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What is satellite internet?



A stylized image of satellites sending data back to Earth.
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Satellite internet is known for being slow and expensive. Traditionally it was used by people in remote rural areas and at sea. Let̵

7;s take a look at the issues related to satellite internet – and how different players, like Elon Musk’s Starlink, are working to fix the issues.

What is satellite internet?

There are a few differences between regular, terrestrial internet and satellite internet. The first is the route information takes: in most cases, when you want to access a website, your laptop or phone sends a message to your router. Your router then sends a request to your ISP’s server, which in turn connects to the desired website’s server.

That connection usually runs over underground and sub-oceanic cables, except for perhaps the first part of the connection: most people use Wi-Fi at home, especially on phones and laptops. These cables can usually handle massive amounts of information very quickly, which means that you can stream Netflix or download large files without any real problems. (Of course, your mileage may vary depending on where you live.)

With satellites, however, there are some extra steps – it’s not like we can connect a cable to them! If you are connected via satellite, you usually have to install a dish and a modem (remember?) In your house. When you connect to a website, your request is first sent through the modem to the dish, which broadcasts it to the satellite.

The satellite, in turn, sends your request to the network processing center or NOC of your satellite Internet provider. The NOC sends the request to the website server in the usual way and then sends that result back to the satellite, which broadcasts it back to you via your dish and modem.

Satellite dishes against a sunset.
Thaiview / Shutterstock.com

What are the problems with satellite internet?

Because you need so much more extra equipment to use satellite internet – both a modem and a dish instead of just one router – the installation costs for satellite internet are generally higher than for regular internet.

Plus, it’s also more expensive, because satellites aren’t exactly cheap: not only are they high-tech machines in and of themselves, but also the cost of sending them into space and maintaining them while they’re above that. is priceless. All in all, this makes the satellite a lot more expensive than normal terrestrial internet.

However, it’s not just price that makes satellite internet unattractive – there are also problems with speed. Not only does a satellite have less data throughput (as this answer explains in detail in a Reddit thread), but also the distance between a satellite and Earth is long enough to cause noticeable slowdowns.

Most satellite internet uses satellites that are in geostationary – or geosynchronous – orbit, right above the equator. The advantage of this type of orbit is that it always stays in the same position relative to the Earth: if a satellite is hovering in geostationary orbit over Africa, it stays there. The advantage is that you can rely on it being there all the time, so you can rely on your internet.

The downside is that the geostationary orbits are high: they are about 35,000 km or 22,000 miles from Earth’s surface, which is just a little less than the planet’s total circumference. Because your data has to travel so far, it slows down, just like what happens when you connect to a VPN on the other side of the world.

Another big issue is latency, which is how long it takes for data to move from one point to another. Satellite connections usually have terrible latency because they are so far from us.

RELATED: How latency can make even fast internet connections slow

Who uses satellite internet and who offers it?

With the higher cost and lower speed in mind, satellite internet is generally only used by people who cannot have a wired connection or who cannot get Wi-Fi to beam to them. As such, it is widely used on ships far from the coast, in airplanes, and by people living in remote rural areas such as West Texas. In other words, we’re talking places where there are no cables at all, or places where a dial-up connection is another choice. Dial-up is pretty much the only internet connection worse than satellite.

Since the market is quite small, there are only a few providers. Two of the biggest names in the industry are Viasat and HughesNet, which operate primarily in the United States, although there are plenty of smaller companies both in the US and globally. However, a huge stir comes in the form of Starlink, a subsidiary of Elon Musk’s commercial spaceflight company SpaceX.

Starlink promises faster speeds and lower latency by placing a network of small satellites in low Earth orbit, or about 1,000 km or so above the Earth’s surface (it depends where you are in the world). Compare this to the 35,000km of geostationary satellites, and you can probably guess what kind of improvements we’ll see in both speed and ping.

The downside to using LEO is that Starlink has to move through its network of satellites to ensure adequate coverage. How this will affect users remains to be seen. So far, however, people seem quite happy using Starlink, praising its speed and low ping – despite astronomers’ concerns.

Whether Starlink will be a market disruptor remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure: as long as not everyone in the world is connected to cable, satellite internet isn’t going anywhere.




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