Satellite Internet - A Good Choice?

Category: Networking

If you live in a rural area, your Internet access options may be 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 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 15 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.
Satellite Internet Service

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 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 four primary satellite Internet access providers: HughesNet Satellite Internet, WildBlue Satellite Internet Service, Dish Network, and StarBand Satellite Internet Service. Each has a network of dealers who help customers with installation and customer service.

Pricing amongst these providers doesn't vary a lot. HughesNet, for example, offers satellite internet at "Up to 10Mbps" with a 20GB data cap for $50 monthly. Moving up to 15Mbps with a 40GB data cap doubles the price to $100 a month. Most satellite ISPs also charge $150 - $200 for installation, and give you the option to purchase or lease the equipment.

Portable satellite Internet receivers are also available, but they provide much lower speeds and cost thousands of dollars. Typically, only well-funded expeditions to the world's remotest regions use portable satellite Internet. However, you can rent mobile satellite internet equipment for short timespans at a more reasonable cost. Inmarsat offers packages starting at $45 per week that allow you to get online from almost anywhere on earth, but speeds tend to be only around 400Kbps.

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 "Satellite Internet - A Good Choice?"

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Posted by:

03 Oct 2012

I have been using Clearwire internet service for about 1 year. They suck. All speeds are slow, really slow. Their service sucks. Whenever you call them they only tell you to "move your modem to another location." Their biggest problem is that there re trees between me and their towers. Duh - I live in Oregon. We have a lot of trees. I do not recommend their service to anyone.

Posted by:

Arnold Christensen
03 Oct 2012

We lived full time in a large motorhome travelling all around the country. Email...not internet surfing was via hooking up the modem to a cellphone. We are talking 9600 -14400 baud back then. Ugh! If a campground allowed the use on 1 specific phone line then you might pay a lot of money and only get minutes to use it. Then we found The Datastorm System which was mounted on the roof of the motorhome and the system raised the dish up and rotated it and when it found the assigned satellite we generally hooked up at 400 Kbps and when you are used to 9600 baud and only get your email if your cellphone was close to a slow tower 400Kbps any time or place you want...well it was just slicker than that owl stuff! The equipment was expensive but for a fixed location could be much cheaper. The service is expensive...perhaps less so now for more speed...times have changed in the last 10 yrs for the better.

If you live out there in the middle of no place and want to surf the internet, then probably satellite service is for you if you can afford it. If you cannot afford the price for satellite then you have to put up with dial up or....move closer to a city/town where there is cable

I enjoy your newsletters my friend.

Posted by:

Ken Reynolds
03 Oct 2012

We have WildBlue satellite for the exact reasons above, and the service is as stated. Heavy rain, thunderstorms, or snow drop the speed, or sometimes we don't get a signal. Bandwidth is also a problem - we had to upgrade to business service so my sons could take on-line courses. Video usage is a "no-no" except on exceptions. But it is better than having no internet service or dial-up.

Posted by:

Rick Lanier
03 Oct 2012

We have had satellite internet since 2007. We are very rural, so dial-up was our only other option. Dish Network partnered with Wildblue and we jumped on board. By the way, Wildblue is now being "upgraded" to Exede. Satellite internet is just about as reliable as satellite TV which we also have. Thunderstorms here in Florida sometimes knock out both internet and TV for a while. Our daughter is in college in Scotland now and we Skype regularly with her. The latency is barely noticeable. We are very satisfied with our satellite internet and TV so far. Looking back to my first modem, a 2400 baud, this is a fantastic leap forward.

Posted by:

03 Oct 2012

I live in a fairly remote area and don't have a land-line 'phone or cellphone coverage. All our comm's are by satellite internet. We use Skype for 'phone calls.

Latency is quite a problem as it varies between 800ms and 1600ms. Rain-fade is rarely a problem, but does happen. We can expect to lose our link at least once a day, but the cause of this may well be due to the number of subscribers. We notice that the upload/download speeds are influenced by the time of day (number of subscribers).

Our downloads are supposed to be 3mb and uploads 1mb. When using Skype, we can usually hear the callers OK, but they have problems hearing us. Video is usually pixelated. This is most probably due to the reduced upload speeds.

Posted by:

03 Oct 2012

I tried Starband several years ago. the installer could not make it work then left me to call for tech support.. He then said it was my computer I had a compaq back then.. He said I needed to put an ethernet card in.. He installed one for me. Still could not get it to work. When I called the company they refused to stand by the product.. this was around the time the world trade center went down I went back to dialup . recently I got the 3g from alltel and am very pleased with the service just costs an arm and leg. 66.91 a month..

