Rural Broadband Update — Cellular at Last!

A couple of years ago in my Rural Technology Experiences article, I talked about the amenities you miss when you move out into the hinterlands. One of those things is ready access to broadband Internet options. Things have changed a little for the better, so here’s an update.

Over the past few years, our satellite service DirecWay has been the source of several frustrations. The latency is always an issue with FTP and VPN activities. VPN is virtually unusable and a real test of patience because VPN connections are chatty and loaded with overhead, a combination that plays poorly over satellite. You’d grow cobwebs waiting for Windows Explorer to open a share through a UNC path or to copy even a tiny file.

The last straw was when my VPN connection simply stopped working. I learned later that the VPN client software was partially at fault, but it was one of those "one day it works and the next it doesn’t" problems that have you tearing your hair out. The VPN still worked through dial-up (okay, at 26K "worked" is stretching it), so I figured the satellite was the primary culprit.

Most other broadband solutions on the market in our area aren’t available to us. We are too far away from town for DSL or cable, and our house is not located where we can get an 802.11 wireless signal. That leaves cellular broadband, but we’ve never had much luck getting a regular cell phone signal at our house either.

A number of years ago our contractor told us that he could get a cell signal from the roof of our house. I thought that maybe a tall antenna would let me get cellular broadband. As an experiment, I got out the cell phone and wandered around the upstairs part of the house to see if I could figure out the most likely direction for a signal. I was surprised to discover that we can now get two bars off our back deck. Verizon apparently put up a new tower on the distant mountain peaks at some point, and it apparently just close enough for a signal. Handy, that.

So, off I went to the Verizon store to see what I could learn. After a few delays, I ended up talking to a knowledgeable fellow who said he’d be happy to loan the equipment to me so I could verify that it works at our house. I had to sign up for the service, but the deal was that if it didn’t work out, I could cancel within a couple of weeks.

Arms laden with cable, an antenna, and a sack with the wireless modem, I went home excited to give it a try. After dealing with a few cabling snafus, I got the antenna hooked up and the cellular broadband software loaded. The main stupidity was that the antenna adapter for the cellular modem had the wrong gender connector for connecting to the antenna cable, but a gender-bender took care of that. Getting all this resolved took a couple of round-trips into town, but in the end, it worked.

The speed I got was underwhelming, but it was better than dial-up and latency was no longer an issue. Initially, my account had what Verizon calls a NationalAccess connection, which gave me only about 50K upload and about 80K download (on a good day). VPN was far from snappy, but it worked.

A couple of months later, Verizon upgraded the network in our area, and now I have BroadbandAccess, which bursts over 100K on uploads and as high as 500K on downloads. That is not typical, however. Most of the time, I still see 50K uploads and a little over 200K down (there’s a spiffy monitoring window that shows you your connection speed over time.) Overall, I’m happy with the newer BroadbandAccess connection.

Another reason to be glad for my cellular connection came to light fairly recently. One of the Web-based applications I use was acting very strangely. It is one of those administration interfaces that updates Web site information behind-the-scenes (like a blog admin tool). I had to hit Ctrl-F5 on virtually every page to get the page to refresh, unless I waited for a while before I submitted changes or moved on to the next page. I searched high and low through the application code and my browser settings to find the problem, but had no luck. I assumed that the application was not expiring pages, but it turned out that the app did specify no-cache. Even more strangely, IE showed the problem almost all the time, but I had to work at it to duplicate the problem in FireFox.

I eventually discovered that the problem was, once again, the satellite connection. On dial-up and through my cellular connection, the site works perfectly in IE and FireFox. The problem appears to be something DirecWay calls "Web Acceleration." One of the ways it seems to work is that it caches pages for you for the length of your HTTP connection. The bug is that it does not respect the no-cache directive, so it will deliver expired pages to your browser, as long you retrieve them during the same HTTP connection. That is why FireFox showed the problem much less often than IE: On my system FireFox has a default keep-alive time of 3 seconds for HTTP connections, but IE is set to 75 seconds.

Now, whenever I need to access any Web-based administration site, I connect through my cellular modem. In addition to avoiding the page caching problem, the cellular connection performs better that satellite over https, which is the protocol most admin sites use.

Another reason to love my Verizon cellular modem is that we now have almost no trouble getting a decent Internet connection while on vacation. We don’t do much computing while vacationing, but we do like to check our email and do stuff like capture our online store payments. The wide availability of cellular broadband means your laptop can get connected just about anywhere you can get a cellular signal.

There’s one last thing I should mention. I did have occasion to contact Verizon customer service once with an issue I was having with the cell modem. The woman I spoke to on the phone was extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and polite. I’ve heard horror stories from other people regarding Verizon’s customer service, so I figure it’s only fair that I should share the fact that I had a positive experience.