectably quick. Even VoIP chats on Skype and the like sounded fine, though you'll definitely notice that latency.
Exede offers fairly respectable download and upload figures, but a serious internet user will know there's one more statistic that's vitally important when it comes to online satisfaction: latency.
There is, however, one thing that simply won't fly here, and that's gaming. If you're a gamer and you're looking to play anything faster-paced than online chess you won't be satisfied here. Any sort of action game won't be playable through the cloud. We couldn't even get Xbox Live titles to let us into an online match of any kind, and that was probably for the best.
As far as availability goes, we had a particularly mild winter this year so we can't say for sure the direct impact inclement weather has on such a service, though we did manage to have one decent snowstorm during our testing. Performance was unaffected. That said, we did suffer a few outages over the course of our tests. Most were short, inside of an hour, with only one stretching for a few days. That was apparently due to a satellite system update gone awry, something we've been assured will never, ever happen again.
Pricing and plans
There are three levels of Exede pricing, all of which offer the same 12 down / 3 up maximum speeds, so they differ only in the size of the download cap. The $50 "Moderate" plan gives you 7.5GB of fun before cutting you off, "More" steps up to $80 and gives you 15GB while the "Most" you can get is 25GB for $130. You're also looking at a $10 monthly lease fee on top of any of those for the hardware, but if you plan on staying around for awhile you can pay $220 up front.
But wait, there's more. There's a $150 "one-time account setup fee," and it's worth noting that the above monthly prices all come with a fun 24 month contract. Everybody loves a good contract, but those looking at terminating early should be prepared to cough up an extra $15 per remaining month. There are no contract-free pricing options.
Now, you might be wondering just what happens when you cross into uncharted territory above your chosen bandwidth cap, and the answer is nothing... at first. You'll be allowed a little bit of leeway before the throttling begins. ViaSat says it may "severely slow, restrict, and / or suspend your service" depending on how far north of your limit you go. We're told the company won't be enforcing this too strictly, at least to begin with, but we're hoping the ability to purchase extra data each month is added. Even 25GB is rather light these days.
Of course, we weren't worrying about the data caps, and that's a luxury those who sign the next two years of their ISP independence away will not have. Anyone used to a wired internet connection will have to make some adjustments to their usage patterns to stay comfortable, and with Verizon launching its similarly-priced HomeFusion residential LTE service we'd hate to be locked in to a two-year contract. But, for the moment, Exede is finally a compelling source of high-speed connectivity for those who need to live out there.