Is Satellite Internet a Good Choice?

Category: Networking

If you live in a rural area, your Internet access options are limited. DSL and cable internet service are not available in many thinly-populated areas. Forget about 4G and even 3G cellular access. For many rural residents, Internet access boils down to a choice between miserably slow dial-up and satellite Internet access. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of satellite internet service...

How Does Satellite Internet Service Work?

Satellite Internet is a wireless communications technology. At the user’s end, a satellite modem is connected to a dish antenna. Signals are transmitted between the user’s dish and a satellite relay station up in the sky. The satellite relays data to the ISP (Internet Service Provider) dish back on the ground; from the ISP’s hub, Internet traffic is carried via traditional terrestrial cables. There are pros and cons to satellite Internet.

On the plus side, satellite Internet can reach remote areas where no other type of Internet access can go. Satellite Internet is moderately fast; consumer data plans range up to 25 Mbps. (For comparison, see my related article What is The Fastest Internet Connection?) But there are limitations on the quality of satellite Internet.

The biggest is latency – the delay between sending a data packet and getting a reply. Latency can be a problem for interactive applications such as VoIP (internet calling), video chat, and online gaming. Streaming video may stutter due to buffering delays. Latency is higher in satellite Internet systems because the data signal must travel tens of thousands of miles to the satellite, down to the ground, and then back the same route again. (Satellites communicate via microwave radio signals, which travel at the speed of light.)

satellite internet options

The geostationary communication satellites that are used for satellite Internet service are about 22,230 miles above the Earth. So your actual data path is four times that, or over 89,000 miles. So even at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) that round-trip transmission takes almost half a second (500 ms). That's a noticeable span when doing anything in "real time" such as playing a game, or having a voice conversation. This half-second satellite latency is imposed by the speed of light, but additional network latency can add to the problem of slow or stuttering performance.

Other Factors That Affect Satellite Internet

Weather can adversely affect satellite Internet, or knock it out entirely. When it’s raining, the microwave radio signals between ground and satellite are diffused and weakened, in what is called “rain fade.” Snowfall or dust storms can have similar effects. Even trees can affect reception of satellite Internet signals.

The positioning of your satellite dish is critical to good Internet reception. If your dish gets knocked out of alignment, speed will decrease or you may lose Internet access all together. It may take a visit from a service technician to get the dish aligned properly again.

Data caps are another potential drawback of satellite Internet. A satellite transponder’s bandwidth is limited, and it’s shared among many users on the ground. Bandwidth hogs who download excessive gigabytes of data during a billing period may be punished by overage charges, or by having their download speeds drastically reduced. The speed limit remains in effect until the next billing period starts.

Similar to a cable Internet connection, bandwidth is shared in a pool of customers. So the actual upload and download speeds you experience on a satellite Internet connection will vary based on the number of people using the service at a given time. During peak hours, you can expect slower service.

Satellite Internet Service Providers

In the United States, there are just two primary satellite Internet access providers: HughesNet and ViaSat (formerly known as Exede). Other competitors such as WildBlue, EarthLink and Dish Network have either been purchased or discontinued. There are some small regional satellite internet providers, but HughesNet and ViaSat are the only remaining choices for nationwide service in the U.S.

Pricing between these providers doesn't vary a lot. HughesNet, for example, offers satellite internet at "Up to 25Mbps" with a 10GB data cap for $50 monthly. Moving up to a 30GB data cap doubles the price to $80 a month. HughesNet offers free installation, but charges $10/month to lease the satellite equipment.

ViaSat takes a different approach, focusing on "unlimited" data, but generally slower speeds. Their low-end "UNLIMITED BRONZE 12" package gives you 12 Mbps download speed with no data cap, low-resolution (360p) video streaming, but WiFi is not available. There's an "UNLIMITED SILVER 25 + WIFI" offering ($70/month) which gets you 25 Mbps downloading and WiFi. The "UNLIMITED GOLD 30 + WIFI" package bumps you up to 30 Mbps with WiFi and HD-quality video streaming. And of course, there are limits on your unlimited data. ViaSat says "On the Unlimited Bronze, Silver, and Gold service plans, after 40, 60, or 100 GB of data usage, respectively, we may prioritize your data behind other customers during network congestion." If this is anything like the mobile phone arena, the word "prioritize" means "drastically throttle."

The folks at recently completed an extensive study on “The Best Satellite Internet”. They've rated the HughesNet and ViaSat satellite internet service options, with detailed “pros” and “cons” based on pricing, download speeds, technology, and customer service.

Portable satellite Internet receivers are also available, but they provide much lower speeds and cost much more. Typically, only military, commercial maritime, or well-funded expeditions to the world's remotest regions use portable satellite Internet. However, you can rent mobile satellite internet equipment for short time spans at a more reasonable cost. Inmarsat offers packages that allow you to get online from almost anywhere on earth, but speeds tend to be only around 256Kbps.

Satellite Internet beats dial-up, without question. If it’s the only high-speed option available to you, it’s worth the investment. Just don’t expect the same reliability and performance that you get in more populated areas where DSL, cable and fiber optic Internet connections are available.

Do you have satellite internet service? Tell me about your experience. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Satellite Internet a Good Choice?"

Posted by:

Ralph C
06 Mar 2018

I used to have satellite internet here in rural Quebec. If I downloaded an MP3 file of say, 8 MB, they would throttle my speed to dialup for many hours. One time I was not at home for 12 hours, all equipment was unplugged and they still throttled my speed. When I called to ask why, they said their system said I was using too much bandwidth. I told them I was finished with them and threatened to sue. Eventually we parted ways and I now have 4G via a cell tower. I would NEVER use this company again, and they continually bombard me with advertising to come back NEVER! I suppose if your only choice is dialup or satellite, then you gotta do what you gotta do.

