Wild and Blue

The True Story of the Wildblue Satellite Speed Network ®

by Jed Margolin



In December 2005 I moved out of San Jose, CA, where I had lived for 22 years.

I bought a house in Virginia City Highlands, Nevada, which is about 22 miles South East of Reno and about 5 miles up the road from Virginia City.

Virginia City was a boomtown that started when silver (and some gold) was discovered there in 1859.   President Abe Lincoln needed the gold and silver to keep the Union solvent during the Civil War so in 1864 he made Nevada a state although it did not contain enough people to constitutionally become one.

In the 1860s Samuel Clemens lived there for a time and worked at the newspaper (the Territorial Enterprise), where he used the pen name "Mark Twain" for the first time.

On Bonanza, Virginia City is where the Cartwrights usually went when they had business to conduct. Virginia City was about to become a ghost town when the show came on the air in the early 1960s.

Today, Virginia City is a small but thriving tourist town. www.virginiacity-nv.org
 

Here is my new neighborhood: www.jmargolin.com/vch/myhouse.htm

This is a beautiful area and a great place to live but we don't have DSL or High-Speed Internet over Cable (or Cable of any kind). In my last year in San Jose I was on Comcast High Speed Internet and it was pretty good; it spoiled me so I could not go back to dial-up.

Fortunately, there are several other ways to get high-speed Internet.

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong one. I chose the WildBlue Satellite Speed Network ®  (www.wildblue.com)

In early February I went to the WildBlue web site and filled out their contact form. After a week with no response I called the closest reseller directly (Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative which operates as GotSky at www.gotsky.com)

Plumas-Sierra is in Portola, CA, about 70 miles from my house. They are the closest WildBlue installer even though there are a number of installers in Reno/Sparks who install for Dish Network, DirectTV and what was DirecWay (the other main satellite Internet company).

I eventually got through to Plumas-Sierra and we scheduled an installation. By sheer luck the installation took place between snow storms and when the snow had melted from the roof.

Installation went smoothly. I paid $299 + tax for the equipment and the contract was for 24 months with the right to cancel within the first 30 days if I didn't like it.

One of the things about Satellite Internet where the satellite is in geosynchronous orbit is the time delay (latency) for the signal to go up to the satellite and back down again. It takes about 0.25 seconds. Then it goes through the operator's servers to the Internet and then to whatever server you are trying to reach. For packets coming back to you the process is reversed. Again you have a 0.25 second delay for the satellite hop.

If you are downloading a large file you hardly notice the latency. However if you are going to a web site that is moderately bloated with graphics the latency is very noticeable, probably because you are downloading a large number of separate files instead of one large one.

Despite this, the service was good for the first month or two.

Then it got worse.
 

Tech Support is handled by WildBlue (800-221-3474), and it's mostly worthless. The tech support people don't seem to know very much so they just make up things.

One time I couldn't FTP to my web server with WIldBlue even though I had no problem doing it with my backup dialup ISP.

Me:  I can't FTP to my web server through WildBlue; I can access it through my dialup ISP.

WB: Our system doesn't support FTP.

Me:  Do you know what FTP is?

WB:  No, not really.


Another time I couldn't get to Usenet Newsgroups at all through WIldBlue. Again, I could access them through my dialup ISP.

Another time their Domain Name Servers didn't work. I couldn't get anywhere using a domain name (like www.google.com) although I could get there by using its IP address. (http://66.102.7.147)

Tech Support had me change my network settings from having it obtain the IP address of the Domain Name Servers automatically (which is how it is normally done) to specifying the IP addresses of the Domain Name Servers.

I suspect that what made it appear to work was simply that by the time I got through to Tech Support and they had me change the settings, their Domain Name Servers were working again. (This was a standard tactic by most of my previous dial-up ISPs.)

I noticed that when WIldBlue went down it was usually around 11:45pm. When I mentioned this I was casually told, "Oh, that's because the system usually goes down for scheduled maintenance around midnight on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Me: Why doesn't anyone else seem to know this and, since it's scheduled in advance, why don't you notify your customers that the system is going to be down? You could use email.

WB:  We've suggested it to them but they don't want to do it.

She didn't say who they were but whoever they are, they are obviously clueless about customer service.
 

It wasn't just at night when the system went down. In fact, it became increasingly frequent for the system to go down during the day.

