How Does Satellite Internet Work?

Chyelle Dvorak
Mar 15, 2024
Icon Time To Read5 min read

Satellite internet is a type of connection that uses a satellite to get an internet signal from your internet service provider (ISP) to you.

Here’s how it works: your provider sends a fiber internet signal to a satellite in space. The internet signal then comes to you and is captured by your satellite dish. Your dish is connected to your modem, which connects your computer to the internet signal. The process reverses back to your provider, and there you have it.

Now before we get too thick into the weeds, here’s more information about satellite internet, including resources on which providers are the most reliable.

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What are the best satellite internet providers?

There are two main 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. To sum it up: you’ll get faster speeds, more data, and a better price in most cases. We do think that Hughesnet has better prices for those who don’t need the most data.

Starlink's satellites are now providing internet service, and aside from expensive up-front equipment fees, the plans aren't too expensive.

And if you're on the road a lot, check out Starlink's newest satellite technology, Starlink Roam. We have high hopes for improved prices and less waitlist time, but for now, Starlink's plans look promising.

Satellite internet providers comparison
Provider
Monthly price
Download speeds
Data cap
Learn more
Viasat Internet$69.99-$299.99*12-100 MbpsUnlimited
Hughesnet Internet$49.99-$79.9950–100 MbpsUnlimited
Starlink$120-$50040-220 MbpsUnlimited
Data as of 04/05/2023. Offers and availability vary by location and are subject to change.
* Offer available to new qualifying customers. One-time standard installation fee may be due at checkout. Minimum 24-month service term required. Equipment lease fee is $12.99/mo. Taxes apply. Service is not available in all areas. Offer may be changed or withdrawn at any time.
Service plans require a 24-month commitment. Pricing not available in all areas.
Plus hardware, shipping & handling fees, and tax. Fully refundable. Depending on location, some orders may take 6 months or more to fulfill.

How does satellite internet speed compare to other internet speeds?

Overall, satellite internet has come a long way over the years). You can  find satellite internet plans reaching upwards of 100 Mbps. Having faster internet can really help for watching videos, streaming Netflix, gaming, and supporting an entire household of internet users.

But note that satellite internet is subject to high latency, so the speeds aren’t always what they seem. Other internet types use better infrastructures to get you more reliable speeds, but they might not be available in your area. We say, if you live in a rural area, it’s still worth getting—especially if it’s your only option.

DSL internet can be slower than satellite internet. Depending on the provider you use, DSL ranges anywhere from 5 Mbps to 100 Mbps. If you have access to a DSL provider with modern tech, we think you’ll have a better experience with DSL. But if you can get only slower, older DSL options, you’ll want to consider satellite internet instead.

Cable internet is faster and often cheaper than satellite internet. Most cable internet services range between 20 and 1,000 Mbps. But if you live in the countryside, it may not be an option for you.

If you have access to fiber internet, don’t bother considering satellite. You’ll find better speeds and prices from fiber providers.

What should I be aware of when choosing my satellite internet plan?

Like with any type of internet, you’ll want to determine what speeds you need and your budget. While it’s tempting to get the fastest plan, you don’t need to overpay for speeds you won’t actually use.

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. But heads up: satellite internet might not have the speeds you need to stream in 4K or HD.

Don’t forget that satellite internet comes with data caps. Unlike some cable and fiber plans, satellite internet doesn’t usually come with unlimited data. So once you hit a certain amount of data, your internet provider could start charging an overage fee, or it might throttle your speed. It’s just good to keep your data cap in mind when searching for a satellite internet plan that’s best for you.

What kind of equipment comes with satellite internet?

An illustration of data sent from home, to satellite, to satellite ISP and back

If you’re considering switching to satellite internet, then your provider will use specific equipment. Most satellite internet now only comes with a modem, wireless router, and a network cable. Where most satellite internet came with larger equipment in the past, many providers have smaller, more compact equipment now. Some providers use a dish so that the signal can reach easier, although that’s not as common anymore.

  • 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.

Satellite internet myths and facts

Myth 1: Satellite internet is too slow

Satellite internet now has speeds up to 100–150Mbps if you go with Viasat or HughesNet. That’s pretty fast if you consider most cable and DSL internet plans offer similar speeds.

Satellite internet used to be extremely slow, with download speeds of approximately 750 Kbps. But advancements in technology and new satellites have increased speeds. 

Myth 2: It takes a long time to receive a signal

You likely won’t notice any difference in how quickly you can do things online with satellite versus how quickly you could do them with cable or DSL. Unless you’re gaming, satellite’s high latency likely won’t affect you.

Latency is the time it takes for data to be sent and received. In the case of satellite internet, it’s the time it takes for information to go from your device to your satellite dish, to your provider’s orbiting satellite, to a separate satellite dish at your ISP, and back again.

As you can see, that’s a lot of steps. And latency has long been a strike against satellite internet.

Latency is higher with satellite internet than it is for cable, DSL, and fiber internet. Cable, DSL, and fiber internet have latency in the 20–50 millisecond (ms) range, while satellite internet ranges can be close to 600 ms.

Because satellites are positioned 22,000 miles above the earth, satellite internet data just has a long way to travel. It’s also why we basically never recommend satellite internet over other types like cable. But if you live in the country or an area without better internet options, satellite might be your best (and sometimes only) choice.

The most obvious effect of latency is on gaming. Gaming that requires ultra-quick responses, like first-person shooters (FPS), just doesn’t work very well with satellite internet. If you choose satellite internet, you might have to say goodbye to League of Legends.

But other online activities, like web browsing, emailing, and photo sharing, won’t be affected by latency much at all.

Myth 3: Satellite internet doesn’t work when it’s cloudy, rainy, or stormy

While it’s true that severe thunderstorms, heavy snow, or blizzards can interrupt satellite transmission temporarily, the problem isn’t as significant as some might lead you to think.

Storm-related interruptions are commonly called “rain fade,” and the signal is restored as soon as the storm passes. You can also remove heavy accumulations of snow from around the satellite dish to restore communications.

In contrast, a heavy thunderstorm with fallen trees or other extreme weather with similar effects could disable cable or DSL for days. Again, most satellite internet customers live in rural areas without access to DSL or cable, so even with rain fade, satellite internet is preferable to alternative, slower means of internet service (like dial-up internet).

Myth 4: Satellite internet is too expensive

Compared to DSL, cable, and fiber internet, satellite is relatively expensive. But its monthly costs have decreased over the years, making it a somewhat more affordable option. (Especially if you have no other internet providers to choose from.)

Nowadays, you can get a Viasat internet plan starting at $70 a month, or a Hughesnet plan starting at $49.99 a month.

Now that you know, here are your next steps.
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Enter your ZIP code to see providers available in your area.
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Learn more about your satellite options.

Chyelle Dvorak
Written by
Chyelle Dvorak
Chyelle works as a freelance writer for The Daily Beast and edited articles for Forbes, Inc.com, Fox News and other review sites. Chyelle tests, writes, and researches products and services related to internet consumption. She found her passion for public speaking and writing in her childhood when she won the Voice of Democracy speech and essay competition. Chyelle has a degree in International Relations from Crown College, Minnesota. Outside of work, Chyelle loves to spend time reading, kayaking, and running.

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