[SPEED] How Fast Is Satellite Internet?

Category: Networking

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.)

satellite internet options

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...

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Most recent comments on "[SPEED] How Fast Is Satellite Internet?"

Posted by:

Michael McQuown
23 Jun 2022

I used Viasat -- briefly. They totally misrepresented the cost of their services.

Posted by:

Bud Bates
23 Jun 2022

Had Viasat (Exede) for 5 years. Seems they did some realignment that took the beam away from me so it stopped working. Was paying for 25 mbps down and up to 3 Mbps Up but never really got those speeds. Data was capped at 150 GB Paid $130/month but it is for my business so I didn't have much choice.

Once it stopped working (kept ranging but never locked in after 5 years) they said the only way they could fix it was to offer less speed and lower data caps for twice the money. Said no thanks.

Posted by:

23 Jun 2022

Salutations! In other words, if your TV reception is clumsy, your internet would be even worst...

Posted by:

Ken Heikkila
23 Jun 2022

Where I live, the only option is mediocre DSL from Century Link, or Hughes Net or Via Sat. They all suck, but at least DSL makes it possible to stream content most of the time.

I'm waiting impatiently (they have pushed back the date several times so far, hoping latest "late 2022" will be a reality) for Starlink to come to my area. Our problem is we live in a forest which means more satellites are necessary to keep the speed and latency consistent. Friends a few miles away are already up and running.

The other problem is the FAA (or is it NASA?) is holding up permission to use SpaceX's best launch vehicle that can release many more satellites per launch.

Posted by:

Keith r
23 Jun 2022

I had hughesnet for about 18 months. The service was on the poor side of fair. Its ok for checking email and minor web surfing. Forget ANY streaming. If you disconnect early (before 24 months), the fee is $400 prorated downward depending on how much time is remaining on your contract.

Posted by:

23 Jun 2022

My brother-in-law is testing the SpaceX Starlink satellite connection this week. His initial speed test came up with:
Ping: 39 ms
Download: 262.60 Mbps
Upload: 17.71 Mbps
That's acceptable for a decent connection, albeit, as you pointed out, at a high price for the connection. But, if you don't have many choices, it may be the right solution.

Posted by:

23 Jun 2022

I would take DSL over satellite in a second - but even that's not available out here. I've had Exede and HughesNet - the services seemed pretty comparable when they worked, but HughesNet had a more reliable up-time. And they both sucked. The speeds were pretty decent during off-peak times before you hit your data cap, but after . . . well, they really, REALLY want you to buy more data tokens! I've had speed tests some back in the single-digit Kbps - sometimes, I can't even load a text-only webpage. At full-speeds, streaming is actually not bad - you just can't do very much of it. Supposedly, both companies have a "bonus" time overnight where your speeds are back up to max, but I have found this to not be very reliable, either.

Posted by:

23 Jun 2022

We had "StarBand" back in 2012. Slow compared to cable Internet (1.5 Mbps down / 256 Kbps up) and that only on a good day.

Switched to a Verizon Cell phone modem - better, but still not good, ~10 Mbps down, 1 mbps up. Voice is good, data as noted.

Comcast wants $65,000 to run a cable to us, and $500/month service. (Monthly charges probably negotiable, installation not.)

We've been on the StarLink waiting list for 2 years now, alone with 500,000 others. Can't hold my breath that long.

What is wrong with this country (USA) that we can't provide Internet to our citizens?

Posted by:

24 Jun 2022

During Web-Page creation, I wish the web-page programmer SW had the option to publish 2 versions automatically - the snazzy motion graphics for the Wide-Banders and stripped down pages (like early internet - Usenet Newsgroups anyone??) for those still using dial-up. You know, just the beef.

Heck, I wish I had the option to switch my super-fast, snazzy-dazzy power-browser options off and receive much of my stuff "beef only - no condiments" - but I realize that a lot of the current web design is to be click-bait, so maybe it should only be based on connection speed. At the very least, maybe they could suck the graphics down to 8-bit color for us bandwidth challenged.

Also, be careful what you wish for when asking the Govt to provide the internet service to every geo-locatable square foot in the country, because once they do that, they will expect something in return, and my guess is they will EXPECT you to be responsive on your end of all internet traffic. Then they will switch their legal delivery requirement from US Mail to email, and if you miss their email among the thousands of spam msgs, that they command you to appear at the state capitol next Tuesday otherwise they sell your house on the court-house steps. Well, you see where I'm going.....

I think the only reason they haven't switched to date is they must wait for the last "Greatest Generation-er" to pass away (most of them don't use the internet, and are still revered by many of today's generations) and then they must be able to plausibly declare that "the entire country is accessible via Internet", and then any deep-state geek with a keyboard in Washington will be able to reach out and touch you for the silliest of infractions. The only thing that will save you at that point is there are some locations that even Google Maps won't be able to find - the rest of us should be prepared for our visit from the drones.

Posted by:

24 Jun 2022

Used Viasat for years. Finally got Starlink a few months ago. So much better. It was worth the wait for me.

Posted by:

25 Jun 2022

I have had both Hughes and Viasat, Don't care for either. Waiting for Starlink - signed up two years ago and still no "real" estimated date.
Some neighbors and I saw Comcast cable put in up to about a mile from our place. We told Comcast we would be willing to fund installation the last mile. They were not interested.

Posted by:

Terry Hollett
25 Jun 2022

I know someone who recently had satellite internet, can't remember the company name but they had to give it up. Too unstable, freezing up a lot. I would not have internet or tv for that matter on a dish unless that was the only option available. And I know in some cases it is.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

Had Viasat/Excede and price kept going up as service degraded.
Got HughesNet...much better initially, then they
colluded with Microsoft and Windows 10 updates
began burning up my data allotment in an average
of 4 days after I paid my monthly payment.
It runs me $93/month for 30 Gig up/down...and
I seldom make the end of the month before I'm out
of data. I try to utilize the nightowl 50 Gig overage band when I can.
Here there is no DSL cable available from Windstream/Kinetic but my voice land line still
costs me $130/month. HughesNet doesn't do VOIP

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