Satellite broadband: What's it all about?

ByKim Staples
Satellite dish

We’ve come a long way since Sputnik 1. These days, satellites can be used for all kinds of things - including broadband. But how does that work? And is it any good? Join us as we investigate this space-age tech.

What is satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband is exactly what it sounds like - broadband that you connect to via a satellite.

To get online, you need a satellite dish and a transmitter attached to your home, which connect to a satellite in geostationary earth orbit. (In other words, it orbits the earth in sync with how the earth rotates, so it always stays above the same spot.) The satellite transfers data to and from your dish, then to and from the provider's central hub on earth, which connects to the internet at ground level.

It's the same sort of satellite system used for things like weather forecasting, satellite TV broadcasts, and GPS.

Satellite broadband isn't very widespread right now, but it's an excellent solution to certain internet woes. Since all you need is a satellite dish with line of sight to the south sky, you can connect from almost anywhere. It's perfect for getting internet to places that are difficult to reach with traditional cables or mobile masts - like rural areas, mountains, islands, forests, and jungles. If you've ever used Wi-Fi on an aeroplane or a boat, chances are you've used satellite broadband.

Although consumer satellite broadband is still comparatively young, it's got a big future. More satellites are being made as we speak, which should eventually be capable of offering broadband access to almost anywhere in the world.

What's good about satellite broadband?

  • It gets broadband to places cables struggle to reach. This makes it perfect for rural areas in the middle of nowhere, where fixed line broadband is extremely slow or non-existent.
  • Speeds are comparable to standard ADSL broadband - and within a few years they'll be closer to fibre optic broadband.
  • It's very widely available, because all you need is a satellite dish.
  • It's landline-free, so you needn't get a phone line if you don't want one.

What's bad about satellite broadband?

  • Latency (also known as lag) is very high, because of the distance the signal has to travel - i.e. 22,200 miles into space and back. You'll probably find it a bit difficult to play online games or access a remote desktop.
  • It's often expensive. Monthly bills tend to be higher than those for fixed line broadband, and set-up costs can be in the hundreds. Download limits are rather restrictive as well - and the packages with decent allowances cost even more. Then if you want a phone line, that's an extra cost as well.
  • It's prone to interference, thanks to the weather and all the other wireless signals floating around the sky. A bad storm may make your connection suffer.
  • Current speeds don't even come close to what you can get with a fixed line connection, particularly a fibre optic one. Upload speeds are very low as well.
  • You won't have much choice of providers.

Unless you're in a very remote area, we'd generally recommend fixed line broadband - it's a lot cheaper, and more ideal for tasks that need a low latency.

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