Pros And Cons Of Satellite Internet
The best thing about satellite internet is that it is available virtually everywhere in the US. This is the main reason that it continues to be a popular option in rural areas, where wired internet options such as cable and DSL are less common. The biggest downside is, well, it’s slow, it’s expensive, it suffers from latency issues, and providers often expect you to sign a contract that lasts seemingly until the end of time.
If you live in a major city, you likely enjoy reliable high-speed internet that is delivered to your house through a wired connection. However, residents in small towns and rural areas have just as much need for a reliable connection. These days, internet access isn’t an optional extra. From job searches to staying in touch with family, from booking a holiday to learning new skills, to finding love to finding customers, the internet is essential for participation in the modern world.
This is where satellite internet comes in. For all its shortcomings, it can get you online no matter where you are.
Fortunately, satellite internet has improved exponentially since its debut more than twenty years ago. There are a number of pros and cons to consider (as these include a few technical terms, you can check out our glossary of relevant jargon at the bottom of this article).
Pros & Cons At A Glance
- Available nearly everywhere
- Broadband-level speeds possible
- Cost effective compared to mobile hotspots
- Often faster than promised
- Quick recovery post-disaster
- Prohibitive Data caps
- High latency
- Slower than cable and fiber
- Vulnerable to bad weather
- Won’t support a VPN
- Long minimum contracts
What is satellite internet?
Most internet reaches your house through a cable. Satellite internet means that the provider sends data into space, bouncing it off a satellite, which sends it down to a dish on your house. These satellites are in a geosynchronous orbit; that is, they stay above the same point on the planet, meaning once your internet is set up, you can depend on the satellite you use remaining in contact with your house.
Who is satellite internet ideal for?
While satellite internet is by far the best (and only) option in some locations, it may not be right for you. It’s time to go into why satellite internet can be the right — or wrong — option for your household.
Rural Consumers: The best candidates for satellite internet are households in rural and remote areas. These places often have limited or no cable connections, meaning access to wired internet is poor. Mobile reception may also be patchy, eliminating the option to use a hotspot.
Consumers in regions prone to natural disasters: Earthquakes and hurricanes can sever cable connections, which takes time to fix. Meanwhile, as long as you have an intact satellite dish, you should be able to stay connected with satellite service.
If you live in a major city or town, and can find a good cable provider in your area, that option will likely be in your favor. Similarly, if you need to send and receive large amounts of data on a regular basis, satellite internet is probably not for you.
Satellite internet's greatest strength: wide availability
The strongest selling point for satellite internet is that it works everywhere. If you need a connection, and you almost certainly do, then satellite internet knocks the socks off dial-up and mobile hotspots. For all its faults, satellite internet meets you where you are.
Speeds have also improved greatly in recent years. Some providers already offer 25Mbps, with further large increases coming in the next couple of years. Indeed, the FCC reports that 90% of providers deliver up to 140% of the speeds they promise, even at peak hours. This means that you often get more than you paid for.
Finally, it is worth considering that even if you have the option of wired internet, while satellite internet may be a less reliable choice day to day, it can be more resilient and quicker to recover during natural disasters.
Satellite internet weaknesses: slow speeds, restrictive data caps, and rigid pricing
While satellite internet does offer many advantages, it has a whole lot of downsides. Firstly, it isn’t as fast as wired internet. If you’re into online gaming, using VOIP (that is, internet phone), or you work with video, you may find it simply isn’t up to the task. This is a result of high latency, or “ping factor” - that is, the data you’re receiving has to take a detour into space. It’s 22,230 miles to low Earth orbit, and even at the speed of light, that’s a noticeable difference. Indeed, ping factor is such a serious issue that it had to be factored into the deployment of manned planes in areas where the US military first began using pilotless drones.
Other issues include the fact that data sent via satellite travels in straight lines. If your dish does not have an unobstructed line of sight to the satellite, it can’t receive anything. If you live in a very hilly or mountainous area, in the middle of a forest, or in a small house between two large apartment blocks, you may find that your reception is blocked. It also means that inclement weather will affect your connection.
