Internet service options provided in most urban areas in the country fall under three types: cable, DSL and fiber-optic. However, when you move into the rural and remote regions, this scenario changes. Most major companies offering cable or DSL services skip over these parts when setting up their networks, which means people living or and working there do not have these same internet options available to them. If they want internet access, they have to turn to satellite internet, or dial-up.
There are many reasons why consumers sign up for satellite internet, which brings its own set of major pros and cons. Following is a look at how it works, and whether you should choose it as the answer to your internet needs.
How Satellite Internet Functions
The name gives it away – there is a satellite orbiting the Earth, which forms the most important equipment used by the service provider. The company sets up a satellite to revolve in geostationary orbit above the equator, around 23,000 miles over the ground. It holds a stationary position relative to the Earth’s surface.
Satellite internet customers have a dish set up in their homes, which receives signals sent down from the satellite before transferring them to your router. The router feeds these signals to your computer so that you can get on the internet. Signals from the dish can be sent in through an Ethernet cable, or to a Wi-Fi station. It goes without saying that the former delivers better speed.
Reasons for Choosing Satellite Internet
The major driver behind people signing up for satellite internet service is the absence of a ground-based alternative. This happens mostly with rurally based people. Sometimes customers are able to negotiate the construction of a connection singly to their residence, assuming they are dealing with one of the best satellite internet providers in the country. However, that works only if said residence is close enough to one of the provider’s network points. Otherwise, the company would have to lay new cables to the subscriber’s location, which they usually will not do because it’s expensive and impractical.
Normal installation of satellite internet is remarkably easy, with the technician spending just a few hours mounting the satellite dish on the home and aligning it properly. After that and connecting it to the router, their work is done, and your connection is ready to use. The best satellite internet providers make it a point to ensure you do not have to face delays in this, and the technicians they send over are skilled, efficient and courteous.
While dial-up is one of the options a rural customer can go with, it pales in comparison with satellite internet in terms of speed. When connected via dial-up, streaming and gaming can slow down to a crawl, with some games simply failing to work at all. Satellite internet, while it cannot fully remove these issues, can sure mitigate them. Moreover, you can comfortably utilize a decent data allowance of 20 GB or such. Inside that, a customer gets to watch 30 hours or more of video of standard definition quality on a streaming service. If it is HD video, you can watch seven hours of it. The pricing on plans would vary based on the provider you choose, but as a rule, satellite internet costs more than dial-up, even when it is from the best satellite internet providers in the country. If you need fast and copious data flow, it definitely beats dial-up on both counts.
Other than the problem of data allowance being limited with a satellite connection, there are some limitations as well, which you need to be aware of before signing up. These have to do with the type of service delivery. The foremost of them is “latency”, which is caused by the distance, which data signals have to travel among the satellite, your computer, and the ground servers.
Latency is technically the amount of time from the instant a command gets sent from one end, such as when you click on a link, to the instant the intended function takes place. Remember, the satellite that is providing you internet is 23,000 miles in the sky, and that the signal from your computer has to reach it and get sent back down to the NOC or Network Operations Center. The NOC processes it and sends it back up, after which the satellite sends it to your dish. All of this happens pretty quickly, but not instantaneously; so you normally see many slight delays while using the internet. These become more pronounced for gamers, who generally require near-immediate responses while playing. High latency is an issue that hounds even the best satellite internet providers and customers.
Bad weather too can wreak havoc with good signal delivery. If there are highs winds or rainstorms in your area, it is usually a given that satellite internet reception will poor, if available. Bandwidth can be a problem as well after you have used up a set amount of data; even the best satellite internet providers in the country throttle speeds in keeping with Fair Use Policy. Some of the best satellite internet providers make this easier to swallow by offering daily bandwidths instead, which only inconveniences you for a day, instead of the remainder of the month. Satellite internet also precludes the use of VPNs, owing to their high latency.
It is important to have a good idea on how satellite internet can affect your daily internet use, and whether you are ok with that. Living in a rural area with no available ground-based internet service can limit your options for fast internet considerably, and when that is the case, getting satellite internet may be your only way forward. Sure, it is expensive, but not being able to go online can get unbearable pretty quickly, so you take what’s on the table.
Optimizing the Connection
Satellite broadband is often more complicated to optimize than fiber, cable, or DSL. The system has two main parts: a home network system and a satellite system. This may confuse users at first, but clears up sufficiently after you grasp the basics of line-of-sight transmissions. When you have that concept down in your mind, it is easy to see that optimizing a satellite internet setup in your home carries much the same specifics as doing the same with a landline-based home network. Below are the basic steps you need to know how to carry out in case you cannot reach the company for some reason.
- Ensuring that the dish is not faced with any physical obstructions, or improperly oriented
- Ensuring that the router or modem is loaded with and operating flawlessly on the latest firmware
- If you are using Wi-Fi in your home, placing the router in an open space and close to where your computer is
- Using a wired connection to squeeze out the most speed, especially if you are big on streaming and gaming
Factors Affecting the Signal Reaching the Dish
There are two key components to your satellite dish receiver: the receiver and the dish. The latter performs the function of focusing radio signals and reflecting them back onto the receiver, which is placed in front of it. A signal from a satellite is basically what you call a line-of-sight signal, which means there needs to be a line of sight extending from the dish’s center to the satellite that’s in the sky. Loss of this would always degrade the signal. Maximizing the quality of your satellite internet depends on giving the dish proper orientation and placement, which requires having accurate information about the geostationary satellite. The service technician always has the information with them, because it is the main thing they need to help you fix a dropped connection or slow speed.
