2012 Update: The new generation of satellite seems to be a huge improvement, and I am currently a happy customer of Exede. I understand that HughesNet also has a second-generation service, but if you read the rest of this page, you'll understand why I'm not eager to try it!

HughesNet Must Die!

Why HughesNet satellite Internet is even worse than dialup

NOTE: If you know me, you know that I'm a pretty mild-mannered guy, never wanting to start a fight, and always trying very hard to think the best of people. You also know that I'm very good with technology and have almost 30 years of experience as an Internet pioneer. If you don't know me, you might want to verify those facts at my home page, or my wikipedia page because you might easily assume that I'm the world's biggest hothead from reading what follows.

CHALLENGE: If anyone from HughesNet is reading this, I will happily replace this page with an apology if you can make my system work as advertised!

What I want to say is simple:

HughesNet is the worst possible way to get on the Internet, and everyone involved in perpetrating this evil travesty deserves to go bankrupt, at least.
Unfortunately, when I look at that sentence, its understatement and inadequacy leave me almost shaking with rage. It's just way too kind to the folks at HughesNet. So I tried to write a few similarly understated facts, just for comparison:
Adolf Hitler was the worst German ruler of the the early twentieth century, and deserved to be replaced as the leader of the country.

Dying in a fiery crash is the worst thing that can happen to you on an airplane, and you should try to avoid it.

Having your penis bitten off and chewed up is the worst kind of sex a man can have, and you should be careful not to pay too much for it.

George Bush is the worst president in American history, and you shouldn't vote for him again.

Do I exagerate? You be the judge.

After several years of paying my monthly HughesNet bills and struggling to make it work acceptably -- and after dozens and dozens of phone calls with the most hopelessly unhelpful customer service department on the planet, and probably the galaxy, and after several fabulously expensive site visits from HughesNet-provided technicians -- I am finally going back to dial-up. Although slow, dial-up is at least predictable and reliable, it's unlikely to give you high blood pressure or a heart attack, and of course it costs about an eighth of what HughesNet costs.

Here's how HughesNet works, as far as I can tell: You shell out $70 or more per month, plus an installation fee that can easily run $300-$500 if you're really out in the boonies, as I am. The installer manages to get it working well enough that you're reasonably impressed, and you sign the installer's paperwork. Of course, you still have a minimum round trip time of half a second for every packet because of the speed of light delay, but that's not HughesNet's fault, and you tell yourself you can get used to it. You probably could, too, if the speed-of-light delay was the worst part, but that delay alone makes it clear that HughesNet commercials are full of bald-faced lies.

The fun begins once the installer leaves. The HughesNet paperwork (and even some of the advertisements) warn you that it may not work so well in bad weather. Apparently, bad weather includes any time when the wind is over 2 MPH, the lightest of cirrus clouds is passing overhead, a new sunspot appears, or any politician anywhere in the world takes a bribe. If any of these things happen, HughesNet is likely to go down.

By watching carefully and checking logs, I can state with high confidence that HughesNet stops working, for me, approximately five times per hour. Yes, that's 120 times per day. Each time, it stays down for anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes, usually more like 5. If you do the math, this means that my connection is actually working slightly more than half the time, but if (as I do) you have to use a VPN, you spend most of that time reconnecting your VPN, which resets when the connection is lost. (And did I mention that if you use a VPN over satellite, the performance for encrypted traffic is arguably *worse* than dialup? Alas, it's true, because VPN's require a lot of "handshaking" which, over a satellite, induces multiple half-second delays because of that pesky speed-of-light thing. That's not HughesNet's fault -- the VPN vendors obviously haven't given much thought to satellites in their algorithm design.)

Fortunately, the highly trained technical support staff at HughesNet is available several hours per day to walk you through such complex troubleshooting techniques as power-cycling the modem, checking to see if any cables are loose, and rebooting your Windows PC. In recent years, they even seem to know what a Mac is. However, if you tell them you're using Linux, they'll keep telling you to run a program that checks the Windows registry. (After all, it's not an Apple, so it must run Windows and the customer's just too stupid to know what version, right? And by the way, I have machines running all 3 major operating systems and I can verify that the OS doesn't matter -- the service sucks, and the support staff doesn't have the slightest clue how to fix it, probably because it simply can't be fixed.)

Although the rebooting and power-cycling won't help, the techie will still insist on walking you through most of them on every call, thus guaranteeing that it takes 20 minutes before they even try to address your problem, usually after a half hour wait to reach a human being in the first place. Then they will tell you that there is nothing left to do but send a technician to your house. There must be, they conclude, a problem with your satellite dish, your wiring, or your utterly clueless brain. (It's particularly rewarding to get this attitude from someone who doesn't even know what Linux is. It's like discussing science with a creationist.)

Alas, if you're lucky enough to be like me and live so far in the boonies that not even cell phones work, you keep trying. Every year you beg the local cable and phone companies to sell you broadband, and every year they refuse. You try each new generation of cellular Internet service, but none of them reach your isolated paradise, So you keep struggling with HughesNet, but if you knew what was good for you you would have gone back to dialup a long time ago. And you say, OK, send out the technician, even though it is likely to cost another $500 at least.

Somehow, the technicians usually manage to get the service working for several hours -- once, for several weeks. If you're lucky enough to get HughesNet to work for that long, you'll discover just how crappy the service is when it's functioning. For starters, although they talk a lot about how fast they are, they're not nearly as loquatious about the fact that they limit your downloads to 300 MB per day. Yes, in 2008, 300 MB per day. If you're a baseball fan, and you subscribe to the MLB.TV service that lets you watch games (if you're lucky -- but that's another rant), you get to find out the hard way that the average baseball game uses about 400 MB. When you hit the limit, the service simply stops working, typically in the 9th inning of a close game. (HughesNet claims it simply slows you down when you pass the bandwidth limit, but if that's true it slows down to a geologic time scale not usable for web surfing, let alone video.)