Finally, when it happened on Wednesday, May 31, in late morning I called the Plumas-Sierra business office instead of WildBlue tech support to complain. I spoke to Debby Murphy, who promised to have a real tech person (Charles Bridgeman) call me. Later in the day he did call me. He said that there was a problem with Spot Beam 21 (the one I was in) and that WIldBlue was working on it. He suggested two things:

1. That I download their accelerator software at http://www.trueband.net/optimizer/nrtc.zip

2. That he send someone out to realign my dish. He looked up WildBlue's readings from my satellite modem and said my system was working fine so he didn't think it would help but he thought it was worth a try.

I said ok and the appointment was set for Friday afternoon.

One of things we talked about was how the dish gets aimed. When I had Comcast cable, the Motorola SB5100 Cable Modem had a small web page (addressed by IP address http://192.168.100.1) which gave me useful information about how well things were working, like signal-to-noise ratio, etc.). The satellite modem used by WildBlue does not have this feature; at least it's not accessible by the user. WIldBlue does get this information from the modem but does not allow customers to access it. As a result, the satellite installers have to use a satellite meter to aim the dish. A satellite meter is connected at the dish and is a broadband device that indicates the total signal from any source. The reason this matters is that every satellite dish has side lobes in addition to the main lobe. (Hopefully, the side lobes are small.) If there are adjacent satellites in the same frequency band that happen to be in the dish's side lobe, the satellite meter picks that up, too, and means you might not be precisely aimed at the satellitte you want. WIldBlue uses the Ka satellite band (20 GHz downlink, 30 GHz uplink) on Anik F2 (111.1 W. Longitude) and, apparently, none of the adjacent sateliites has Ka band. Still, a satellite meter is not as good as the actual information from the modem such as signal-to-noise or some other figure of merit. The alternative to a satellite meter or an accessible modem is a spectrum analyzer, but they cost several thousand dollars. Even so, you would think that they would have at least one for situations like mine.
 

On Thursday afternoon I downloaded and installed their optimizer software. It didn't seem to help. When I looked at the settings it had changed I got really pissed off.

The idea of the accelerator software is that it uses a WildBlue server as a proxy server. That means when you go to a web site, the WildBlue server (a terrestrial server not subject to the satellite latency) grabs everything from the web site as though it was making the request. Then their proxy server streams it to you as fast as it can.  To do this it changes the settings in MSIE to use a proxy server and to allow a WildBlue server to use a script to configure your LAN settings.

That part was ok.

What wasn't ok is that it also changed the settings to allow WildBlue to configure my DIal-Up settings from a script on its server.

My dial-up settings are none of WIldBlue's business. I really don't need WildBlue to screw up my dial-up settings to make my dial-up ISP work poorly in order to make WildBlue look good. If you think I'm paranoid then you have never had AOL. Back when I had it, it could not be fully uninstalled (it left parts of itself littering the hard drive and the Registry) and it screwed up any other dial-up ISP you tried to use.

WIldBlue's software also could not be uninstalled, not even manually. One of the parameters it changed was MaxConnectionsPerServer.

This parameter is not in MSIE. It is not in any *.ini files. It is also not in the Registry even though a disk search shows it as being in index.dat which is where the Registry lives.

I ended up restoring a previously backed up Registry.

By the time I had finished, it was late and their system was down again.

I called Tech Support and was told that, indeed, this was Friday Maintenance. (But, wait, I thought Maintenance was Mondays and Wednesdays.)

I asked to speak to a Supervisor and was told that all the Supervisors go home at Midnight. (Because of a longer than usual wait time it was already after midnight.)

So:

1.  The system goes down for scheduled maintenance;

2.   Since they don't tell the customers the system will be down they get a larger than normal number of calls from customers reporting that the system is down;

3.  The Supervisors go home so they won't have to deal with angry customers.


Friday morning Charles called me to tell me that he had forgotten to tell me that he was going to charge me for the service call. You remember, the service call to align the dish that he suggested and said he didn't think it would do any good.

It would cost me $30 for the trip plus $75/hour.

He didn't say if the $75 included traveling time. He didn't need to. I told him, "No."

He said that WildBlue had identified a problem that was affecting me a number of other subscribers. (Perhaps it was everyone on Spot Beam 21, the one that went down on Wednesday?)

I told him about the other problems with the system, including the Optimizer software he had recommended.

Finally, he said that he didn't think he could ever make me happy and he said that I could either have WildBlue fix the problem or he would let me cancel my contract and they would buy back the equipment.

I said, "You mean that if I cancel my contract, WildBlue will stop working on the problem even though it affects other customers, too?"

