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Serving Online Clients in a Snowstorm – How to Survive Satellite Internet

by Victoria Gazeley

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Running a web-based business that serves other web-based businesses from a rural home can be a fairly challenging experience.  But if making a living on your homestead is your dream, you have to find a way to make it work.

Our Internet Service Story

We live in a ‘hollow’, surrounded on four sides by mountains, and with only a tiny sliver of sight-line north to the ocean.  As a result, the only internet service available is via satellite.

Now, when you live with satellite internet, you develop extreme adaptation skills out of necessity.  Just recently, I had the opportunity to put those adaptation skills to the test.

Early this particular afternoon, my business mentor contacted me with an emergency job for one of her amazing clients.  I was thrilled, and so honoured she would consider me for the job.

As I was doing a happy dance, a snowstorm hit and my ‘oh so sensitive’ internet connection crashed.  Snow has been forecast numerous times this winter, but nothing ever became of it.  Of course today, with deadlines up to my eyeballs and new opportunities landing in my lap, the snow came… right on schedule.

Now, in case you haven’t had the pleasure of subscribing to satellite internet service, let me introduce you.

It’s a VERY sensitive beast.  It turns its nose up at snow, fog, dust in the atmosphere, passing comets, solar flares, budding leaves, little fairies dancing in the trees anywhere within 100 miles… you get the picture.  It slipped in and out of consciousness all afternoon – maybe it was fainting from all the excitement of a few flakes in the air.  I really don’t know.  All I do know is that I was outside every half hour gently wiping snow from its round, featureless face, but even with all the love, it didn’t rouse.

You can imagine my state of mind.  I had clients to serve and here I had a fainting internet connection.  Awake one moment, back asleep the next.  Oh, to have someone pay me to nap like that…

A couple of years ago, this would have induced sheer panic, but I’ll tell you something – after living here for two and a half years and fuddling through many instances of weather-induced internet service snoozes, I’m becoming a little more philosophical.  No, a LOT more philosophical.

So there I was, with two client projects due and an important new one potentially in the pipe, and my internet connection is napping cozily, its connection indicator light winking at me, teasing that it might jump back into action at any moment.   Even more maddening, every once in awhile it would rouse itself just long enough for me to get one email out, then slip back into dreamland again.

Now, if I’ve learned anything in this rural living journey, it’s the need to be flexible.

Always.

And when it comes to satellite internet, there are a few more tricks you should know if you plan on working from a rural home with this notoriously weather-dependent service:

Have a Back-up System

When you live in the country and make your living online, you need back-up systems – and back up systems for the back up systems.  I have a MacBook Pro for working away from home, local cafes with wireless internet and my parents house with cable internet not too far away, and an iPhone.  It’s been suggested to me that having a card for my laptop that would plug into the cell signal would be useful – but we live in a hollow, remember… no cell service at our house.  In most cases, these tools suffice for me when the internet is down or the power out.

Bottom line? You need to have methods set up that allow you to keep functioning, at least keeping you in contact with your clients, through most ‘normal’ internet outages.  With those systems in place, and the ability to use them, you’ll keep your clients reasonably happy.  Unless of course it snows and you can’t get out of your long hilly driveway… but maybe that’s just me.

Build in a Safety Margin

Just in case your back-up system fails (and it likely will every once in awhile), ensure you’ve built in some time padding.  I’m still working on this skill, as I seem to have the magical idea that I can do five times as many things in a day than I am realistically capable of.  In this case, if I had taken into account an approaching snowstorm when I said I could get these projects completed that day, my stress level, and that of my clients, would have been reduced significantly.

Bottom line? Always assume it will take twice as long than you think.  Or three times.  Or that a squirrel will chew through your roof and create a massive leak right that you need to deal with when you need to get that newsletter out for a brand new client.

Get Your Alignment Checked

Just like your car or your bike, occasionally your satellite system will need to be checked for health.  Ensure you have your service provider do regular orientation checks.  They can do this over the phone, and it will tell you whether or not your dish needs adjusting.  My installer informed me that the whole thing can go sideways (literally) if mounted on a living tree and that tree grows, twists, or in some other way changes.  It throws the dish out of alignment, and therefore off the beam from the satellite transmitter.  Dish performance can also be compromised if trees begin to grow in the beam path – which may not even be on your property, and can lead to some interesting conversations with neighbours.

Bottom line? it’s a good idea to stay on top of your dish performance.

Maintain the Dish

Each season (more often during winter), check the dish to ensure there are no branches or leaves growing on your property that might obscure the signal.  If it’s snowing and the dish is acting up, it might just be that the snow is collecting on the dish – take a broom and give it a gentle brushing (if you can get close to it, that is).  Never touch the piece that actually transmits the signal – just the dish, itself.  That said, it’s obviously ideal to not have to touch it at all, and chances are that if it’s actively snowing, it’s the falling snow and not the accumulating snow that is causing the problem.  But it’s worth a try if you can do it without damaging your $500 hunk of metal.

The bottom line? Satellite equipment is pretty hardy, but for signals streaming through the air, anything standing in the way of a clear line to the transmission tower has the potential to cause problems with your service.  Keep an eye on those things that might impede the signal that are within your control and stay on top of maintaining them.

The Big Bottom Line

If you plan on living in a very rural area, chances are the only internet service that will be available to you will be via satellite.  If you, like me, plan on making your living from your homestead, you can increase your chances of success (and keeping your sanity), by being aware of all the potential challenges with satellite internet usage and planning to avoid them.

I’ve missed enough deadlines in my time here to now take these issues very seriously – particularly in taking weather reports into account when taking on time-sensitive projects.  Kind of a funny reasoning from a client’s perspective, I’m sure, but it’s very real.   As I mentioned above, planning buffer time in my day is not my strong suit, but with the added wild card of satellite internet, it’s critical to get that skill down pat.

Having three projects on the go and missing deadlines because it snowed is just not acceptable.

I’m just fortunate I have amazing clients.

At least I hope I still do…  Ralph?  Are you still there?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Giambri February 19, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Victoria, Great article. Loved the read. I live in a country setting here (very rural) with donkeys on one side and horses on other, and down the block chickens, goats and more. We are minutes away from the city so cable internet is available. Sometimes my hubby is out their brushing lots of snow off satellite too. As a back to basics person excited to find an edible weed others would mow or kill off. Living here in “country” setting near goats, chicks, and more but 2 minutes to city. Maybe best of both worlds? Thanks for sharing.

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Tiffany February 20, 2011 at 1:01 am

This is a great article Victoria! I really liked the ending, too cute:) I cannot live without my backup systems. I keep my Tracfone and Verizon card on hand at all times. You just never know. And of course there’s the local wifi spots, but even with those you need your own connections.

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