Satellite Internet For Gaming
Let’s face it; satellite internet doesn’t exactly have a perfect reputation among the gaming community. Plenty of people will tell you outright that you can’t play games on a satellite connection, due to issues like latency and restrictive data caps. So, here’s the question: is this still true in 2020?
Satellite service providers have made some pretty impressive progress on some of the technology’s key drawbacks over the last few years. In fact, companies like Viasat and HughesNet have both recently invested in new infrastructure supporting the FCC’s standard definition for broadband internet (25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload).
In addition, new providers like SpaceX's Starlink are promising to completely change the notion of what satellite internet can deliver in terms of speeds and latency.
So, where does all of this leave satellite internet when it comes to gaming in 2020? Let's find out.
Why is gaming on satellite internet sometimes difficult?
A traditional wired internet connection — the kind that uses a coaxial or fiber-optic connection — is called a terrestrial connection. It sounds like a fancy term, but really, all it means is that the connection is being made entirely on earth. You may have heard the term "terrestrial radio." It's the same idea. That refers to a radio station that uses radio frequencies on earth, versus satellite radio, which transmits from earth to space, and then back to earth again.
In terms of speed, a terrestrial internet connection will typically have the upper hand on a satellite internet connection, and that's nice if you download a lot of games. For online play, however, you really don't need a lot of speed. The main issue you'll run into when trying to play online games with a satellite internet connection is latency.
Latency measures how long it takes for packets of data to leave your device — be it a PC, phone, game console, etc. — and come back again. A wired terrestrial connection will almost always have less latency than a satellite connection, because a terrestrial connection only has to travel a short distance on earth. With satellite internet access, however, data must make a round trip from your device, to the satellite in space, to your internet service provider, and back again.
A little science tells us that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. So, due to the fact that the satellites used for satellite internet access orbit at 22,300 miles above earth — and because of the journey that data takes — you'll automatically wind up with an additional 500 milliseconds of latency.
Again, that's not at all a deal-breaker if you're someone who would only be using that kind of connection to download games. If you play a lot of single-player titles, latency won't be a big deal at all. If you're someone who wants to play some online multiplayer games, though — well, things get a little more complicated then.
To start, we’re going to split these types of online gaming experiences into two categories: competitive gaming, where your reaction speed plays much more of a factor; and casual gaming, where you might have a little time to think before making your move.
Satellite internet for competitive gaming
Let's say you're playing a round of the newly released (and incredibly popular) Apex Legends. You start the match by dropping down onto the map, and as you fly down toward the surface, you notice other players seemingly warping around you. You shrug and continue on. You land. You loot the nearest building and pick up a few guns — just in time, too, as you hear shots ring outside. Very quickly, you take a peek out a nearby window and spot an enemy. And just as quickly, you duck back into cover. Half a second later, you die. What gives?
Or let's say you're settling in to play a few matches of Rocket League. You start out by zipping toward the ball, but soon realize something is amiss. Every few seconds, your car traces its path backward — almost like someone hit a rewind button — before teleporting back to its original point. It does this the entire match, and the next match afterward. It makes the game unplayable.
That is, unfortunately, the type of experience you'll have when playing a competitive video game over a satellite internet connection. Thanks to the latency introduced by your outer space internet service, the data that you're sending and receiving will always be a little bit behind everyone else's data.
That's why, in Apex Legends, you died even though you thought you'd taken cover. The truth is, you were actually shot through the window. But because the data reached you late, it didn't reach you until you'd already moved. And that's why, in Rocket League, your car is constantly traveling back in time. What you're experiencing is Rocket League trying to get your game client back in sync with everyone else.
Latency will disrupt just about any competitive online video game. That includes Apex Legends and Rocket League, which we mentioned above. And it also includes games like Fortnite, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Call of Duty, and more. If you’re a dedicated online gamer and these are the types of games you prefer, satellite internet is unfortunately going to let you down.
Satellite internet for casual gaming
Who doesn't enjoy a little Hearthstone? Whether you're jumping in to play a quick match against the computer or you're challenging a fellow player online, Blizzard's strategy card game is a great way to pass the time. There's nothing like painstakingly putting together a deck that plays to your strengths. And few things can match the feeling of squaring off against someone of equal skill, taking the time to figure out their approach, and managing to squeak out a victory.
