How Does Satellite Internet Work

Satellite internet is just one of the several types of internet connections available. Some of the others include DSL, cable, and fiber-optic internet. We’ll cover those in other posts – today we’re going to stick with just satellite internet. 

How does it work? Is it any good? 

And most importantly: is it right for you and should you get it?

What is satellite internet?

Provider Download/Upload speeds View plans
HughesNet 25Mbps View plans
Viasat 25-100Mbps View plans

First things first: from your point of view, satellite internet doesn’t look much different from other types of internet: you still have a modem and a router which you can connect to by Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable, and when you go online everything looks pretty much the same. 

The biggest difference is the satellite dish that is attached to the side of your home. It’s the dish that makes the process of getting you internet different from the other types. Here’s how satellite internet works: 

  1. Your internet is connected to a Network Operations Center (NOC)
  2. The NOC sends the internet signal from a large ground dish to an orbiting satellite that’s in a geosynchronous orbit
  3. The satellite receives the internet signal and beams it back down
  4. The dish on the side/roof of your home receives the signal and sends it through wires to your modem/router
  5. That proceeds on to your router before reaching your connected devices. 

Geosynchronous orbiting satellite

So if your satellite internet is delivered by satellite, can the satellite move away and leave you without internet for part of the day?

Thankfully, no. 

There’s an area in the earth’s orbit (~22,300 miles up) where if the satellite is placed, it will follow the earth’s daily rotation – essentially becoming a permanent fixture of that spot in the sky. This is called a geosynchronous orbit – the satellite’s orbit around the earth is synchronized with the earth’s rotation.  

That means you’ll have internet 24/7, and is also what makes satellite internet so widely available. However, over 22,000 miles of air is a lot for your signal to cover, which can sometimes create problems – but more on that later.

Equipment for satellite internet

So with that taken into consideration, it’s pretty obvious that satellite internet requires that extra piece of equipment that other types don’t – the satellite dish. With that added, that means there are 3 basic parts to your whole setup: 

  1. The satellite internet dish - it’s mounted to the side of your home to receive the signal from the orbiting satellite.
  2. The satellite modem - An electronic box that receives the signal from your dish by wires, then converts it into another form so your network can read it and bring internet into your home.
  3. The router - your router then sends the converted signal from your router to your home; again, by Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable. 

The router and modem are pretty straightforward – they’re similar to any other type of internet. The dish requires a little different consideration, though. So the question is, could you build your own satellite internet systems? Well, the dish typically needs to be installed by a professional, and weather can interrupt its signal (leaves blown over it, snow piling up, etc), so the answer is it’d be better if you have a professional does that for you. 

Latency and satellite internet

With all that distance for your internet signal to cover, you might expect some delays, right? The answer is actually nuanced: it depends on what you’re doing online.

But first, a quick definition. Latency (or “Ping”) is the time that it takes for internet data to move from one place to another. DSL, cable, and fiber-optic signals come by direct line (phone, coaxial cable, or fiber-optic cable) to your home, so it typically isn’t much of an issue. 

But satellite internet sends internet through the air from thousands of miles up – that’s a lot of space. All things considered, the signal travels pretty fast. But it’s still much further than the other types of internet, so it gets slowed down. 

That said, for most basic activities online, you probably won’t notice latency. When you’ll notice latency is with multiplayer online games or livestreaming TV. Because those happen in real-time, you’ll get lag – a delay in what you receive and what’s actually going on right now. 

That makes it difficult to play real-time multiplayer games online – although it can be done.

Satellite internet speeds

Internet type Satellite DSL Cable Fiber-optic
Speeds 12-100Mbps 10-100Mbps 25-400Mbps 100-1,000Mbps

That said, while latency is real, don’t write of satellite internet as slow and clunky – that’s just not true. 

Satellite internet, sometimes, can be really fast. Satellite internet service providers, like Viasat, can reach speeds of up to 100Mbps – which is high-speed internet. It might sometimes “feel” like it’s slower than the equivalent speed of DSL or cable, but that’s just the latency – the signal between your click and the response takes a little longer to go through. 

Once it does, though, the speed is the same.

Should you get satellite internet?

The short answer is that it depends on what you use the internet for and what’s available in your region. 

If you aren’t a big real-time gamer and just want the basic internet functions everyone uses now and again – like web browsing, checking email and social media, maybe some Netflix streaming – then you likely won’t even notice much of a difference with satellite internet. 

And if you live out beyond the reaches of DSL and cable, dial-up may be your only other option – and satellite is much faster than dial-up. 

How to get satellite internet

First, check out our review of the best satellite internet providers; next, dive into the individual reviews one each: 

Finally, compare a few things: 

  • The plans that are available to you (Viasat, for instance, vary);
  • Your budget;
  • What exactly you use your internet for (downloading often means you’ll want a higher data cap, for example). 
Written by: Luke Pensworth

Luke is the managing editor and site manager of Dailywireless. As a wireless enthusiast/consumer, he reviews a lot of services based on his own experience. Disgruntled as he may be, he tries to keep his articles as honest as possible.

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