Is Satellite Internet a Good Choice?
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.)
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 Reviews.com 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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 6 Mar 2018
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