by Bill Anderton
We specify that users should have a connection sufficient to stream at least a 386-kilobits-per-second (kbps) streaming video payload as the very minimum for enjoying our stream media as intended. Further, we also recommend that users have even more bandwidth, if possible. Our streaming techniques will reward users who have more network capacity with higher quality videos and we encode every video up to 8,800-kbps for a full high-definition 1080p experience.
Currently, the system-wide average connectivity of our users is sufficient users to see our videos at 1,250-kbps and about 20% go to 3,800-kbps or higher.
However, users who live in outlying fringe suburbs of metropolitan areas and in true rural areas may NOT have the luxury of connections of these capacities and qualities. In other words, suburban and rural users may only have very limited choices and can get only what they can get and nothing better is available.
This circumstance is called "the digital divide." The low density of fringe suburban and true rural area (measured in the total number of potential subscribers dwelling passed per route-mile of network infrastructure) so as to not offer an attractive return on investment or even any return at all for network infrastructure providers. On the other hand, higher density urban areas offer attractive returns sufficient to justify the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in network infrastructure. As a result, investment in rural infrastructure has not happened for the most part and rural users have very limited broadband options; often on one provider to select from that don't offer the rich connectivity of their urban counterparts.
As someone who was born on a Texas ranch, this whole issue is near and dear to my heart.
Typically, suburban users in fringe areas and true rural users have limited choices of providers and depend mostly on one of two types of service providers for their broadband Internet connections:
Normal 3G and 4G cellphone-based wireless broadband providers have limited coverage in rural areas but may provide some coverage in suburban areas. Even when available, these services can also be very expensive.
Both of these types of services (WISPs and satellite providers) use shared resources also called "party-line" services (in homage to the rural phone services of the past.). A common resource like bandwidth capacity is shared among a pool of users and considered precious. If few users are using the shared service, performance is excellent; if many are using the shared service, performance degrades. If the shared resource is over-subscribed too much, even small numbers of active users can degrade the service quickly from many people contending for the use of the precious resource. In off peak times, you might get lots of bandwidth; during peak periods, only some small fraction of the off-peak rate.
Also during peak periods, a heavily over-subscribed resource can be very "bursty" where there is a few seconds burst of data followed by an extended period (last from seconds to tens of seconds) where the service is entirely unavailable.
These conditions can play havoc with streaming video services that need a somewhat reliably constant flow of data. When a video or audio file is being played back, when it comes time to display the next packet of video, it better be there or the video has to pause until it does arrive.
Normally, we use a technique called Adaptive Streaming for playback of our video-on-demand. This technique is a state-of-the-art method that dynamically adjusts in real time to both the bandwidth available to each user as well to adapt to each device used by users (desktop, tablet or smartphone.) For details, click here see our whitepaper on our technique. This technique provides the broadest possible support for various users' connections.
However, even as good as this technique is, there are limits to which the Adaptive Streaming technology can adjust to provide smooth uninterrupted streaming. In other words, users must have a broadband Internet connection capable of delivering certain minimum capacities and characteristics.
Unfortunately, user who live in fringe suburban and true rural areas may not be able to meet these standards consistently and exceed the limits of our Adaptive Streaming technology.
By the way, such limits are not confined to just us; Netflix and YouTube face the same limits.
Not all of the limitations of these types of service providers are purely technical in nature; some limitations are a result of the providers' standard business policies that come attempt to make the best of being "party-line" providers.
In any pool of users, it is highly likely some users will naturally consume more of the shared resources than others. Any "extra" usage by the heavy users will take away the availability of the shared and precious resource from others in the pool.
The very pejorative term for these heavy users among some providers is "bandwidth hogs."
Therefore, it is common for share-facility providers to establish business policies they call "fair access policies" (FAP) that place administrative limits on how much of the shared (and precious) resource each user can consume in a given and stated period such as per-hour, per-day or per-month.
FAPs, if used are published by your provider.
FAPs exist for a sound business reason: the total bandwidth in a whole satellite transponder is a finite limited resource and there are only so many transponders on a whole multi-billion-dollar satellite. This limited resource has to the shared by the users in the whole country and therefore FAP limits are reasonable in these situation. Satellite bandwidth is finite.
On the other hand, fiber-optic networking is almost unlimited; a single multi-strand fiber optic cable serving a single building in an urban area can carry more bandwidth an the entire satellite fleet serving the whole of the USA. FAPs are rarely used by these provider or are set so high it is all but inconceivable that a user would/could reach any imposed limit. However, this advantage only exists in high-density urban areas, not out in the country.
Many users of these services forget about the FAP but they can impose severe limits on bandwidth available to the user. Also, the limits imposed by some FAPs are lower than you might first imagine. The current FAP limits for HughesNet are:
FAP Threshold (per day)
Video files are very large; you can consume your entire day's allocation in just watching a portion of one of our high-resolution videos. Also, if you watched a movie on Netflix last night, you perhaps used your entire daily allocation BEFORE you started to watch our video.
Our "average" video (the 1,250-kbps version) represents a data file of 250-megabytes (MB) for just one 25-minute video; twice that for one twice as long (50-minutes) and four times larger for a high-definition version. Clearly, most shared-use party-line-type services are not intended for streaming media services.
When you reach your FAP-imposed limit, your service just doesn't stop entirely; it gets intentionally throttled back by your provider to a much lower speed. For example, and similar to other providers with FAPs, HughesNet administratively reduces your bandwidth any day you go over their FAP limits. Rather than the full rate you contracted for, they cut you back to 180-kilobites per second for a "recovery period" and then throttle the speed of your service back to its normal level until the next time you breach the daily FAP limit.
