Updated March 29, 2001
I have always hoped there would someday be a way for me to access the Internet at high speed without having to have a piece of copper connecting me to some phone line and on to my Internet Service Providcr. DirecPC came along and almost got there, but they still required the copper.
Then in October of 2000 the newly named Starband company announced they had satellite access to the Internet, and a phone line was not required. I talked with Steve Oldham in LaPine, Oregon, and even did some tests over his beta system. He said the system would be coming out in two weeks, and I said I WANT ONE, NOW!!
To show I was serious I added a note to my RV Netlinks article for the January/February issue of RV Companion Magazine and announced:
"New subject, I must admit I was wrong. A few months ago I said that Satellite Internet access was still years away. I was wrong! Hurray! It's here now!"
"As you read this article I am surfing the Internet from a boondock site in the middle of the Arizona desert on a system that allows both download and upload to satellite from my laptop. I have no access to a phone line or a cellphone tower from where I sit. I depend upon solar power to keep my rig operational and the satellite to keep in touch. I can even make phone calls over the Internet. Transmission speeds are up to 350Kilobit per second. This is what 21st century boondocking is all about!!"
Well, I got mud on my face. Gilat delayed shipments, and then they had some production problems. I took the coward's way out and did not go to Quartzite to meet my public, even though they were flooding me with emails asking for information.
Steve finally delivered my system on February 7, 2001, and after a couple of days fighting through some learning experiences it was up. It worked great, at least mostly great. As time goes on I am learning more and more about the system and proving to myself what I can do with it.
This are some of the emails I have sent and received about the system. They are in chronological order and give a pretty good idea of what it has been like getting the system going. Read and enjoy. If you want to be on the mailing list for the emails as I generate them, simply send me an email. You comments are most welcome.
To all those folks who sent email asking how satellite Internet was working:
Well, my Starband system finally arrived! Steve Oldham brought the equipment over from Palm Desert where he is staying for a week on his way to Yuma. After three months of waiting, I was finally going to access the Internet by my own link through a satellite. I promised all of you the blow by blow saga of my experiences in getting this new service. Sit back and read on.
Steve arrived shortly after noon on 2/8 and for the first time I had a chance to see up close the antenna system and the modem box. We had talked by phone about what kind of mounting to do and what would be required to get the system going. I was somewhat prepared, but not entirely.
The antenna itself is 36 inches wide and weighs about 20 pounds. It fits onto a 2 3/8 inch post. The primary LNB post carries the digital LNB and the TV LNBs are attached to the side. The post extends about 24 inches out from the antenna, making the it a big package. I tried and succeeded in taking it into my fifthwheel and up into the bedroom. It will be easier if I disconnect the LNB arm (required removing a single nut and bolt). Alice suggested carrying the antenna in the truck bed, and that might be a better idea than trying to carry it inside. I doubt that it would be easy to mount the antenna on the top of a motorhome.
Steve and I mounted the base for the antenna on what amounts to a 2 ft by 4 ft by 3/4 inch piece of plywood (I actually used two sheets of 3/8 inch plywood). The provided base has two large turnbuckles that make it easy to adjust to achieve a level mount. I will provide a picture of how I mounted the base in the next email. I still have some ideas that need to be worked out on how to prepare this base so it is more mobile. At least I have a crude mobile base. Steve will have a quad-pod in a month or so that should be a better solution.
We hooked the cabling into the antenna. The TV connection went through the regular satellite connection to our already installed DISH receiver. The two coax (RG-6) cables for the Internet receiver and transmitter we ran through the window. Later I will have to install connectors through the wall of the RV.
Steve had already set up the elevation and skew for the antenna. The physical installation is at our base camp at Aguanga, CA. He used a program to determine what values to use based on the zip code. He mounted the antenna on the mount pole and verified the pole was near vertical. We connected the cables and turned on power. He used my signal meter to monitor the signal on the receive side of the Internet connection (the transmit was left disconnected).
We used a compass to establish the most likely direction for the LNB arm to point. Then Steve started the scan for the satellite signal. He scanned back and forth in the general direction, watching the signal meter for some sign of strenght. When he saw nothing, he raised the elevation about a degree using a screw that changed the elevation. Then he scanned again. He repeated this operation a second time and then saw an increase in the signal strength. Finding the strongest signal, he readjusted the meter to center and increased the elevation another degree and did another sweep. Using this technique he quickly (three minutes at most) found the sweetest spot with the strongest signal. It was pretty close to where the compass had indicated.
Before we could get back inside, my wife reported that the TV was receiving a fine signal and she was already back to watching her favorite show. We went back inside to install the software and connect the cables to feed the digital signal to the computer.
With the DISH system there is a satellite modem box that connects by USB cable to my laptop. We installed the Mission Control CD on my computer and started trying to get it to work. Steve called his contacts at Starband to activate the system. Unfortunately, that's when things went wrong. They failed to turn on the "port" for my system. We spent the next 24 hours trying to find out what was wrong with the hardware in hand, not realizing it problem was at the other end. It was a learning opportunity, but for some of the time we were pretty frustrated.