I was actually foolish enough to try to get HughesNet to try to help me with this relatively minor problem -- the 300 MB bandwidth limit has to be at worst a constant in some software somewhere, right? -- during one of the brief intervals when the satellite was actually working. It turns out that if you pay them more money per month, they'll increase your bandwidth limit all the way to 400 MB, but no further. Honestly, they won't sell you any more bandwidth for any price, or any amount of cajoling. 400 MB per day, they figure, should be enough for anyone. Not only can't you use any peer-to-peer services, you can't download any significant amount of software or watch more than 2 hours of video. HughesNet doesn't approve of using the Internet for those purposes, apparently. They actually call this their "fair use" policy -- as if it would be somehow unfair to let people use more if they're willing to pay for it. (By the way, many web pages and other applications are smart enough to restart an aborted download automatically when the net comes back. The combination of this "intelligence" with the up-and-down nature of HughesNet means that a single moderate-sized download can be retried often enough to cause the daily bandwidth limitation to kick in. That happened to me again this morning -- no successful downloads, but enough failed attempts to not even allow me to try again for 24 more hours. If I called them and complained, they'd probably lift the cap for the day, but I'd have to spend a half hour on hold before they'd talk to me.)

Anyway, when I asked the helpful HughesNet tech support person if there was any way I could watch my baseball games, he helpfully pointed out that the bandwidth limitations are suspended every night from 3-6 AM, eastern time. Perhaps, he suggested, I could watch my baseball games then. Hoping to sound a tad sarcastic, I told him that this was a brilliant idea, and that I would call Bud Selig (the commissioner of baseball) right away and ask him to reschedule all major league baseball games for 3 AM. "That sounds like it might work," said HughesNet tech support, apparently without irony. The worst part is that he's probably right -- it might well be easier to persuade Bud to reschedule all baseball games than to get HughesNet to provide decent service.

The bottom line is simple: If you can get any other kind of broadband service, do so. If your only choice is dial-up or satellite, try to make do with dial-up. If you get desperate enough that you're going to try satellite against my advice, don't give up your extra phone line, as you'll end up using dialup more often than not, most likely.

More constructively, you could lobby your state or federal representatives to require universal broadband service. Rural communities would never have gotten basic telephone service if the federal government hadn't required universal access as the cost of tolerating the AT&T monopoly. The current broadband providers are typically duopolies -- most cities have no more than 2 providers -- but they use the fact that they're not monopolies to wriggle out of making the Internet available to less densely populated areas. Tell your representatives that broadband Internet access is as essential to 21st century life as phone service was to 20th century life, and that the companies reaping huge profits from urban service can afford to provide rural service as well, and should be required to do so if they want to keep selling their services at all.

It also wouldn't hurt to write to the FCC and ask them to take a long hard look at HughesNet's advertising, which claims to provide "true broadband Internet access" to rural areas. Even when it functions perfectly -- in my experience, well under half the time -- a service with a half-second delay on every packet simply isn't what most people think of as true broadband service. It's a lie that suckers in the next customers, and it should be as illegal as running a commercial claiming that a pill will double the length of your penis.

Finally, and perhaps most constructively, you can create a link on your own web page, linking the word "HughesNet" to this page to help ensure that anyone using Google to research HughesNet will find this warning. For example, you can embed this link in any HTML page:

If you're thinking of using Hughes Net, consider reading 
<a href=http://guppylake.com/nsb/HughesNetSucks.html>this article</a>
to see what their commercials don't tell you.

So why am I writing this? It's probably obvious that my primary motivation, at this point, is utter frustration and rage. But if I can help prevent one person from using HughesNet, I may have saved them from premature death due to the health effects of such frustration. (I'm OK, don't worry about me -- I meditate and take blood pressure medication, and anyway writing this web page has been remarkably therapeutic.)

Spread the word, print the bumper stickers:

Just say No to HughesNet.

Friends don't let friends use HughesNet.

I wish I could find some way to say it more strongly, but words fail me. Warn your friends! Pass it on!

-- Nathaniel S. Borenstein, Ph.D.
   Author of MIME & other Internet stuff

PS -- Late breaking news! On the day that I wrote this page, HughesNet appears to have updated the monitoring software that runs at each customer's site. Previously, if the system was working, there would be a green button with the word "OK" underneath; if not, there was a red button with the word "Problem" underneath. Today, the labels went away, leaving only the colored buttons, thus adding to the delight and satisfaction of the happy customers like me who happen to be color-blind. It happened too quickly for me to believe that HughesNet is retaliating against me; I don't believe they could do anything that quickly or coherently. But it certainly reinforces my decision to give up and go back to dialup!

PPS -- Can I say it more clearly?

HughesNet really sucks.

Postscript: What happened when I cancelled

When I cancelled my HughesNet service, I suggested that they look at this page. The customer service rep, however, couldn't look at it, because the people who work at HughesNet aren't allowed to "go on the Internet." I was stunned -- an Internet Service Provider whose customer service people aren't allowed to look at the Internet! No wonder they have no clue how terrible their service is!

The Good News

Not long after I first posted this page, Sprint/Nextel built a new tower near me. I now get wireless broadband that works pretty well, at the same price HughesNet was charging me. Don't you just love happy endings? It still sucks compared to city broadband, but it's like trading in your cancer for a light flu.