How Does Satellite Internet Work?

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In most major urban areas, DSL, cable, or fiber-optic internet services are the norm. Outside urban centers, however, the story is slightly different. Many major cable companies haven’t done the work to connect rural residences to their networks. In those cases, satellite internet is one of the few options for getting online.

Let’s take a look at why customers opt for satellite internet, some of the benefits and drawbacks, how it works, and whether or not it’s the right choice for your home internet needs.

A brief overview of how satellite internet works

As the name of the service implies, the most important piece of equipment when it comes to satellite internet is the satellite itself. In this case, the satellite is parked in what’s called a geostationary orbit nearly 23,000 miles above the earth’s equator—about a tenth of the way to the moon!—and holds position over the same location.

The dish on your home receives signals from the satellite and transfers them to the router inside your home, which in turn feeds them to your computer.

From the dish, the signals are sent either to a Wi-Fi station somewhere in your residence or straight into your computer via an Ethernet cable.

Why choose satellite internet

The most common reason people choose to use satellite internet is a lack of terrestrial, or ground-based, internet services. Rural customers can sometimes negotiate with internet providers to construct a connection to their residence, but not always: if the location where the customer wants internet service is far from the closest point in a provider’s network, this requires workers to lay entirely new cable lines, and can be impractical and expensive. When it comes to satellite-based internet, installation is far easier: a technician spends a few hours mounting a satellite dish on the customer’s home, aligns it with the satellite in orbit, and connects the dish to the router.

Yes, rural customers who lack other options can opt for dial-up internet service, but even the slowest satellite internet connection is much faster than these. On dial-up, streaming video and many online games simply won’t work. Satellite internet won’t entirely solve this issue, but can mitigate it.

For example, a satellite provider like HughesNet offers a data allowance of 20 GB of service per month. This would allow customers to watch up to 30 hours of standard definition video via a streaming service like Netflix, or seven hours of high-definition video.

Prices vary among providers for satellite internet service, and will almost certainly be more expensive than dial-up, but if you’re looking to use popular streaming video services like Netflix, even in a limited way as stated above, there’s no question that satellite is the way to go.

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Technical limitations of satellite internet

In addition to satellite internet providers limiting the amount of data available to stream in a given month, there are other significant technical limitations to satellite. Chief among them is the “latency” caused by the distance between your computer, the satellite, and the servers on the ground.

Latency is the period of time from when a command is sent on one end, such as a click on a link in your browser, and when the function that click was meant to perform occurs. Keep in mind that the satellite that provides your internet is 23,000 miles above the earth; the signal from your computer must be sent there, sent by the satellite down to the Network Operations Center, or NOC, acted on by the NOC, sent back up the satellite and then finally sent back down to your computer again. Even though all of this happens very quickly, there is often a noticeable delay for satellite internet users.

For example, for satellite internet users attempting to play a popular networked game like Call of Duty, there can be a delay, or latency, between which the player issues a command to their on-screen soldier and when the soldier carries out that order. For a game that requires split-second timing and decision making, this delay can be noticeable.

Outside of the gaming world, the slight delay that users merely surfing the internet might notice between the time they click on any given link and when their web browsers respond can be slightly frustrating as well.

The local options

The best way to determine if you can have satellite internet installed is to check out our list of the best satellite internet providers. While these service providers say that they can provide internet anywhere that has a clear line of sight to the southern sky, not every company operates in every area. Once you’ve read our guide, check with providers in your area to make sure you can receive service.

The dish on satellite internet

Now that you have a firm grasp on how satellite internet works, you should be able to decide if it’s right for you. If you’re in a rural area where ground-based internet service providers are rare, satellite is more than likely the best choice for you, even if it’s more expensive than dial-up.

What do you think? Would satellite internet be right for you? Have you had experiences with satellite internet in the past, good or bad? We want to hear about it! Let us know in the comments.

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