This effectively regulates what these providers consider "bandwidth hogs" in a fair and uniform-for-all way.
In really bad cases, both the technical limitations and the policy limitations of the these services can conspire together to produce a "really bad service" for large parts of users' days.
There are no organic "fixes" for these limitations other than purchasing an upgraded service with a higher FAP threshold limit, if one is even available. Even then, an upgrade won't remove the technical limitations. Remember, these services are what they are and their limitations are well know and widely discussed. To see, do a Google search on the search terms "HughesNet Netflix" to see other opinions.
These services are much better than telephone dial-up services but not as good as the typical entry-level xDSL or Cable modem service in a city.
Our standard bandwidth test is unable to fully test the long-term bandwidth availability of satellite providers with FAPs. Our bandwidth test perhaps can show the bandwidth available at an instant in time but it cannot predict the administrative imposition resulting from a FAP. Also, the test file in our tester is only 2-megabytes in size and, depending on how each provider throttles their bandwidth, the test file might be large enough to trigger the throttle-back. Therefore, our standard broadband speed test that works well for terrestrial networks, can easily present a much too optimistic assessment of satellite bandwidth available to a user from hour to hour. Our standard bandwidth test is of little value for satellite services.
These types of providers aren't exactly forthcoming with their limitations; either technical limitations or business policies. While perhaps understandable, their advertising leads one to naturally assume their services are just like those of urban Internet providers. The reality is these types of service have some very real limitations so, "caveat emptor."
To their credit (and for their legal protections), HughesNet and other providers do not hide their FAPs; their policies are published for all to see as are their plain-English FAQs. These policies may be a bit hidden in the "fine print" but they are there if you look deep enough and indeed are a key part of your legal service agreement with your provider.
From time to time, these FAP limits are increased so check with your service provider for their current policies. Also, you can perhaps purchase a higher level of service and/or reserve your scarce bandwidth for your educational activities rather than your entertainment use. In other words, plan on not watching a movie online the night before you plan to watch an educational video.
These types of services do not compete well in urban areas where xDSL, cable model, and fiber-in-the-loop providers where stingy FAPs are not coupled to service agreement. However, in fringe suburban areas and true rural areas, these service providers many be the only alternative to telephone dial-up services.
While we cannot make users' connection "pipes" larger or our videos smaller (our 328-kbps option is about as small as we can get and still preserve the experience), as a standard offering, we use a technical approach that should help to a degree. Our Adaptive Streaming technique for streaming video (click here for details) is a rural-friendly as we can make video.
To further provide support for our users who have these types of Internet services, we can, upon request, provide an alternative technique call "progressive download" that may help some of our users who have these types of Internet connections.
This technique will NOT be a "silver bullet" to magically solve the problem completely, but it can help a limited degree.
Literally, this progressive download technique is a "last-resort" method to try to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation by providing a method to allow you to still be able view our videos within the "givens" of your situation.
To start your video, click the "play" icon in the player above like you normally do. Rather than causing the video to begin streaming, the button on this page will begin to download the video and its metadata to a temporary file locally stored on your computer. Our embedded media player will play from this locally-stored copy rather than directly from our streaming servers thus turning the storage on your computer to a very large buffer file sufficient to hold the entire video locally. Once downloaded, your media player will be immune from the starts and stops of a degraded network condition. Yes, you will still have to download the file through the degraded network so downloading make take some time, but once it has been downloaded, it will play locally without interruption.
The media will begin to play the head of the video file almost immediately even while the vast body of the video is still being downloaded. However, because your connection is in a seriously degraded condition and cannot download the video file fast enough to replenish the player before its buffer runs dry. In other words, it may still start and stop at least the first time you attempt to play it.
However, here is where the progressive downloading will help. You can see the progress of the download in the media controller. On the video control (mouse-over the video to make it visible), you can observe the progress of the download.
Note the small vertical black indicator at the end of the horizontal black bar (at the point of the green arrow.) This is the currently-playing position in the whole video. Also note the gray bar to the right of the currently-playing indicator and its current length (at the point of the large red arrow.) This is the amount of video data buffered ahead of the playing position.
Your player is playing the progressive-download video file at the rate of 1,250-kilobits per second. If your network connection is in a degraded condition, it may only be replenishing the buffer at, for example, 180-kilobits per second. In other words, your network connection can't keep up; if so, your buffer will run dry and the video momentarily stop while awaiting more of the video to be received. When the buffer has been replenished, the player will resume playing the video until it again runs dry. If you have a degrade network connection, you will likely have a lot of starts and stops.
However, with progressive downloading, the whole video is cached locally on your computer as it is received. If the playback starts and stops lot (the likely condition), simply click on the "Pause" button at the extreme left of the video control. The video will pause its playback but the progressive download will continue while the playback is paused. This will give the download a chance to buffer ahead. In the control, you can observe how much of the video is downloaded by the length of the gray bar. When the download is sufficiently ahead, click the "Play" button again also at the extreme left of the video control. You can actually wait for the entire video to download before attempting to play if you wish.
No, the progressive-download technique is NOT ideal but, as you see, it is indeed a method of last resort at will at least provide some level of support for users with degraded networks. The technique will allow you to eventually download the whole file and play the video uninterrupted although it may take some time.
Yes, the ideal situation is for you to get a more-capable network connection. However, a better network connection might not be available to you; a common circumstance for our rural users. If so, the progressive download technique will at least provide a workable method for viewing our videos.