[SPEED] Is Satellite Internet Fast Enough?

Category: Networking

If you live in a rural or remote area, your Internet access options are limited. Cable internet service is 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 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. 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

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, Exede 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. Other options include the 20GB plan ($60/month), 30GB plan ($90/month), and the 50GB 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 ($50/month) gives you 12 Mbps download speeds with a 40GB data cap, and DVD-resolution (480p) video streaming. There's a "Silver 25" offering ($70/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.

The folks at SatelliteInternet.com published an extensive study on satellite internet options for 2020. 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. The "Satellite internet: Fact vs. fiction" section of the report has some interesting data points as well.

Starlink is another option that may soon provide stiff competition to the current players. It's currently being constructed by SpaceX to provide broadband satellite Internet access to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Service is expected to begin in the Northern United States and Canada by late 2020.

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] Is Satellite Internet Fast Enough?"

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

I wish I knew how to stop autoplay on websites as this really slows things down when you are on satellite internet.
I have tried a few things but cannot seem to stop them all.
I have not been able to figure out how to stop them playing via about:config as the list does not make sense to me.
Bob or anyone .. got any ideas for me to get my Dad all set up?

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

When I moved to my current location,I was informed of a wireless terrestrial ISP in operation in my area.

Instead of using TV cable or DSL,a small antenna is installed on the roof and you receive service from a number of private tower sites.The system operates in the 5.8 GHz band and is not affected by rain.The ISP only provides internet service.There is no TV,telephone or e-mail options offered,you have to look for those yourself.The service at its basic runs $30 a month.Latency is very good,so voice service is optimal.

After reading about the limitations of satellite,I am glad I have my current provider.

Posted by:

Ken H
03 Aug 2020

The phone company first oversold the ADSL out here, then refused to upgrade. At the same time they harassed us to get rid of our land line with no assurance of any reliable cellular service.Finally as it got worse and worse I switched back to satellite (I had tried it in the past when streaming wasn't such a big deal and it wasn't too bad, just too expensive.)

Satellite internet sucks. I have had Wild Blue, Hughes net and what Wild Blue became (slips my mind.) ADSL is way better even at it's worst (and I have sampled the worst out here in the sticks.)

At best you MIGHT be able to stream a few shows a month before you hit your limit. Towards the end I wasn't able to stream ANY! Even when I paid extra for more bandwidth (tokens) still nothing. I was subscribed for 25GBPS and supposedly when throttled it would be 0.5MBPS (sufficient [barely] to steam SD with DSL [not so with satellite.])

Finally our phone company has deigned to bring us 10MBPS and has actually delivered that, fairly reliably. I stream regularly, as much as I wish. It does go down now and again, but not for long.

Is satellite better than dial-up? I suppose if you don't mind the price increase, but waiting for anything to buffer is nearly as frustrating.

Posted by:

Henry Peck
03 Aug 2020

Switch to Firefox. The default is not to allow autoplay.

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

We have had both Dish and now for the past several years Via-Sat with Internet phone. We live in a rural area of Arkansas that is now installing fiber cable through our electric company. This has been so long awaited for! I have really hated having satellite, but we didn't have a choice. I work from home and there have been many days that because of weather I would lose time because I didn't have access. When we first moved here, we had a landline but that was always going down when it rained, so we switched to satellite. Our new broadband should be installed this coming Fall. Not soon enough for me, but it is coming.

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

Check out the soon to be available Starlink, 1Gbit system from SpaceX, with 20ms latency. Currently in beta, for the northern latitudes above Seattle.

They are thinking $80/month + a $300 moden/dish. Just point it at the sky and viola

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

As was said by Bob, in some areas where there is no broadband, satellite Internet is your only real choice. But low earth orbit satellite Internet is being researched and deployed. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_internet_constellation for more details.

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

I live in a very rural area, but still have cell service. After testing every available solution, I found that my cell phone hotspot works just as well, if not better than all others and cheaper. The better solution is a business hotspot if your provider offers it or if it's available through your employer.

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

I agree with everything in your article. I have HughesNet because I live in rural NH, and, when I called Comcast, was told I was 32 "blocks" away from the closest connection. If I wanted it I would have to pay $1,700 per mile!! Generally I am very satisfied with HughesNet. It seems to work fine binging Netflix and HBO+, though it was terrible with SHO streaming, and there is definitely a latency lag on my Zoom calls. Best choice I have for where I live.

Posted by:

03 Aug 2020

We have a line of pine trees between house and transmission tower, good signal when dry, when trees are wet from rain virtually no signal, tree acts as a faraday cage when wet stopping signals.

Posted by:

Michael Weber
04 Aug 2020

Thanks, great article. I have seen full time traveller mainly with bus conversions using satellite internet. I remember Motorola has been offering years back a satellite dish which had a self adjusting mechanism but I guess you still need a provider. Living in a boating state, I know that Inmarsat is common on yachts.

Posted by:

04 Aug 2020

Wildblue went to Exede which went to Viasat. We have been using Viasat (Exede) for 7 or 8 years now because Hughes sounded worse and there is NOTHING else (no cell signal, no landlines, etc.).

What I find the worst about it is the data cap. We have one of the Liberty plans (old one?) with only 12 GB a month (about 400 MB a day). We try to avoid streaming ANY video, until the cap runs out, but video is getting very common. Go to a shopping or news site, you get a video.

When our cap runs out, we can be slowed to 1 to 5 mbps, which tends to work. I wonder how slow the connections are for the plans Bob mentions when the cap is exceeded.

Looking forward to seeing how Starlink fares.

Posted by:

04 Aug 2020

We have had satellite for 15 years, ever since we moved out to a remote place where the previous owner said she had DSL - she didn't. We also saw Comcast coming out to about a mile away. I and neighbors were willing to pay for further extension, but Comcast was not interested.

We have alternated between Hughes and Wild Blue/Exede/Viasat, depending on which got a higher speed satellite system. We are currently on Viasat because Hughes service was poor. Bandwidth is the biggest concern, but latency precludes communication with others, and speed does not work well with videos. We do not even try streaming.

I'd be happy to try a real connection, but maybe Starlink will help.

Posted by:

05 Aug 2020

Thank you for what I was just too lazy to look up myself. Prices do not seem that far off from what smartphones carriers and ISPs charge.
It must be 'cool' to know that the web-data you are staring at on your screen just did 2 round-trips to space; in the time that it takes you to finish sneezing!

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