[SPEED] How Fast Is Satellite Internet?
If you live in a rural or remote area, your Internet access options are limited. DSL, fiber and cable internet service are not available in many thinly-populated areas. Forget about 5G and even 4G 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 30 Mbps. 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 most satellite Internet services are about 22,230 miles above the Earth. So your actual data path is four times that, or over 89,000 miles. Here's why: A request for a web page is sent from your computer to a satellite out in space. The satellite contacts the provider's Network Operations Center (NOC) which requests the specific web page you have requested. The NOC then sends that data to the satellite, which sends it to your computer. So there are four transmissions from or to the satellite.
Even at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) each request takes almost half a second (500 ms) to travel along that 89,200 mile path. 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
For many years in the United States, there have been just two primary satellite Internet access providers: HughesNet and ViaSat (formerly known as Exede). Other competitors such as WildBlue, EarthLink, Exede and Dish Network have either been purchased or discontinued. There are some small regional satellite internet providers, but HughesNet and ViaSat are the two whales in the fish tank.
HughesNet, for example, offers satellite internet at "up to 25Mbps" with a 15GB data cap for $45 monthly. Other options include the 30GB plan ($55/month), 45GB plan ($90/month), and the 75GB plan ($140/month). HughesNet offers free installation, but charges $10/month to lease the satellite equipment. You do have the option to purchase the equipment for a one-time fee of $400.
HughesNet has some data-saving features to help you stay within your monthly cap. It automatically compresses and optimizes web content, and lowers data rates for streaming video to 480p (DVD quality). If you do exceed your monthly data cap, you won't be cut off from the Internet. Instead, data speeds are reduced from your promised "up to 25 Mbps" to "1-3 Mbps" until the start of your next billing period. But if you're a night-owl, you can take advantage of the "Bonus Zone" which offers 50 GB/month of additional data to use during off-peak hours (2am-8am).
ViaSat takes a similar approach, but with slower speeds for home users. Their low-end "Bronze 12" package ($65/month) gives you 12 Mbps download speeds with a 40GB data cap, and DVD-resolution (480p) video streaming. There's a "Silver 25" offering ($85/month) which gets you 25 Mbps download speeds with a 60GB data cap. The "Gold 50" package bumps you up to 30 Mbps and 100GB of data. If you want download speeds faster than 30 Mbps, Viasat offers business plans with speeds up to 35Mbps, starting at $175/month. They also mention a plan that offers speeds of 100 Mbps, but I could not find pricing for that on their website.
Here's what you need to know about Viasat data caps. In theory, you have "unlimited" data, but if you exceed the threshold for your plan, Viasat says "we may prioritize your data behind other customers during network congestion, which will result in slower speeds." If the network is not congested, your service speeds will not be affected even if you have exceeded your monthly data cap.
Starlink is relatively new option that is providing stiff competition to the current players. Starlink is a SpaceX company that provides broadband satellite Internet access to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Starlink satellites have a much lower orbit (about 340 miles up) so it can provide higher speeds and lower latency than HughesNet or ViaSat. Typical download speeds will vary from 50 to 250 Mbps, but that comes with a higher price tag as well. Service starts at $110/month.
The folks at SatelliteInternet.com published an extensive study on satellite internet options for 2022. They've rated the HughesNet, ViaSat and Starlink satellite internet service options, with detailed “pros” and “cons” based on pricing, download speeds, technology, and customer service. The "Satellite internet: Fact vs. fiction" section of the report has some interesting data points as well.
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 23 Jun 2022
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- [SPEED] How Fast Is Satellite Internet? (Posted: 23 Jun 2022)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved