[SPEED] Is Satellite Internet Getting Faster?

Category: Networking , Wireless

If you live in a rural area, your Internet access options are limited. DSL, cable and fiber 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 slightly better satellite Internet access. The latter option is showing greater promise, though. 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 start at 20 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.)

faster 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 50Mbps" with a 100GB data cap for $49 monthly, and a 200GB plan (up to 100Mbps for $65/month).

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'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. The residential Viasat Unleashed option costs $100/month and promised download speeds "up to" 25-150 Mbps. Viasat advertises unlimited data, but the small print says if you exceed 850 GBs in any 30-day period, you will have "reduced priority during times of network congestion resulting in slower speeds."

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 25 to 220 Mbps, but that comes with a higher price tag as well.

Fixed residential service starts at $90-$120 per month with a one-time $599 equipment fee. The Roam option $150/month for mobile users is a good option for RVers, campers, and travelers. Business plans offer faster download speeds at eye-watering prices ranging from $250 to $5000/month. Starlink service is available in most of North America and Europe. See the Starlink coverage map.

Of special interest is Starlink's Direct-to-Cell project, that works with existing LTE smartphones. No extra hardware or special apps are required for text, voice, and data. Initially, only texting will be offered via Direct-to-Cell, with voice and data rolling out in 2025.

Other 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.

The folks at SatelliteInternet.com published an extensive study on satellite internet options for 2024. 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.

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 Getting Faster?"

Posted by:

Ken H
05 Mar 2024

I've had Hughes, Wild Blue and Starlink as well as several ADSL carriers. The only one worth the price is Starlink. Period! If you stream at all, it is the only choice.

I live in the woods of southern Washington state and right now I'm getting 148Mbps download, 16.0Mbps upload with 26 ms latency.

No throttling, no cut off, only reliable service. I have rarely seen any ill effects of weather, even though it has been snowing and raining..... a lot. Starlink melts the snow off the dish that previously I had to go out and brush off with other dishes.

Totally worth $120/month. Equipment was $499 when I signed up.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2024

I have had all or nearly all of the satellite providers. Before Starlink, they all had somewhat comparable features (but not service). I could get information, but it was not efficient and latency interfered with any two-way communication. I am not a Musk fan, but I love his Starlink. Great speed but now no latency; I can participate in meetings, see videos without pausing. As far as I'm concerned, Starlink is the logical choice.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2024

I know you are US based but it is perhaps worth mentioning that in Europe (I am in Greece), the Starlink costs are considerably lower (currently!!) than those you mention in your article, so it makes the economics of switching even better. I am currently paying EUR40pm for Starlink, which is better than the main Greek fibre supplier (Cosmote) was charging me until I switched over. Due to bad weather, the Cosmote offering regularly failed (due to power outages), but I have had few downtimes with Starlink and these were when the rain was so heavy that I couldn't even see the bottom of our garden!

Posted by:

06 Mar 2024

Starlink is the way to go! I had Wildblue, which became Excede, which became Viasat. None would really let me stream shows or movies. Starlink works great. Now I only stream TV shows and movies. So much faster. I little more expensive but worth it to me!

Posted by:

07 Mar 2024

I live in rural Queensland, Australia and have had to put up with a poor ADSL Internet. I recently installed Starlink and I am getting great speeds. Cost is AUD 159 a month.

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