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November 8, 1998

Heavy DirecPC users discover a downside to downloading

By Timothy C. Barmann

Something strange started happening late last year to some subscribers of DirecPC, the Internet service that uses a satellite to provide speedy Internet access.

Some customers noticed that while they were downloading large files from the Internet, their transfers would suddenly slow to a crawl.

It didn't make much sense, especially since many had had mostly positive experiences with DirecPC, a unique service offered by Hughes Electronics. The service beams Web pages from a satellite to an oval-shaped, pizza-sized dish connected to each subscriber's computer.

Satellites can transmit data much faster than a traditional telephone line and modem and Hughes says its service is at least 8 times faster than the speediest modems. The equipment costs about $200 after rebates, and the service is priced from $29.99 a month for 25 hours to $129.99 a month for 200 hours.

Jamie Town, a DirecPC subscriber, said everything worked pretty well for a year or so after he installed the satellite on his San Luis Obispo, Calif., home. There were a few glitches, but overall, the service was fairly stable. And it was fast.

After Town had the dish for a while, he wanted to see just how fast it would go. He downloaded two huge 100-megabyte files in a fraction of the time it would have taken him with his modem. "I was amazed," he wrote on his Web site. "It worked even better than advertised."

Then the trouble started. Last spring, he was downloading a large movie clip when his DirecPC system slowed to a trickle.

After a number E-mail messages back and forth with DirecPC's technical support staff, Town learned what the problem was: he had been "FAPed."

FAP is an acronym for a set of rules that Hughes has adopted for its service, which it calls its "Fair Access Policy."

The policy puts limits on the amount of data that each subscriber is allowed to download at DirecPC's optimum speed. It states that when a customer exceeds a certain limit, his connection may slow down temporarily. Hughes says the limit is calculated by a pattern of usage and keeps secret how much downloading it takes to reach the download limit.

The policy has inflamed lots of DirecPC users who bought the service expressly because they needed DirecPC's high-speed capabilities to download large files. At top speed, a 10-megabyte file, which might be a software update or the latest version of a browser, can be downloaded in about 3 minutes with DirecPC, compared to about 26 minutes using a 56 Kbps modem.

Enforcement of the policy became widespread enough that subscribers began to refer to the FAP as a verb, as in, "I got FAPed last night."

In July, several disgruntled customers filed a suit against Hughes in the circuit court for Montgomery County, Md. Hughes is based in Germantown, Md. The attorney who filed the suit, Brian Hufford, of the New York firm Pomerantz, Haudek, Block, Grossman and Gross, said he is waiting to hear whether the court will consider it a class-action suit. Hughes has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, and Hufford said he has until mid-December to respond to that motion.

According to the suit, Hughes misled customers by not telling them up front about the download limitations. "These limitations conflict with the core reasons subscribers purchased the service, and the express basis on which Hughes marketed it," the suit says. (The policy is posted on the DirecPC Web site, but you have to hunt for it to find it.)

Some customers who have been FAPed say their download speeds are sometimes even slower than what they would be if they were using a regular phone line.

The suit claims that Hughes has oversold the DirecPC service and has found itself trying to find ways of making up for the shortfall of resources or "bandwidth" on its satellite. That's a similar argument made against America Online in a national class-action suit that arose from AOL's busy signal troubles. AOL settled that suit.

Hughes says bandwidth is not the problem. "That's never been an issue," said Fritz Stolzenbach senior marketing manager for DirecPC. "It's a matter of protecting resources."

Hughes says it had to put the fair access policy into effect because a small number of customers were abusing the service.

"We literally had 1 or 2 percent of our users abusing their privileges or rights as DirecPC subscribers, threatening the integrity of the service for the rest of our subscribers," Stolzenbach said.

Some were reselling the DirecPC service, acting as Internet service providers themselves. "We had folks... downloading every single newsgroup, burning CDs of music, images and so forth," he said.

Those who just surf the Web or just occasionally download a large file are not affected, he said.

The complaints are coming from an "extremely small" community of users, he said. The policy doesn't affect the vast majority of customers and most recognize it's there to protect them.

Some customers don't see it that way. Subscribers like Town say they pay a premium price and expect a premium service.

Town said in an E-mail interview that he's 26, and he works as a system administrator for a small environmental-testing laboratory.

He uses the DirecPC service for entertainment, rather than for work. Town said he can download about 30 megabytes to 35 megabytes at a time until the FAP kicks in, a limit that is about half of what it used to be. Often the files he grabs are movie trailers that are huge files, sometimes about 120 megabytes. He ends up using his regular modem to download these files.

He compared buying the DirecPC system to buying a luxury car, such as a BMW. "It's an expensive toy," he said.

"Nobody needs that kind of car, but it's sure nice to have one. And, once you've made that kind of commitment, you darn well expect it to perform better than a Ford Escort."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.