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High-speed Net provider selling service at RadioShack

StarBand Communications, a new satellite-based consumer Internet access provider, commercially launches its service in thousands of RadioShack stores.

StarBand Communications, a new satellite-based consumer Internet access provider, commercially launched its service Monday in thousands of RadioShack stores across the continental United States.

The StarBand service is among the first to offer two-way Net access via satellite, allowing millions of Americans who may not be eligible for competing services to access the Internet at high speeds.

The launch of StarBand, and similar services, mark the beginning of potential competition to cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSL), the two most prevalent methods of delivering high-speed, or "broadband," Internet access.

Formerly known as Gilat-To-Home, StarBand is a joint venture between Microsoft and EchoStar Communications, both of which have invested in Gilat, an Israeli technology company. The company is perhaps years ahead of several other big-name aerospace entrants, such as Lockheed Martin and Loral Space & Communications, which have various satellite Net access plans, but which are not expected to make them available for years to come.

Tachyon.net offers a high-speed, two-way Net service for businesses, and Hughes Network Systems recently launched its one-way high-speed satellite service with America Online, dubbed AOL Plus Powered by DirecPC. Hughes is developing its own two-way system, which allow consumers to send and receive data using the same satellite dish. One-way systems also require a dial-up modem for uploading email and other information.

The growth of satellite Net services, and the development of several other companies, including ICO-Teledesic Global Limited, Astrolink and Spaceway, could portend an era of competition for cable modem services such as Excite@Home and for DSL offerings by the Baby Bell local phone companies and others.

Because of limited availability and distance limitations, StarBand estimates 55 million U.S. households will not have access to cable or DSL systems. Satellite Net access has the potential to reach nearly anywhere, making it a possibly lucrative market.

The StarBand service can be purchased from retailers of EchoStar's DISH Network or at Microsoft kiosks in RadioShack stores. StarBand will be available in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico next year.

The service currently requires either a satellite-ready Compaq PC or a USB satellite modem.