He agreed it sounded odd.

I offered a compromise. I was willing to give WildBlue the opportunity to fix the problem if they would amend my contract to allow me to cancel it at any time before the end of the contract.

He interrupted me before I could add, "and if I cancel the contract I will pay for the number of months I have used the equipment."

He had interrupted me to say, "this offer is good for today, only."

Whenever someone tells me, "This offer is good for today, only," that raises a red flag that I am being scammed, so I always walk.

In this case I said, "OK, then cancel my contract as long as there are no cancellation fees or termination fees, you send someone out to pick up the equipment, and you pay me the full cost of the equipment."

He said , "OK."

He added a parting shot, "Good luck with dial-up."

If you ever need to talk to Charles, his number is 800-221-3474 Extension 6043. His direct number is 530-832-6043. His cell phone number is 530-310-3046. If he asks where you got his number, tell him "Jed says Hi."
 

I called Debby to make sure she had signed-off on this agreement. I explained that since they had had nothing to lose by accepting my compromise I was puzzled why they hadn't accepted it. She said she knew I was being allowed to cancel my contract and they were buying the equipment back but she didn't know about my offer to compromise. My impression was that she thought Charles had made a poor decision.

It gets better.

When the Installer (Uninstaller?) showed up later that day the first thing I asked him was if he was willing to sign a paper summarizing the agreement I had with Charles.

When I showed him the paper he said he had to call someone.

I gave him my phone (we don't have cell phone service up here) and he read the agreement to whomever he was talking to. (I don't know who that was; It might have been Debby.)

He turned to me and said, "There's a $179 fee."

I said, "Absolutely not!"

Apparently, the person he was talking to heard me. The Uninstaller then said, "The fee has been waived."

I asked, "Then you'll sign the agreement?

He said, "Yes."

He then removed the dish (leaving me to patch the holes) and the modem, signed my agreement, I signed his paperwork, and he left.

That was on Friday, June 2.

As of Thursday, June 8, the credit had not appeared on my credit card so I called Debby Murphy.

I was told she was out for a few weeks and was given to Suzanne Powers. I explained the situation and she said she would look into it.

Apparently, Charles had not explained our agreement to the business office. So, on Tuesday, June 13, I sent Suzanne a PDF of the agreement. She agreed to a full refund for the equipment and made it happen.

Thank you Suzanne and Debby, I wish we had met under more-pleasant circumstances. I can tell from talking to you that you are intelligent, beautiful women.
 
 

The Future of WildBlue
 

WildBlue Communications is owned by:

Telesat Canada (whose satellite they use) which is owned by Bell Canada (BCE)
Intelsat
National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC)
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
David Drucker (WildBlue's chairman)
Liberty Media
Note that Liberty Media is run by John Malone, who used to run TCI Cable. Maybe WildBlue is using the old TCI business plan which would explain their poor service and clueless tech support.

(TCI was bought by AT&T and renamed AT&T Broadband. It didn't work out as well as they had hoped so they spun it off as Comcast Cable. Comcast seems to have made an impressive turnaround. The year before I left San Jose they installed fiber in my neighborhood and with it, high speed Internet. I signed up and was very happy with it and with their Customer Service.)
 

Recently, AT&T has started reselling WIldblue under its own name: AT&T High Speed Internet via Satellite. They are supposed to call it AT&T High Speed Internet Access, powered by WildBlue but that's not what it says on their web site (http://www.attwb.net). They have a better deal than WildBlue's other resellers. Although the equipment and monthly fees are the same, installation is free, they only require a 12 month contract and, if you bail out within the first 30 days, it only costs $79, not the $179 that Plumas-Sierra charges.

This is only a marketing agreement. WIldBlue will continue to operate the system and provide tech support. Bad idea.

You know that AT&T is going to market this service very aggressively. WIldBlue already has problems and adding more subscribers is not going to help. If AT&T wants to be successful they need to take over the system design and operation and hire some real tech support people.

If this isn't bad enough, on May 8, 2006, WildBlue also took on Echostar (Dish Network) and DIrecTV as resellers. You can expect Dish Network and DIrecTV to also market their WIldBlue service very aggressively.

Didn't DirecTV have its own satellite internet service called DirecWay?