Or how about a little Civilization 6? If you're a wannabe world leader, Civ 6 offers you the opportunity to take control of an entire civilization and lead it from its earliest days to its far-off future. Sure, you can play against the computer if you want. But Civilization 6 is a far more entertaining experience if you start up a game and bring in a few other players to take control of other world civilizations. Especially if those other players are close friends.
The above games — those of the turn-based strategy genre — are far more friendly for those who are using a satellite internet connection. They're more games of the mind than they are games of the fingers. They don't require split-second decision making or twitch skills, which means that the latency introduced through a satellite internet connection — typically 500 milliseconds — won't play nearly as much of a factor.
And as we mentioned above, you won't have many issues at all if you're more into single-player games. Some satellite internet services offer speeds as high as 100 Mbps, which is just fine for downloading any digital titles you purchase. And because you won't be playing online multiplayer with anyone else, latency won't be something you have to consider. That means you can load up The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and rest easy knowing that your satellite internet connection won't get in the way.
The current cost of satellite internet
You might think that an internet service that literally gets beamed out to space might come at a high cost. You'd be surprised! While it's true that you'll pay a premium for a satellite internet connection over a terrestrial connection with comparable speeds, the prices aren't all that unreasonable.
Viasat, for example, offers an unlimited satellite internet package with 12 Mbps speeds for $50 a month. Is that more than you'd pay for most cable internet connections? Sure. But when it comes to gaming, 12 Mbps speeds are more than enough.
Another provider, HughesNet, offers 25 Mbps speeds for $60. But there's a catch — HughesNet has a 10 GB data cap on that plan. While you probably won't surpass that just playing games online, you could certainly exceed 10 GB downloading those games.
So yes, you'll pay a little more. But for an internet connection you can get just about anywhere, it's not that bad at all.
What about satellite internet vs. DSL internet for gaming?
Depending on where you live, you might have access to a DSL internet connection. DSL, which stands for digital subscriber line, uses your telephone connection to deliver internet access at higher-than-dial-up speeds. This is a wired terrestrial connection, which does have some additional latency when compared to a cable or fiber optic internet connection, but not enough to negatively impact most online games.
Unfortunately, the area you will get shortchanged on is speed.
DSL packages often have slower download speeds than comparably priced cable or fiber optic internet packages. And in many cases, the upload speed is substantially slower than the download speed. Verizon, for example, offers a double-play package that includes internet access and phone service for $54.99 a month. And in most areas, its DSL download speeds don’t get any higher than 3 Mbps, with upload speeds being a fraction of that.
For online gaming services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, 3 Mbps is the bare minimum download speed. And you can imagine how slow it might be to download a 50 GB game on such a slow connection. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons between DSL and satellite yourself, but if you’re like many Americans, DSL might actually be a more expensive and less effective solution for your gaming needs.
Will Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) make satellite a viable connection?
The one real knock about satellite internet access — the amount of latency it comes with — is actually something that might not be as large an issue in the future. More likely than not, that'll be in large thanks to what are called LEOs — low-earth orbit satellites.
Companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX are looking long and hard at how launching satellites into low-earth orbit could dramatically decrease the latency associated with satellite internet connections. Because the satellites will be closer to earth (orbiting at 1,200 miles rather than 22,300 miles), data packets will have a much shorter trip to make. And that means latency more in the 20- to 30-second range, rather than the 500 milliseconds introduced by satellite internet today.
If low-earth orbit satellites become the standard for delivering satellite internet access in the future, you could very easily jump into a multiplayer game like Call of Duty without suffering from a whole lot of lag. For that reason alone, they're worth keeping an eye on.
We’re getting there
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where satellite internet for gaming stands today. Due to the latency, there are some competitive gaming scenarios that won't be a good match for that type of service. However, if you're playing more casual games, or if you stick to solo gaming, there's no reason a satellite internet connection won't meet your needs. The prices aren't too outrageous — especially if you don't have any other options — and the speeds are good. And when you consider the potential of low-earth orbit satellites, satellite internet could someday meet all gaming applications. We're not there yet, but the future looks bright.