A broadband satellite, as mentioned above, is placed in geosynchronous orbit at 23,000 miles above ground, which means it will not move with respect to a person standing directly below it. There is no need to keep checking where the satellite is, but you do have to keep the view in front of your satellite dish free from physical obstacles that could block signal flow.
When a professional installer sets up your satellite dish, they make sure it is properly oriented. If it came with a self-installation kit and you were the one to put it up, there is a chance you will experience service issues. At these times, do not simply assume it is your network hardware that is at fault. First, call your satellite internet service provider and ask them for assistance with aiming the dish. They would normally ask you for your location and easily tell you the satellite’s bearing. While stateside you are in the Northern Hemisphere, and geosynchronous satellites are placed directly above the equator, which means you will usually need to aim the dish South.
Accurate tuning can be done with help from your internet service provider, by getting the direct bearing with respect to the satellite. For instance, if you are in Tampa, Florida, and the internet signals you get are beamed down from a satellite placed at 115.1°W, it would have a bearing of approximately 235 degrees. All you need to do is download a compass app on your phone and using this, stand behind the dish and keep turning till you are facing 235 (roughly Southwest). At this point, you are facing the satellite. Point the dish in that direction as well, and angle it at 30 degrees from the ground. After this comes the part where you remove any obstructions blocking the dish from a full direct view of the sky ahead. If there are trees or buildings blocking the path, the dish will need to be moved to a better place and oriented once more.
Optimizing the Home Network
After ensuring that the satellite dish is facing in the right direction and has an unbroken view of the sky, you will need to move onto optimizing the network equipment that will be set up inside the home. This will comprise a router-modem combination, or a separate modem with router boxes. Both can be optimized in the same way, with the main goal being ideally placing the wireless router and ensuring that the firmware on the devices is updated.
Your modem or router will have a sticker that shows its IP address as well as other information. The IP address is specific to each device, and will be in the 192.168.xx.xx format. In some cases, the prefix may be something other than 192.168, but you do not find a lot of that these days.
After locating the IP address of the hardware you are going to set up, you will be able to get on the network using a web browser. You will first be taken to an internal web page that the device generated. From here, you need to take the option that lets you update the firmware. Just search for “firmware” on the page, and click on the link. Follow the instructions you see, and you will have the latest firmware installed in no time.
With regard to the Wi-Fi connection inside the home, you need to understand and remember one thing: Wi-Fi signals do not require a line of sight between the emitting and receiving devices, but can weaken after passing through solid objects. The fewer walls and floors these need to go through to reach your computer or tablet, the better. In other words, you would do well to place the router in an open space and in the upper third, as well as preferably in the same room as your PC. If that is not possible, and the speeds you get are disappointing, maybe it is time to start thinking about the hard cable alternative.
Local Options for Satellite Internet
If you want to know whether your area is being serviced by a satellite internet service provider, the first thing to do is call up the best satellite internet providers you know about. If that gets you nowhere, Google “best satellite internet providers” along with your zip code, and call up the ones that show up in the results. Every service provider is outspoken about satellite internet being providable in areas open to the southern sky, but that does not mean they will service every area in the country. Confirm which companies bring internet to yours, and start researching and comparing their plans. When comparing the best satellite internet providers servicing your area, go by speed, pricing, contracts, early termination fees, and data caps. This will shorten the list and hopefully let you pick from no more than a handful of options.
The Best Satellite Internet Providers in the Country
- Viasat: An established provider of satellite internet, Viasat has been steadily improving its offerings over the years it has been in the business. If you have been a customer for some time, you do not need to be told that they are now giving faster speeds for less money, as well as the highly enticing option of unlimited data. Some areas get up to 100 Mbps, thanks to a recently launched satellite, effectively making Viasat one of the best satellite internet providers in the country. In some areas though, the speeds are as meager as 12 Mbps. Viasat is not taking on new installations in some areas, but you are generally likely to get access to their services considering current coverage. The main problem with choosing Viasat is that it raises the bill after the first three months, even though you would still be paying a lot less per GB. Another downside is that the company imposes steep early termination fees, which kick in if you stop paying before the mandatory 24-month contract ends.
- HughesNet: HughesNet is Viasat’s main competition in the satellite internet arena. While initially derided for slow and pricey plans, since launching a satellite in 2017, the company has upped its game and started offering a minimum speed of 25 Mbps across all plans. Coverage is not very wide though, and the plans come with data limits beyond which the speed gets throttled, which is annoying. Pricing is pretty standard and transparent. After your connection slows down post exceeding the data limit, you can buy a data token to raise the speed to what it was. However, this coupled with the already high price of satellite internet can be very expensive. HughesNet does automatically adjust the quality of your streaming videos to the available speed, which means you do not have to do this manually. There is also bonus data of 50 GB, which you can use on off-peak hours every month, but you would need to stay up between 02:00 and 08:00 am, or schedule your downloads for that time. This is good for large downloads like games, movies or software updates. HughesNet also mandates a 24-month contract, and charges up to $400 if you cancel prematurely.