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How Does Satellite Broadband Work?

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Fiber optic cable-based internet services have become a standard throughout the global telecommunications industry. But while these have become pro forma in most urban centers, fiber optic cable services are not available to everyone, particularly for those living in the suburbs or out in the countryside. There are specific locations that may be difficult to access physically, making it hard to install the equipment necessary for a fiber-optic connection.

In this case, satellite broadband becomes the most viable connectivity solution. It may not be as fast as fiber optic internet, but it gets the job done. 

What Exactly is Satellite Broadband?

The name itself is a giveaway: it is internet access made possible through satellite transmission. Subscribers can access the internet thanks to geostationary satellites. Connection speeds can be slower than those on a fiber-optic connection. Still, newer satellites use the Ku band (part of the electromagnetic spectrum running through the microwave range of frequencies from 12 to 18  GHz) to hit data speeds of up to 506Mbps. 

How Does it Work?

In practice, satellite internet networks rely on three key components:

  • Geostationary Satellites, also known as Geosynchronous Earth Orbiters (GEO);
  • An array of ground stations, or gateways, relay data to and from the satellite via microwave transmission; and
  • A dish antenna, usually a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) antenna with a transceiver.

To understand how satellite broadband works, one must first understand how standard broadband connections work. 

In a typical home broadband setup, one usually connects devices such as laptops or mobile phones to a central wireless hub. This hybrid between a modem and a router connects to the cable connection installed within the house. This cable connects a household full of users to an exchange, which is, in turn, connected to a network of data servers.

In a satellite broadband setup, users also connect their devices to a wireless hub to access the internet. The difference lies in the process between those points. The data cable in this scenario connects to the dish antenna instead of an exchange. The dish transmits and receives information to and from a geostationary satellite. The received information is sent to a gateway connected by cable to the data network, thus connecting users to the internet.

What Else Do You Need for a Satellite Broadband Connection?

Aside from the three components mentioned in the previous section, the connection needs the following equipment to work:

  • A hybrid modem and router hub that is similar to the ones used for standard broadband connections. Installed indoors, this enables multiple wireless devices to access the connection; and
  • A coaxial cable that connects the transceiver on the satellite dish to the modem.

How Does it Differ from Standard Broadband in Terms of Performance?

As previously stated, satellite broadband transmission’s current process leads to slower connection, download, and upload streams. A slower connection makes this a problematic choice for those dependent on the internet on work connectivity, particularly in terms of regular communication and sending or receiving heavy files. Streaming media may also pose problems, such as a considerable lag in transmission, or the visual quality may suffer and appear pixilated.

Other key issues include the following:

  • Signal Latency, or what technicians refer to as ping time, is the delay between requesting a server’s data and an appropriate response. In the case of satellite broadband connections, the latency period is considerably more extended than that for a standard connection: even under the best conditions, it still takes 120 milliseconds for the request to make it to a geostationary satellite and another 120 milliseconds for the response to reach the gateway. On average, it takes 550 milliseconds for data to make a round trip via satellite. The use of medium-orbit and low-orbit satellites helps reduce this delay, resulting in a shorter latency.
  • Interference is usually environmental in nature: precipitation in the form of rain or snow, extreme heat, and extreme cold can lead to malfunctioning equipment, which hampers access to the network. Simultaneously, most satellite broadband connections are dependent on solar [photovoltaic] panels to power their systems, which can pose a challenge on stormy or even simply overcast days. The use of larger satellite dishes and weather-resistant equipment usually lessens interference from precipitation, while some service providers offer back-up batteries or electrical power systems just in case conditions aren’t ideal for solar panels.
  • Line of Sight, essentially ensures that the connection between the dish and satellite is clear and unhampered. This makes it necessary for a connection’s smooth operation. However, overhanging tree branches or vines can block the line of sight between these pieces of equipment and cause transmission delays. Keeping a residential tree line neatly trimmed prevents this from happening. Simultaneously, for those installing satellite dishes in the winter, it helps to have foresight in terms of determining if any plants or trees might block the line of sight come spring or summer.
  • Fresnel Zone or interference that occurs when transmission signals are reflected off other objects adjacent to the satellite dish. Placing the satellite dish on the roof of one’s house or a part of one’s yard that’s clear of clutter prevents this from happening. 

Who Usually Gets Satellite Broadband?

For the most part, people who avail of satellite broadband services live or work in places where standard fiber optic telecommunication networks are not available, especially those that even the strongest and most stable mobile communication signals can’t reach. This roster of off-grid locations includes rural areas, mountain communities, deserts, polar zones, islets, and thickly forested regions such as rainforests or jungles.

Especially among researchers and archaeologists, satellite broadband connections enable those within these areas to transmit and receive necessary information or, in extreme cases, call for assistance. Commercial and private aircraft, merchant and military ships, and cruise liners also use satellite broadband to give passengers and crew internet access while in transit.

In the United States, companies that provide satellite broadband access for rural homes include Exede by ViaSat and HughesNet by EcoStar.