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Off the grid? No cat videos or Netflix for you

If you or someone you love lives in a remote area, your options for getting online may well be very limited. Be aware that whatever choice you make--satellite or mobile broadband--you'll have strict download limits.

Satellite Internet may be your only choice for getting online if you live off the grid. But beware of strict download allowances and the penalties for going over. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NICE, Calif.--The ads promise high-speed satellite Internet with "speeds that leave dial-up in the dust." What they don't tell you is that if you want a truly 2011 Internet experience--including a steady diet of cat videos and movies streamed from Netflix--you're almost certainly out of luck.

Having spent some time recently at my mother-in-law's mountaintop property in a very remote part of Northern California, I found myself snowed in and unable to return home. And that forced me to confront the reality of what Internet is like for those who live off the grid.

The upshot? If you're the kind of person who wants to consume a significant amount of rich media online, you should think about moving to the land of wires or cables.

Satellite Internet
If you or someone you love lives off the grid, that probably means you're far from the nearest town, and quite a ways from anywhere served by DSL or cable Internet. If you have line of sight to a mobile broadband repeater, you may be able to get a data signal from a provider like Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T, but your best bet for getting an Internet connection is probably satellite Internet.

Today, there are several nationwide satellite providers, including HughesNet, WildBue, and StarBand. Each offers a group of service plans--after buying or leasing equipment and paying for installation--designed to give consumers a choice of options, but generally, each has a low-, middle-, and high-end plan. Prices range from $50 or $60 a month to $110 a month or more.

For example, HughesNet--my mother-in-law's provider--offers three plans. The first costs $60 a month and offers download speeds up to 1.0Mbps. The second runs $80 a month with speeds up to 1.5Mbps. And the third costs $110 a month, and comes with 2.0Mbps speeds.

That all sounds well and good. But there's a catch that you have to take into consideration: download allowances. Even at the $110 a month level, a customer is only entitled to 450MB a day. For $60, you get just 250MB, and for $80, it's 350MB. Now consider that a digital photo can easily cost you 1MB, a YouTube clip 10MB, a required software update between 20MB and 200MB, and so on. A full-length movie? At least 2GB.

So what happens if you go over your limit? You're automatically downgraded to a super-slow dial-up-esque speed for a full 24 hours. Luckily, you can monitor your usage in real time so you don't get caught by surprise.

WildBlue has a similar set of options, though its download allowance is pegged to a 30-day period, not a single day. For $50 a month, you get 7.5GB of downloading and 2.3MB of uploading. For $70 a month, that's 12GB and 3GB. And for $80, it's 17GB and 5GB. If you go over, your Internet is routed through molasses until your 30-day average is below its threshold. Those numbers sound much larger than HughesNet's, but actually the daily average is about the same.

With StarBand, the allowances are based on 7-day periods. For $50 a month, you get 750MB of downloading and 250MB of uploading; For $70 a month, it's 1.6GB and 400MB; and for $100 a month, it's 4GB and 1GB. Going over those allowances sends you back to dial-up speeds until your 7-day average is below the threshold.

The rub
If you've never used the Internet before, these download allowances might not seem like much of an issue. But here's the rub. Once you start your "always-on, high-speed Internet" lifestyle, you're going to catch on to the fact that there's a whole world of multimedia entertainment, news, and other helpful information out there online. Only, you're not invited to the party.

As WildBlue puts it on a hard to find PDF that breaks down what kind of Internet usage is possible given the service's download allowances, "One movie download can be as big as 3 Gigabytes...Downloading or streaming full-length movies from Web sites like Netflix or Blockbuster will cause customers to reach their usage thresholds QUICKLY! [And] Continuous streaming audio and video will cause customers to reach their usage thresholds VERY FAST! It is NOT recommended."

Starband's well-hidden fine print tries to warn would-be consumers about the limitations of its plans. "The service is designed and engineered for periodic use of e-mail, newsgroups, file transfers, Internet chat, instant messaging, non-real-time interactive games and browsing the World Wide Web," StarBand cautions customers. "The service does not support voice over IP (VoIP), including, but not limited to Vonage, Skype, etc."

And for its part, HughesNet believes that "Only a small percentage of subscribers will experience reduced download speeds as a result of exceeding the download threshold. Online activities such as viewing Web sites, checking e-mail, watching short streaming media presentations, or automatic software and anti-virus updates are unlikely to exceed the download threshold."

Each of these disclaimers make the case that normal Internet comes with no penalties. But do severe limits on streaming audio, Skype, and even the occasional streaming of a movie via Netflix seem normal? Only if you've lived on top of a mountain for years and don't know better. In this case, ignorance really is bliss.

To be fair, each of these satellite providers has to portion out limited bandwidth to all the customers in discrete geographic areas. And to have every off-the-grid customer streaming episode after episode of "Mad Men" would probably bring the systems to their knees. In addition, each service has a period--say from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.--with no download restrictions. Fair enough.

But I think the promotions for the services are seriously misleading. HughesNet touts its "super-fast, always-on, satellite Internet access [that's] ready when you are--no dialing in, no waiting, and no tied-up phone lines. You can download files in seconds, check e-mail instantly, and surf faster than you ever imagined."

Sure, that doesn't say you can watch movies or video Skype regularly with cousin Luisa in Italy, but to me, it at least implies a modern, rich Internet experience. And as noted above, the disclaimers about download limits can very tricky to find.

What does it all mean? First, that if you or someone you know if going to go the satellite Internet route, you should be aware of what's really on offer. Then again, there may not be another option.

Mobile broadband
It happens that my mother-in-law does have line of sight to some far-off mobile broadband repeaters. That means her property gets signals from AT&T, Verizon, and presumably, Sprint.

Given that she's been frustrated by HughesNet's download restrictions, we discussed whether a data plan from one of the major carriers might be a suitable alternative. Or at least a good adjunct, especially if she got an iPad on which she could do some of her surfing. Others may well consider the same question.

In her case, it probably isn't the answer, as the signals--AT&T's and Verizon's, at least--that reach her house are weak and inconsistent. She's just too far away from the repeaters.

But perhaps you're closer. If so, this may well be the way to go. There are plenty of areas that are off the grid that happen to be served by great mobile broadband signals, and if you're in one of them, you could soon be getting high-speed Internet with just a little plug-in card, or a wireless device called a Mi-Fi. Or on an iPad or other broadband-enabled tablet.

But mobile broadband services also have restrictive download allowances. For example, for $50 a month, Verizon offers you 5GB of data. Or, $80 a month gets you 10GB of data. AT&T and Sprint have similar plans, with slightly different pricing and limits. And unlike with satellite Internet, these plans let you exceed your allowance--as long as you're willing to pay some steep overage charges of at least $10 a gigabyte.