Posted by:

03 Oct 2012

You have accurately described the pros and cons of satellite service, which we have. It is definitely better than dial up but no competitor for DSL or cable. The one trouble you didn't mention is snow (which can pack the dish) or sleet (which can coat the dish and, like snow, drop the signal strength to 0.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2012

Updated my wife's Garmin GPS and the size of the download kicked us into the speed-limited, data cap BS. But they don't give you credit when the speed slows to a crawl (usually) or drops out completely (almost every time there's a rain storm anywhere nearby). Only option for rural use but I wish we could move, it sucks so bad. (WildBlue)

Posted by:

David Lemley
04 Oct 2012

I've used Hughesnet for about 4 years now and their claimed download speeds are greatly exagerated. With the exception of three to four hours daily (3-7AM), my downloads are not much better than dial-up.
I am about to switch to the new Exede service.I've talked to a local installer who claims they are much faster.Just going to have to hope and pray for the best. Right now it takes forever to download a photo, and watching a video is impossible.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2012

I had the sad experience, of being a Hughesnet customer, for about eight years. The most aggravating issue, was the customer service, handled from Pakistan. All they knew to do, was read from a list, so no one would truly listen to your problem, nor would anything get resolved.
The second problem, was the large swings in download speeds, the reasons having to do with peak usage times. Sadly, that coincided with coming home from work (about 5:30 PM). Of course, over the years, interactive websites and video downloads became more prevalent and therefore added to the bandwidth usage. So did the Microsoft updates, pushing me closer to the dreaded FAP ( fair access policy ). Even upgrading to the highest consumer level available, soon didn't matter and the FAP was reached. Now, they don't just throttle you back, mind you. Once you are under FAP, download speed is reduced to less than dial up, way below 55k.
They then came up with allowing one to purchase "get out of FAP" tokens at $10 a pop, usually I would be forced to get 2 a month, that would bring the bill to around $120.
When calling for assistance, I was told to turn my internet off, to safe money and bandwidth! Really?? When I wanted to know, if there would be any other options, or service level I could pick, willing to pay a little more, I was advised, that I was actually getting more, due to being grandfathered under "the old" plan. None of their new plans, would give me over 20GB. As far as speed is concerned, I never ever got "up to" 15 Mbps, ever!
They may have different plans or better customer service now, I don't know. My experience was dismal and we parted ways 2 years ago. Now have a Verizon MiFi, don't get 4G out here in Upstate New York, but 3G does work. Customer service is exceptional and in clear English. Still not cable class and speed, but better than dial up, sadly the only solution available to Rural inhabitants.

Posted by:

Margaret Philp
04 Oct 2012

I'm at present on holiday on a little island 600k off the Oz coast where satellite broadband is the only option. From an article in the local news sheet the other problem apart from those you've mentioned is that one is at the mercy of the provider - and if their installation job is less than terrific bad luck. Caveat emptor if you do have a choice. I've found it a bit slow and unreliable - took several tries to get into this site for instance, so very difficult if you really rely on it.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2012

My sister lived in Spain, relied on Satallite for football on TV. The spanish watching in a nearby bar, were cheering a goal Before she knew that an attempt was being made !!!!!

Posted by:

computer repair services
04 Oct 2012

Satellite Internet is moderately fast; consumer data plans range up to 15 Mbps. so i m Love it keep up the good work HughesNet.

Posted by:

02 Nov 2012

I had HughesNet for several years before a trickle of DSL finally leaked into our neighborhood. Latency was VERY noticeable, and I wasn't doing anything but trying to download print articles for school. Forget about anything like video or VoIP.

I live in the upper Great Plains. Weather drops in service were frequent and significant. Since I had the option on "snow days" of working from home rather than be part of the traffic problem, internet access was critical. service anytime the clouds moved in. Also, Hughes' firewalls would not allow me to access my company's system via VPN. I tried to work through customer service, and all I could get was the trained chimp named "Robbie" (spelled "Ravi" :)) who read from a screen "we don't support VPN." No attempt to understand I didn't want to SET UP a VPN, I just wanted access someone else's.

With I am saving money and actually staying connected. Although I only have 1.5 Mbps available, it still outruns anything I ever got from Hughes satellite.

Know anyone who'd like to buy a used dish and modem? :)

Posted by:

03 Nov 2012

We live in a rural area, no phone service, no TV reception, limited radio reception, nearest cell service is 300 yards away (Hey, with ATT we had to drive 5 miles to get cell service). We got Exede (Wildblue's new service) in March of 2012 and have been relatively happy with it. We tend to get 12 Mbps when I measure it. Once even got 30 Mbps, but have also gotten 4 Mbps.

The service does drop more than DSL (which we have used when we lived elsewhere), but not all that often. We don't find that rain, which we get a lot (Yea!), bothers the signal. It is definitely nice to be able to access the Internet on a daily basis and to be able to stream radio shows without any issue. (Listening to BBC right now.) Exede also expanded the amount of data you could use in a month from 7.5 GB to 10 GB (plus you can buy more) and it works for us.