Posted by:

Bob L
06 Mar 2018

i have lived in several parts of the country and always had cable. When i moved to a rural area satellite was the only option and choose Viasat because all my neighbors said Hughes net was terrible. I can say in all honesty that not only was Viasat terrible, but their customer service was equally as bad. My service went down in the rain, on cloudy days, and sunny days but i never received any worthwhile assistance other than reset the modem; which did nothing. For 2 years I put up with slow speeds and intermittent service. finally, I went to verizon, my cell phone carrier and got a "Cantenna" installed. i now have much faster and reliable service, for less money. I would almost rather have no internet than have satellite. When i returned my equip. at end of contract the U.P.S. person said she is constantly seeing more Hughes net equip. returns then Viasat. In conclusion, any choice is better than either of them.

Posted by:

Ev M
06 Mar 2018

We had WildBlue which became Exede which became Viasat. It wasn't all that bad -- lost it for ~12-24 hrs. about every other month & the connection was sometimes a bit slow around the early evening hrs. We had no other choice until dsl came to our area finally. Dsl is a big improvement, even dealing with our phone company & definitely less expensive, & without caps on usage. We can now watch Youtube, movies, etc. without worry, which is the biggest advantage of dsl.

Posted by:

Allen G
06 Mar 2018

Had Hughes who never told me I was limited in usage. I would be watching horse races and all of a sudden the horses would be in slow motion. After several frustrating calls someone did tell me service was cut back to a trickle after a certain point of usage. They sent the wrong box for return and never refunded money as promised. I would buy outdated magazines before ever again dealing with these shysters.

Posted by:

Dave Moran
06 Mar 2018

I had non terrestrial internet for a number of years. Hughes was limited, but the worse part was the 750ms latency (physics not they was the cause) when trying to work on a server remotely. Space X is currently testing low earth orbit satellites, that will reduce the latency, and hopefully increase the throughput and data cap.

Posted by:

Jerry Heard
06 Mar 2018

Couple years ago I ordered Exede, I ask if there was a 30 day trial period...I was told NO...2 year contract. Honestly it worked very well for me, I limited my daytime/evening usage, and used their free time, midnight-5am for downloading video. I found that this was best, but not good. T-Mobile has a 55+ plan, 2 unlimited phones for $60,same price as Exede..Hotspot with these 2 phones work good for me, T-mobile is weak in my area of N.GA and I have to have a signal booster..I was just notified I have used 50gig and it might slow down during high traffic hours..I just switch to the other phone and continue. I have had to keep my ATT cell phone service..T-mobile phone service is no good away from the 4lane highways in this area.

Posted by:

David W
06 Mar 2018

I have had satellite service from Hughes Net for about 6 years. I have had very few problems with downloads or uploads. With the new 5 G system downloads are at 25 megs per second. For anyone who is into movies, not a good choice unless you do it during the free download hours 2 am to 8 am in the Pacific Northwest.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2018

In the late 1990s we had satellite service for 12 years. Usually OK for TV. We did not have Internet back then. One problem you did not mention (I don't think) is that about 4 times each year the sun moves into a position in line with the satellite dish and solar radiation over powers the signal so all you'll see for a few minutes will be video hash and no satellite signal. Then the earth rotates so that the sun moves on and your regular signal will come back. I know of no way to overcome this problem. Weather, as you mentioned, is also a big problem sometimes.
Suffice to say we'll never go back to satellite service.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2018

Bob, MBAM just declared your site as malicious for this particular article. It was blocked supposedly yet I can still see it.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2018

Bob, Was reading a little about 'Halo-Fi' but it was very limited. Don't know about an implementation timeline or if there's any cost estimates. Might be a good subject for one of your great informative articles.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2018

We had HughesNet for a short time. The biggest problem we had was that HughesNet assigns dynamic IP addresses which may be way out of whack with reality. Our east Tennessee home was 'identified' by the IP address as being in Utah one day, then in New Jersey the next and so on. This made any location-based web site, such as totally unworkable.Since the web site never new where we really were geographically, it simply blacked us out. We upgraded to a fixed IP at Hughes' request but that didn't fix the problem either. I spent many dozens of hours on the phone with the Hughes technicians only to be told that there was no solution. This same issue also caused to have to 're-register' with many of our financial sites every few days since the sites anti-fraud software suspected we had moved.

After about two weeks of this we pulled the plug on HughesNet. I'll leave that story for another day.

Posted by:

08 Mar 2018

We have been with Viasat (Exede) for about 5 years. We live in a forest and satellite is the only option; no phone lines, no cell service, no power lines even.

Our major technical issue in that time, was actually our WiFi router. The signal was too weak and we needed an extender which I found out with the help of Exede service.

The major limitation is the data cap. We have to avoid any videos, etc. otherwise near the end of the month our speed slows down to 1 Mbs or less. We listen to NPR and BBC radio at night. Overall, though it is not too bad. Much better than driving to the library for 1 hour of internet access.

Posted by:

08 Mar 2018

Guess it's too-much to expect fiber any-time soon.
I've been waiting since 1973, when I made fiber in my basement, for FOG, and hopefully FTTH. (I have big lungs.)
For last 12 years I've been with Dishs. One for TV, one for internet. Service has been pretty good for the most part, ... until recently when Dish (internet) started enforcing data caps by introducing latency.
It's miserable now. Latency is so great I can't tell if its the network, miserable Windows 10 OS bloatware, or my PC died.

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