DirecTV was started by Hughes Network Systems. In late 2003 Hughes was taken over by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Murdoch moved DirecTV to a separate company. Then he sold his interest in Hughes to private investors. Hughes then went public with what had been DirecWay. www.hughesnet.com

Hughes Network Systems traces its roots back to Howard Hughes, the inventor of the push-up bra. He also did some things with airplanes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hughes_Aircraft
 
 

BTW, WildBlue claims that Wildblue Satellite Speed Network ® is registered mark. If it is, it isn't registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

WildBlue did register their name:

Word Mark    WILDBLUE COMMUNICATIONS
Goods and Services  IC 038. US 100 101 104. G & S: telecommunication services, namely providing high speed communication connections via satellite over a global computer network; and computer services, namely providing high speed access via satellite to a global computer network. FIRST USE: 20000815. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 20050604
It is my understanding that their trademark registration is only good for the industry they listed in their trademark application.

Presumably, I could register WildBlue for use in another industry.

I live in Storey County, Nevada, where prostitution is legal as long as it is in a licensed house. (Storey County is home to the world famous Mustang Ranch.)

I would call it the WildBlue Computer Ranch, where customers and their computers can both get serviced at the same time.
 
 

Jed Margolin
Virginia City Highlands, Nevada
June 18, 2006

Future Home of the WildBlue Computer Ranch


© 2006   Jed Margolin


March 27, 2012


This is an update to my experiences with WildBlue.

Last November I signed up with WildBlue again in order to have a backup to my terrestrial microwave ISP.

So far my experience has been good. But remember that I use it as a backup, it is not my primary ISP.

One of the advantages of WildBlue is that, if there is a widespread power outage, I can run the dish, a wireless router, and a notebook PC  with a marine deep discharge battery and inverter for several hours. (I did this when we had a wildfire that knocked out power for several hours.) For a power outage that outlasts my battery I can run the system from my portable generators. (I have a 5,000 Watt gasoline generator and a 6,000 Watt dual fuel generator that runs on either gasoline or propane.) As a result, in an emergency where everything else goes down I can provide reliable communications for my neighbors and my community.

With some solar photovoltaic panels I could have reliable Internet access for as long as the WildBlue satellites stay up and their Ground Stations have power and connectivity.


WildBlue has greatly improved since I had it (and dumped it) five years ago.  It may be because:

1.  WildBlue has a new owner, ViaSat, which makes satellite communications equipment for defense and consumer markets. (http://www.viasat.com) They were the old WildBlue's equipment supplier.

2.  WildBlue now has more satellites. When I signed up they had two. Since then there seems to be a new one ViaSat-1. http://www.viasat.com/broadband-satellite-networks/viasat-1

3.  The equipment they installed is newer and much improved over the equipment of five years ago.


This is why I chose to give WildBlue another chance instead of going with HughesNet.

When I signed up, WildBlue's bandwidth was on a rolling 30 day period. I see that they have changed it to a fixed 30 day period for new broadband. The fixed 30 day period might be better. I don't know which I get. Either way, depending on which plan you get it can be 7.5 GBytes (Basic), 12 GBytes (Medium), or 17 GBytes (Best). See http://www.wildblue.com/fap/index.jsp

HughesNet has a daily bandwidth of 500 MBytes. See http://customercare.myhughesnet.com/fap_announce.htm

Wild Blue has a special deal under the Recovery Act Program. If you qualify, it is only $40/month and the rate is guaranteed for life (presumable yours). See http://www.viasatresidential.com/wildblue/overview/recovery-act

HughesNet also has a Recovery Act Program deal but it does not look very attractive. See http://www.broadbandsatelliteinternet.org/hughesnet_recovery_act

Both systems use satellites in geosynchronous orbit (over the equator, about 22,236 miles above mean sea level.) Since radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,282 miles/sec in vacuum) it takes about 0.24 secs (about a quarter of a second) for a signal to go up to the satellite and down again. This does not take into account your latitude, which will increase the distance to the satellite by a small amount. And this is in addition to the delays that every system has, such as in the routers and servers.

If you are downloading a large file you will still get good performance.

But the Internet is very sensitive to time delays. As a result, the performance of such a system feels very sluggish, especially when loading a bloated Web page that gets different parts from different servers.

It will still be better than dialup.

However, because of the time delay you should not use anyone's geosynchronous satellite system for Voice Over IP (VOIP) or a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If you do, it will really suck.


Results


WildBlue service is definitely better than the dialup ISP I was using as a backup.

If my only choices were dialup or satellite I would choose WildBlue.


Jed Margolin
Virginia City Highlands, Nevada