How Does Satellite Internet Work?

Satellite internet is simple. Your computer sends a signal request through your modem to your satellite dish and then up to a provider’s orbiting satellite, which sends a signal to the provider. Then, the provider transmits the signal back to the satellite, then to your dish, your modem, and finally, your computer.

Unless you need only one Ethernet connection, you’ll also need a router to distribute Wi-Fi throughout your home.

An illustration showing how data is sent from a home, to a satellite, then to a satellite ISP and back

Is satellite internet reliable? Is it good? These questions come up often.

We can’t say satellite internet is as good or as reliable as a broadband internet service like fiber or cable internet. But with satellite internet service, you can still browse the web, check your social media feeds, and watch some Netflix. In short, satellite internet works.

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What satellite internet providers are in my area?
There are two major satellite internet providers: Viasat (formerly Exede internet) and HughesNet. In our comparison, we talked about why we think Viasat is the best satellite internet provider for most people, but to sum it up, you’ll get faster speeds, more data, and a better price in most cases.

So why are cable and fiber internet faster and more reliable?

Cable internet uses shielded coaxial cables, DSL uses telephone lines, and fiber uses shielded fiber-optic cables. These direct connections help prevent interference, packet loss (information that’s supposed to be there, but doesn’t show up) and are generally faster.

With satellite internet service, data is transmitted through the air. It’s more likely to run into interference than a shielded cable would.

On top of that, since the signal is less direct, there tends to be higher latency with satellite internet.

What is latency?

Latency is the time it takes data to transfer from one place to another. Other forms of internet have a direct line from the provider’s hub to your street or house, so they have less latency.

Satellite internet will always have problems with interference, even Wi-Fi, because it doesn’t use a direct connection.

Satellite internet’s information goes from Earth up to a satellite 22,200 miles in the air that stays in a geostationary orbit (meaning it stays in a fixed point relative to the Earth’s rotation), and then back down to your home.

So even though these information transmissions are pretty quick, they still have a long way to travel, so the signal slows down a little.

How to get satellite internet service

Many people in rural areas don’t have access to high-speed internet from a DSL, cable, or fiber-optic internet service provider. It takes a lot of time, money, and physical cable to build out these networks, so providers often choose not to build in sparsely populated areas.

But satellite internet can reach just about anywhere, and it works well most of the time. We’ve also seen a great improvement in satellite internet technology and speeds over the years, so we say if you live in a rural area, it’s still worth getting—especially if it’s your only option.

Satellite internet service speeds

With a satellite internet service provider, you can get download speeds ranging from 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps. That’s high-speed internet.

Upload speeds aren’t very impressive with satellite internet, though, so if you’re uploading pictures to Facebook or trying to livestream on Twitch, you may run into long wait times and buffering issues.

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Satellite advertised speeds don’t reflect latency
Satellite speeds may be equal to DSL, cable, or fiber speeds on paper, but they come with more latency. It just takes longer for the signal to go from a provider to an orbiting satellite back down to your satellite dish and computer. This happens with every click you make.

So 100 Mbps with a coaxial cable internet service is going to “feel” faster than 100 Mbps with satellite technology, even though they’re both the same high speed.

Picking a satellite internet plan should be based on what activities you and everyone else in the home plan on doing. Slower speeds will work for web browsing and email checking, but for streaming TV like Netflix, you’ll want faster speeds.

Unlike some cable and fiber internet, satellite internet doesn’t usually come with unlimited data. Instead, you’ll get data caps.

A data cap means that once you go over a specified limit, your speeds with be throttled, or you’ll be charged an overage fee. Your provider won’t cut off your internet connection completely, but if you’re throttled, you’ll find your internet a lot less usable.

Satellite internet equipment

To make sure you’re getting a proper satellite signal, you’ll need the following equipment:

  • Satellite internet dish: This typically refers to the satellite on your home rather than the one up in the air.
  • Satellite modem: The electronic device that converts the satellites signal into one readable by your computer’s network adapter. It’s what brings the internet to your computer.
  • Router: The electronic device that takes your modem’s internet signal and distributes it throughout your home, either by Wi-Fi or by Ethernet cable.

If you’ve ever had satellite TV, it’s about the same thing plus the modem and router.

And just like with satellite TV, if you’re experiencing harsh weather conditions, you may run into a few more issues than normal. Try to keep your satellite in an accessible place (or resort to making a special tool) so you can sweep out snow or remove debris.

Overall, if you don’t have access to DSL, cable, or fiber internet service providers, satellite internet is a great way to keep you connected to friends, family, and the rest of the world.

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