I believe if things had been initiated properly, the system would have been working within 20 minutes. It was amazingly easy once we found what was wrong. After we finally had a signal (the On-Line light came on on the modem) we were up and running. It took another 30 minutes to fine tune the polarity and get things into proper order. At this point I am receiving downloads at 750 to 1100Kbps using their test. I believe uploads are going about 80Kbps. The TV reception is fine as well.
I will be sending out other emails on my experiences with this system. If you wish to be removed from this list, please send me an email letting me know.
BTW, one of the reasons I have been slow getting this info out is that Starband comes closely integrated with Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. I had been using Netscape, so there has been a learning curve involved. Some of the experience was okay, some was bad. But that's another subject.
Until next time,
It still works! And I have been learning more about using Internet Explorert and Outlook Express. I also have some parts of Netscape working with the connection. There is still much to learn.
I still need to find out some characteristics of the system. One is how far the antenna can be moved and still be functional without change. There are two important parameters that are changed by a change in the location of the antenna: the polarization of the signal and the length of time it takes for the signal to reach the satellite.
I believe this is a great system that meets the requirements of lots of RVers. However, it is not for all.
2/14/2001 from Tom Cooper:
I just finished reading the e-mail forwarded by Pete and found if very
interesting. I have been investigating the starband system and found that
most of the installers follow the rules laid down by Dish Network, that the
installation has to be at a permenant site. The fellows that I have found
that would be willing to install in a mobile environment, warned there are
some things to watch out with or they will send someone from the company to
re-align the dish finding you in a mobile situation. Although, they had no
idea what might come about in that situation.
I have been in contact with TracStar Systems www.tracstar.net and they have
assured me that they are working on a solution for the mobile user that
would allow you to align the dish electronically. The expected cost would
probably be $3,300 (got that from another source) and that they do not
expect to have the product available until mid summer. Perhaps, we should
blitz them with requests to see if we can move them any faster. I have seen
the dish (shown at Quartzsite RV show) and it is quite imposing. I was
thinking of a rig on the back of the motorhome to carry it. I have an idea
for a telescoping system that would allow you to lower it and face the back
of the rig while traveling. The Disk would be on a lockable swivel allowing
you to level it quickly.
I will be discussing this at the Chico Escapade in my seminar, so any
further information would be appreciated.
My Starband system still works! And I have been learning more about using Internet Explorert and Outlook Express. I also have some parts of Netscape working with the connection. There is still much to learn.
So far I have used Starband at a permanent site. The antenna still sits at the place where it was set up. Soon I will start to test its limits as I move its site, maybe even tomorrow when we travel about 80 miles away for four days.
I continue to receive interesting emails about what can and what cannot be done with the system. Many of you have talked with salesman and Starband staff. It is apparent that you do not all receive the same information. Most have been told that the system "cannot" be used by RVers. Some have even heard that if a person sets they system up wrong, "they" (someone not defined) will come out and take action, and it is not clear what "they" will do.
Please bear with me as I comment on what I see to be the overall situation.
Gilat (aka Starband) developed this technology for a market, and that market is NOT RVers. They have set up a system that will work well and produce little problem once it is working in a permanent installation. They are not interested in selling into a market that will produce lots of continuing Help calls -- in fact, they are doing their best to discourage selling into this market, the mobile RV market.
They are correct in their fear of selling to mobile customers. I have been in the consumer electronics business with a new product, and we found that 95% of our Help calls came from those people where were using our product in some way we had not intended. It drove our staff bonkers.
But I still believe Starband is a viable alternative for at least some mobile RVers, but not all. An RVers who has some experience with electronics and is willing to take the time to do detailed tuning operations should be able to move the sytem from place to place without much problem. One of the primary talents is to be able to do a manual setup of a standard DirectTV or DISH antenna on a tripod on the ground. There is NOT an automatic positioning system for this antenna. There may be one in the future, but not now. It requires a wider view of the sky than the TV antennas, and it is quite heavy. There are five adjustments that may be necessary to set up the antenna: azimuth, elevation, skew, polarization, and timing. The first three require physical adjustment of screws, nuts, and bolts. The last two may require phone communication to the Starband Tech Center, and you have to have the proper credentials to do that.
After three years on the road I can set up our DISH 500 system on a manual tripod mount in five to ten minutes. I hope to set up the Starband system in about an hour. It is that much more complex.
The length of time to set up means this is not a system you want to hassle with every night as you travel across the country. If you set up camp and stay a couple of weeks in one place, then move on to somewhere else a hundred miles away where you stay another two weeks, you can probably stand the hassle. But if you move more often, you might want to consider some other alternative.
So, those are some of the disclaimers about the system. You need to think carefullly about these before you step into the business of mobile Starband.
But if you still want to proceed, here are some thoughts about how to make it work.
You need some kind of manual mount that can be placed on the ground. My antenna must look at a 19 degree expanse of the sky to see satellites positioned at 110, 119, and 129 degrees longitude. There are different satellites for the east coast. The package weighs about fifty pounds with base and antenna. My base is a 2ft by 4ft piece of plywood with the mounting pipe bolted on top. the pipe stands 34 inches high. I can disconnect the two turnbuckle legs and drop the pipe to make a semi flat position so I can lay the assemblage in the bed of my truck, underneath the fifth-wheel hitch.
