What is Satellite Internet?

Satellite internet uses a satellite in space, a satellite dish at your home, and the provider’s Network Operation Center (NOC) to provide you with internet services, even in hard-to-reach rural areas. Thanks to its advanced technology, satellite internet offers high-speeds that greatly surpass dial-up internet.

Sitting over the equator, satellites can send and receive signals through “spot beams” that cover most of the US. As long as you’re within one of these beams and other users aren’t using all the data capability, you’ll be able to get satellite internet service.

There are two main choices for satellite internet: Viasat (formerly Exede) and HughesNet. Either can set you up with a small satellite dish pointed toward its satellite in the southern sky and a modem/router for your home.

Data transfers from your home internet devices to the satellite in space and then to the NOC back on Earth—and back. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.

Thumbs Up Pros

  • Availability: Satellite internet is available almost everywhere in the US. That makes it an excellent solution for rural areas.
  • Speed: Satellite internet is much faster than dial-up internet, even allowing you to stream videos online. Some plans are even as fast as DSL or cable internet plans.

Thumbs Down Cons

  • Data allowances: Satellite internet plans come with an allotment of data—a benchmark for how much information you can download or upload. After you reach that data cap, your speeds will slow down considerably.
  • Latency: Sending information to space and back takes a few seconds, making it difficult to play fast-paced online games.

Satellite vs. DSL vs. Cable

Because of small data allowances and latency issues, satellite internet can’t quite keep up with DSL or cable internet. But that doesn’t mean it’s miles behind them in every category.

Internet TypeMax DownloadMax Upload SpeedsAvailability of US Population
Satellite100 Mbps3 Mbps100%
DSL75 Mbps3 Mbps90%
Cable400 Mbps40 Mbps89%

*Data is estimated from currently offered plans from popular providers and subject to change.

For a more accurate pricing comparison, let’s look at what a 25 Mbps plan might look like from each provider type. This is a useful speed to compare since it’s a good fit for a household of 2–4 people who need access to Ultra HD streaming.

Internet TypeDownload SpeedIntroductory Price
Satellite25 Mbps$49.99–$129.99/mo.
DSL25 Mbps$45.00–$50.00/mo.
Cable25 Mbps$24.99–$35.00/mo.

You may have noticed the price range for satellite internet is much broader than that of DSL and cable. The variation comes from HughesNet, which sets all its plans at 25 Mbps but adjusts the pricing based on the data allowance, unlike DSL and cable plans, which are priced by speed.

With those comparatively high prices and low data allowances, satellite internet keeps up with the competition by offering something its competitors can’t: wide availability.

Satellite internet is an excellent solution for rural areas that don’t have a connection for DSL or cable internet.

How Does Satellite Internet Work?

satellite internet

Satellite internet uses a five-part relay system:

  • Internet-ready device
  • Modem/router
  • Satellite dish
  • Satellite in space
  • Network Operations Center (NOC)

Internet-Ready Device

An internet-ready device is any device that can access the internet through the proper service. This includes your computer, tablet, smartphone, smart TV, gaming consoles, and any other internet-enabled equipment.

When you use the internet on one of these devices, it sends and receives data through your modem/router.

Modem/Router

Translates data: A modem translates data so it can move between your internet-ready device and the satellite dish. You can connect some devices, like a computer, smart TV, or gaming console, directly to your modem using an ethernet cable.

Wi-Fi capabilities: However, those cables can get a bit messy, and you’ll still need Wi-Fi capabilities for devices like tablets and smartphones. That’s where a router comes in. It connects to the modem to give it Wi-Fi capabilities.

Update your equipment: Some modems come with a built-in router. These take up less space, but it can be easier to update your equipment if you buy a modem and router separately.

Most providers will offer to lease you a modem/router, or you can buy the equipment on your own. If you decide to purchase your own, make sure it’s compatible with your satellite internet provider first.

Satellite Dish

The next step in the relay is your home satellite dish. This dish must be precisely positioned to beam signals to the provider’s satellite in orbit and receive information back. A certified technician from your provider will take care of placement for you.

The tricky positioning of a satellite dish can make satellite internet difficult for traveling RVs. Additionally, your account is set up to be under a specific spot beam from the satellite in space, so how far you would be able to travel and still get internet would be somewhat limited.

Satellite in Space

Roughly 22,000 miles above the surface of Earth, the spacecraft used for satellite internet hold position over the equator. They rotate with the planet, so the signal relay stays consistent. This allows for two-way data communication between your dish and the provider hub, or NOC.

Both HughesNet and Viasat have their own satellite with spot beam technology. Spot beams cover specific areas of the US, rather than using one beam to cover the entire country. Thanks to spot beams, you can access your individual content on the internet, instead of being sent the same thing as everyone else.

satellite orbiting earth

Network Operations Center

Whenever you request information from the internet, whether you’re clicking on a link, streaming a show, or opening Facebook, the data from that request is uploaded through the above relay. The satellite then beams that request to the NOC.

Using a much larger satellite dish than the one you have at home, the NOC receives your request. The NOC then taps into the internet backbone, gathers the information you requested, and sends it back through the relay to you.

All of this process, including beaming information 22,000 miles into space and back twice, happens in fractions of a second.

Because the information has to travel so far, you may notice more latency (also called lag) than you might with DSL or cable internet, but advances in technology have made the satellite internet today much faster than it used to be.

Best Satellite Internet Providers

Viasat (formerly Exede) and HughesNet are the two satellite internet providers in operation today. Viasat has faster speeds and higher data allowances, while HughesNet offers more affordable packages.

To learn more about the providers and decide which one is best for you, check out our article “Viasat vs. Hughesnet.”

Satellite Internet FAQs

What equipment will I need for satellite internet to work?

To use satellite internet, you’ll need an internet-ready device (like a computer, tablet, or gaming console), modem/router, and satellite dish. You probably already have internet-ready devices at home, and your satellite internet provider can set you up with a modem/router and satellite dish

Which modems and routers work with satellite internet?

Both HughesNet and Viasat have their own modems because satellite internet modems don’t have industry standards. While they also have modem/router combos, you can buy your own router, such as the Netgear Nighthawk. Almost any modern router will be compatible.

How fast is satellite internet?

Viasat has a wide range of plans with maximum download speeds from 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps. All HughesNet plans come with up to 25 Mbps. Most satellite internet plans have 3 Mbps upload speeds.

How does satellite TV work?

Satellite TV works in a relay system similar to satellite internet, but it uses a set-top box and TV instead of a modem and internet-ready device.

How can I get high-speed internet in rural areas?

Satellite internet is available in almost every rural area in the US. Satellite internet plans come with download speeds from 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps, and 25 Mbps is the current FCC standard for high-speed internet.

Is satellite internet good for gaming?

Because of the distance satellite internet data has to travel—22,000 miles to outer space and back twice—lag is unavoidable. Any game that requires rapid response, like Call of Duty and other first-person shooters, will be unplayable with satellite internet’s delay.

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