Satellite internet also suffers from relatively high prices. You may end up forking over $100 a month for an unsatisfactory connection. Cheaper packages are sometimes available, but often come with data caps. This means that if you exceed your daily, weekly, or monthly allotment, your connection will then be “throttled”. This means that your provider will intentionally slow down your internet to punish you for using more than you paid for, in hopes of encouraging you to upgrade to the pricier package.
Also worth noting is that typically cannot use a VPN or virtual private network over satellite internet. If you prize anonymity online, the VPN is one of the best ways to achieve it; indeed, if you want to trick foreign servers into thinking you are in their country, it’s sometimes your only option.
The last issue is very unlikely to come up, but bears mentioning more for reassurance than any other reason: sometimes, satellites go wrong. They fall out of orbit, data they send gets intercepted by hostile powers, or they simply have a software failure. If this happens, you could be disconnected instantly and wait a very long time for a new satellite to move into place. Fortunately, modern networks enjoy sufficiently extensive coverage that this issue should probably not rank as a deciding factor.
Where Did Satellite Internet Come From?
It all started in 1993 when the FCC first approved satellites for this purpose. At the time, most households weren’t online, so the slow download speeds offered by satellite internet were didn’t matter as much. By the late 1990’s, however, wired internet had leapfrogged over satellite internet in terms of access, speed, reliability, and bang for your buck.
The 1997 launch of the Iridium satellite network took place in hopes of rebalancing the equation, but they could only offer 0.01Mbps, and greatly overestimated the market for such a service. As everyone in major cities and towns began installing DSL lines and cable modems, satellite internet soon became the poor relation of the online world.
However, by 2007, Astra launched satellite internet offering 20Mbps, which was finally an acceptable speed. Still, it took another decade for the cost of the technology to fall sufficiently for a game-changer to arrive on the scene. That game-changer was HughesNet, which launched a fifth-generation satellite network in 2018 that finally met the FCC’s standard for real broadband.
The future of satellite internet is bright. In late 2019, a provider named Viasat will launch a third generation satellite that will offer a full gigabit of throughput. By 2020, SpaceX will spend $10 billion to put 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit. This will eliminate most gaps in coverage, and has the potential to bring the whole world online. As wired internet continues to be expensive to upgrade, satellite internet is improving exponentially, even as costs continue to plummet.
Satellite Internet Glossary
This is the delay in the delivery of data caused by the distance between the server and the satellite, and the satellite and your house. Also known as “ping”. The lower the latency, the speedier the connection tends to feel overall.
A virtual private network or VPN is a way of hiding your identity online. It obscures your computer’s IP (“internet protocol”) address, which is a unique number that tells servers, “This is Jane’s computer.”
This stands for internet service provider. It means the companies from which you can buy internet connections, such as HughesNet or Verizon.
This means megabits per second. A bit is a tiny piece of data, and a megabit is a million such pieces. If your internet is slower than 25Mbps, it’s probably going to be unable to cope with many modern streaming services.
This is short for wireless internet, and it’s not to be confused with satellite internet. Wi-fi is all about the way the data gets from the dish or cables in your house to your computer - that is, whether your computer is plugged in or connecting wirelessly. It’s not concerned with how the information reached your house in the first place.
This means Voice Over Internet Protocol. It means a variety of technologies that provide the option of making phone calls over the internet. It can be cheaper than a traditional phone line, but of course, if your internet is cut off, it’s cut off. If you live in a remote area, solely depending on VOIP to stay in touch with the wider world is probably unwise.
A digital subscriber line or DSL is an umbrella term for a number of technologies that permit internet to be provided over the phone, by transmitting data alone existing phone lines. It’s generally slower than cable, though it is improving. However, while DSL uses the phone lines, it’s not the same thing as dial-up, a relatively primitive form of internet provision that not only uses the phone, it hogs the connection for itself, meaning you can’t use that line to make calls while you’re connected. DSL permits you to use the phone and the internet at the same time.