The antenna dish is 36 by 27 inches. The LNB arm protrudes about 26 inches out from the dish, and there is another 8 inches of mounting structure in the back of the dish. The LNB arm is attached to the dish with a single large bolt, and it can be removed to let the arm lay flat against the dish. I can lay that atop the base in the back of the truck. The big problem will be finding someway to prevent damage or theft of the antenna. I am still thinking.
So, I can disassemble the antenna and move it to some other location. When I get to my new location it is a matter of reattaching the LNB arm, reattaching the turnbuckles to the base and levelling the pipe, and remounting the dish onto the pipe. The next step is to use the zip code to find the asimuth, inclination, and skew for the new location. The setting of the skew is critical -- it is a matter of lining up the four LNBs on the antenna to point to the three satellites scattered along the geosynchronous equator. Skew is set by loosening a couple of set-bolts and rotating the dish to the required skew as shown on the dial on the back of the assembly.
Find a place with a clear view of the sky in the general direction specified by the configuration program. Place the antenna with base in that location and insure you have a 20 to 30 degree clear view of the sky. Then check that the back edge of the antenna mount is vertical. The pipe can be moved to vertical using the two turnbuckles.
There are three RG-6 coax cables from the antenna to the trailer. One goes to the DISH TV receiver, the same as with our DISH 500 system. The other two are the transmit and receive lines for the digital signals. They connect the two digital LNBs on the antenna to the satellite modem. Be sure they are labeled so you don't cross-connect them.
Let's assume the satellite modem has been set up and is configured for a location some distance away (just how far this distance can be is yet to be determined). Power on the modem. Here is a question I need to check. Will the modem work off of Invertor AC with a modified sine wave? I will find out tomorrow morning. Let's assume it does work without a problem.
The next step is to connect the receive coax from the modem to a Satellite Finder (SWR meter) and then to the receive LNB. DO NOT connect the tranmit line. Move the LNB arm back and forth around the specified direction to look for the strongest satellite signal. You can change the elevation setting with the adjustment atop the back assembly of the antenna mount. Keep scanning until you start to find the signal. Center the SWR meter and fine tune the direction and elevation. Repeat until you have the best signal you can get.
Note, be sure you are pointing in the general direction specified by the configuration. There aren't too many other satellites in that area that will cause you a problem, but you can sometimes point to the wrong satellite. As a test, turn on your DISH TV system and see if you have TV. You should have a great signal for TV. If you don't, you are looking the wrong direction or the setting of the LNBs got knocked around. In that case, you may need some service help.
If you have a strong SWR signal and TV is working, remove the SWR meter from the line and attach the transmit coax. Your satellite modem should now show three lights on: Power, RxLock, and OnLine. The Transmit light may flash from time to time.
You should now be able to connect the USB cable to your laptop and connect to the Internet. Do a speed test to see how you are doing.
There are two other settings that may be necessary for the system to work successfully, or more effeciently: polarization and timing. Polarization is set at the LNB of your antenna by rotating the digital receive LNB around its wave guide. I am still learning about how to do this. I saw Steve call an automated response number that gave him readings as he rotated the LNB. He searched for the minimum and left it there. Steve says there is a meter of some kind that can be used to do this adjustment without calling in. I will have more information on this when I know.
The other factor is the signal travel time from the antenna to the satellite. Moving changes this by some number of milliseconds, depending on how far and in what direction you go. To set this timing it is necessary to call a special number at Starband and tell them of the zip code where the antenna is installed. They make the adjustment at the base station for Starband.
The big question is how far a person can move, thus changing the timing, before the system becomes too inefficient or even fails to work. Steve has taken his system over 250 miles to give a demonstration in central Oregon and it still worked. He feels it might be possible to go from southern California to Louisiana without having to call in to make the adjustment. Time will tell.
This is a critical factor. Only a certified installer can make this phone call (it requires a special ID and/or password). Right now, Starband is telling its dealers they should charge $200 for installation, and that to make this call is an installation. One solution is to become a certified installer yourself. If you are sponsored by a dealer (you'll need a dealer code), there is a training course and online test at www.starband.com/training/. The other solution is to not move very far. If you talk to a dealer, you should ask if he/she will sponsor you to become a certified installer if you purchase the system. If not, find another dealer.
So, there are some of my thoughts at this point. The system continues to work well for surfing the Internet, though there are some things I have not yet tried. When I have gained more experience, I will let you know how it worked out.
Remember, this is new technology that is just coming on-line. In a few years it will be lots cheaper and more ubiquitous, but for now it is leading edge. DO NOT expect use of this system to be simple and easy. If you buy a system, don't expect many people to know enough to help. Don't gripe if it doesn't work all the time. And don't get on Starband's case because you can't use the system from your RV. If they have too much trouble with RVers, they may find someway to make it impossible for RVers to use. It really is a goose that is laying golden eggs. Don't kill it!!
Good luck, and please keep sending your comments, questions, and experiences on this subject. Have a good evening.