September 13, 2014 Jessica Sims
Satellite Broadband: Is It a Viable Option?

Satellite Broadband: Is It a Viable Option?

Broadband comes in many forms, and different broadband service providers use an array of wildly different technologies, but the problem is that not everyone lives in a densely populated area where DSL and/or cable-broadband services are readily available.  In such areas there are only a few alternative forms of broadband services to choose from, but one that many people overlook is that of satellite-based broadband.  Satellite broadband may not be appropriate for all users and applications, especially those with low-ping time requirements, but satellite broadband may be the only broadband option for some consumers, at least for the time being.

How Satellite Broadband Works

One of the strengths of satellite broadband is that it only requires a clear line of sight from the orbiting satellite to a dish located somewhere on the property of any given consumer.  Typical mounting locations include roofs and upper portions of exterior walls, but the only thing that is truly required is a line of sight.  Once the line of sight has been established, the entire process of transmitting data is fairly simple: a satellite broadband service provider has at least one transmission hub facility that is connected to the Internet via metal wires and/or fiber optic cabling as well as to its orbiting satellite(s) via its own dish or dishes.  The dish or dishes used at such a hub facility are usually much larger and capable of greater data rates than those used by individual consumers.  Data flows to and from the hub to an orbiting satellite, which in turn communicates with the dishes owned by consumers.

The entire process may sound complex on the surface, but it is really similar to other forms of broadband, which use similar hubs but use them to change technologies and split large data pipelines into numerous smaller lines.   The key difference is that the wires end at some point with satellite broadband, and a large gap is created that is serviced via a satellite or group of satellites.

How Fast is Satellite Broadband?

Satellite broadband offered by companies such as WildBlue, the same company that DirectTV partners with to power their own satellite broadband services, offer performance that may not be the best choice for everyone.  WildBlue currently offers downstream speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps and upstream speeds of up to 256 Kbps.  These speeds are certainly faster than dial-up services, but are really only competitive with low-end DSL and cable-broadband offerings in most areas.  As cable, DSL and fiber optic broadband solutions continue to evolve, satellite services may be left further behind.  After all, upgrading terrestrial wiring and service centers is a little easier than adding a new satellite.

Downstream and upstream speeds are not the only performance consideration, however.  Ping times using satellite services are much greater than ping times using terrestrial networks.  This is due to the need for data to travel from one point on the Earth to a satellite which is usually orbiting between 22,000 an 25,000 miles above the surface of the planet and back again.  Given that satellites transmit and receive signals traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, the additional distance of 45,000 to 50,000 miles results in a delay that is at least a quarter of a second in one direction.  To put that into perspective, the equatorial circumference of the Earth is a little over 24,901 miles.  Ping times measure a round trip, which results in nothing less than a half-second delay.

High ping times make some applications perform poorly, especially those that are time-sensitive such as live voice and video streaming and many online games.  Not all tasks require low ping times, such as downloading, but even these tasks may not feel as snappy or fast as they would if the latency was not quite so high.  Of course, many consumers shopping for satellite broadband services may be doing so because the only alternative is dial-up Internet access, or there is no alternative form of Internet access available.  In these cases, the technical limitations of satellite broadband might not seem so bad.

Weather Can Affect Performance

Due to the nature of satellite transmissions, rain and other airborne moisture can have a detrimental effect on transmission quality.  Given the two-way trip that data has to make into and from orbit, there is always a chance that airborne moisture will play a role in limiting performance.  This can be mitigated to a degree by having satellites capable of directing data traffic to different stations on the ground that are strategically located.  More stations means less chance of data being affected from the hub to the satellite, but there is not much that can be done to ensure that data being transmitted between the customer’s dish and the satellite is not affected by the weather.

Bandwidth Caps

Bandwidth caps are nothing new to broadband providers or their customers, though most satellite broadband services are very clear regarding their usage limits.  This practice may be attributable to the very technical and finite limitations of satellites, which cannot be easily upgraded in an incremental fashion.  Instead, upgrades must come in the form of additional satellites in most cases.  This limitation certainly raises questions about the efficacy of satellite-based broadband solutions, and calls into question their future.  WildBlue offers data caps ranging from 7,500 megabytes per month to 17,000 megabytes per month.

Future of Satellite Broadband

Luckily, there are a number of factors that are working in favor of satellite broadband.  The first factor is that virtually all technology improves over time, and it is certainly possible that faster satellite broadband services could be deployed in the future.  Unlike companies that use copper wiring or fiber optics, satellite broadband services could theoretically be expanded by simply launching new satellites.  This brings up another factor working in favor of satellite broadband solutions: globalization, technological advances, and other factors have made launching satellites more affordable than ever before.

The downside is, of course, investments in infrastructure are understandable expensive for satellite broadband carriers.  Still, satellite-based broadband may be the only option for consumers who use satellite broadband on their boats, RVs, cabins, or other places where other forms of broadband are simply unavailable.  This gives satellite broadband a niche that is not likely to be contested until coast-to-coast WiMax coverage is available and/or 4G/5G networks extend their reach significantly.

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