Posted by:

steve mcalister
04 Nov 2012

Thanks for all the comments - we live about 4 miles from downtown, but no DSL or cable here. Our AT&T cellphone coverage has degraded over the past few months so we cannot even make calls inside the house (apparently AT&T is disabling some 3G towers and thinks that their 4G coverage is much better than it really is). But we use a LOT of data, and use VoIP, so I've been hesitant to try satellite. I was a beta tester for Hughes a VERY long time ago (they wanted someone to try the service using Windows 3.1!) but at that time, you used dialup for the uplink. Right now, our only alternative is our dedicated T1, costing around $500/mo. Sucks, but no alternative so far, and our businesses depend on good Internet service (although the Earthlink/Covad product hasn't proven to be all that reliable, to be frank). Seems to me that the administration said back in 2008 that the were going to "bring affordable broadband to rural America" - just another forgotten promise!

Posted by:

04 Nov 2012

Have Hughesnet for over 1.5 years. With the new Gen4 satellite that was just lanched, our speeds are picking up, think they will get a little faster as other customers in the lower 48 states go to the faster satellite(Gen4)& get off the satellite that we're all on. I live in 'bush' Alaska, Hughesnet has been good, faster than Starband & faster than our local DSL(DSL-only a little faster than Dail-up) Able to watch videos, now. Will also have to say, 'Keep up the good work Hughesnet!'

Posted by:

JR Dieckmann
05 Nov 2012

I was with EarthLink DSL but tired of Indian techs, email account blocking, and wanted faster speed. I switched to DSL Extreme's 7.1 Mbps – the worst experience I’ve had in my life. Only got 1.4 Mbps and the connection kept dropping out.

After two weeks of repeated calls to tech support – most of which were ignored or useless – I found out that my local phone carrier, Verizon, could not carry the speed. DSL Extreme’s website had assured me that the 7.1 speed was available in my area, it wasn’t. I cancelled the service contract. The company tried to charge me $231.00 for early cancellation which I refused to pay, and with good reason. They sent the account to a collection agency. I responded to the agency with the facts that DSL Extreme had violated the terms of the contract by not providing the service contracted for, and for false advertising on their website, not to mention being ignored by their tech support. I've not heard back from them. DON’T EVER SIGN UP WITH DSL EXTREME!

Then I heard about Wildblue/Exede Satellite Internet and called them, they installed it 2 business days later. I ordered the top speed advertised as 12 Mbps and found in speed tests that it far exceeded the advertised speed and measured at 15 to 20 Mbps depending on what speed test I used. Some of them wouldn’t even work at that speed but I found a couple that did, including PC Pitstop.

I initially ordered the 7 Gb/Mo. usage plan package for $49.99/Mo. but eventually had to upgrade all the way to the top 25 Gb/Mo. for my video usage at a cost of $129.99/Mo. It is well worth the price and I have had no problems with it. We don’t get a lot of rain here in So. California so “rain fade” is not a problem here. Their customer tech support is excellent, fast (little or no waiting) and knowledgeable, and no Indians.

Just one more thing: Wildblue/Exede does not use the satellite for the uplink. Instead it uses the 4G cellphone system which is much faster for sending data to the server. PC Pitstop Bandwidth Test came in at Ping: 765ms, Upload: 1.85Mbps, Download: 21.58Mbps. I highly recommend Wildblue/Exede if your bandwidth usage is moderate or you can afford the higher usage fee.

Posted by:

Walter Boomsma
12 Nov 2012

I think the article is a reasonably accurate assessment... I've been with Hughes for about 4 years, after dial up became intolerable. There truly is no other option for me, although it might be time to look into a 3G mobile hotspot.

I'm not a big video user so the cap has not been a problem, other than when I tried to update my Garmin GPS. Hughes actually has been making some improvements, including allowing some banking against the cap.
Their weakest areas continue to be customer service and communication. I've had a few good tech support experiences and some horrid ones. (Including spending an hour plus with a teach only to be told "Oh, our engineers have been doing some things in your area that is causing the problem."
Most of the rhetoric we are hearing from the politicians and economic development types is just that: rhetoric. Well, there's more than rhetoric. There's a huge waste of money involved as well.
Personally, my hope is that the cell phone companies continue to take advantage of this opportunity and expand their product line. Cell service HAS improved dramatically in this area, because the companies see an opportunity--not because the government is helping us.

Posted by:

31 Oct 2014

We had Hughes net then upgraded to Hughes Gen4. After the upgrade Optimize 3 would no longer work. Upgraded to PC Matic, it would not work, ping time too long. Received a full refund for the upgrade (not the remainder of Op-3) We can no longer use PC Pitstop products.

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