This past Friday a total solar eclipse graced Norway and the Faroe Islands, with a partial eclipse visible to other parts of Europe. We were not able to see it here in Panama, but we have been having our own excitement.
It seems that twice a year, at the equinoxes, when the sun is directly over the equator (and the only reason it’s not too hot to live is the stiff breeze off the Pacific), certain of the geo-satellites which relay wifi signals line up with the sun. These tiny man-made eclipse-wannabe events result in, among other things, calming messages to excited CableOnda (one of our local Panamanian cable companies) subscribers that solar interference will very likely interrupt signals “several minutes to several hours a day” between March 13- 20 in their areas of coverage.
This is an aspect of living in the tropics I had not considered.
CableOnda’s explanation is that solar interference is a naturally occurring phenomenon which happens twice a year around the equinoxes in March and September. Permit me to paraphrase the CableOnda official statement: When the sun crosses and aligns with the satellite and antenna beam of the CableOnda earth station, Houston, we have a problem.
At the equinoxes, around March 21 and September 21 of every year, the sun is directly over the earth’s equator. GEO satellites orbit over the equator. Thus, for about a week before and after the equinoxes, the sun lines up almost exactly with any given GEO satellite once a day for users living at the equator. For subscribers in the northern hemisphere, the same thing happens for a couple of weeks before March 21 and after September 21. In the southern hemisphere, the effect is observed just after March 21 and before September 21. Unless the satellite downlink signal is exceptionally strong, RF noise from the sun overpowers it, and reception is degraded or interrupted. After a few minutes, the sun’s course across the sky takes it past the satellite, and normal reception resumes.
Solar fade never occurs more than once a day for any GEO satellite, and presents a problem for only a few days out of the year. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to satellite system users. It is important to realize that solar fade is not caused by a malfunction in system hardware or programming.
So everybody gets interfered with, one way or another. However, my personal experience is that we wireless users in the tropics enjoy some kind of interference all year. There is, unsurprisingly, less interference if you are hard-wired and have your own router than if you have to rely on the elderly, outdated, portable wireless routers (both sticks and pebbles) the wireless purveyors here sell. Unfortunately, in many areas the choice is between using a “pebble” or a USB “thunderstick,” and no internet at all, because hard-wiring is not available everywhere. (New rhyme, just for down here: “Sticks and stones will grind my bones, besides which I prob’ly can’t use my phones. “)
Possibly much of my own problem with reception (which is now far more satisfactory since I hard-wired) has as much to do with the electrical grid as anything else. I have a UPS (Uninteruptible Power Supply) back-up on my computers now, and I hear the thing clicking on and off several times a day, every day. If I were running a desktop machine without it, I would be treated to a personal eclipse and the “blue screen of death” — well actually, more likely, I would see “the black screen of the powerless”– every time that happened. Way to teach you to save your work frequently, hey? Fortunately for me, I have my own little array of laptops (with batteries) as well as the UPS.
My personal recommendation re hard-wired internet in the tropics is a resounding “DO IT!” if you can. Installation was $12, my tech knew his stuff, tech support has been terrific, reliable and fast, and the results I see on my computer screen are most satisfactory. Not to mention that it only costs $10 a month more than the horrible service I got from the stick and the stone I used before. Well worth it. No contest.
Not even when the satellite and the sun play a game of eclipse.