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Wondering How Satellite Internet Works? CNET Explains

As new options begin to emerge, it's an exciting time for satellite internet -- especially if you live in a rural area. Here's everything you need to know.

Viasat is a long-established option for satellite internet -- but it's facing new competition in 2022.
Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Satellite internet is nothing new, but there's growing interest in the category now that Amazon, Elon Musk and others are working on expanding its availability and capabilities. That's welcome news, as home internet use has been surging in recent years, making it more important than ever to have access to a reliable internet connection wherever you live.

Satellite internet isn't as fast as fiber or cable, but it's widely available throughout all 50 states. That makes it a good fit in rural parts of the country, where broadband alternatives are often scarce. That said, satellite internet is expensive, and it can come with long-term service contracts, so in most cases, you'll want to consider it a last resort for your home internet needs. Here's everything you should know before you sign up.

Read moreThe best internet providers for 2022: Cable vs. DSL vs. satellite and more

How does satellite internet work?

starlink rectangular satellite dish

With satellite internet, you'll need to mount a dish like this one outside your home to receive the internet signal from orbit.

Starlink

Satellite internet works similarly to satellite TV. It begins with an internet service provider sending satellites up into space to orbit around the earth. That ISP then relies on a signal routed through one of those satellites in low- or high-Earth orbit and a receiver dish that picks up that signal. The receiver is typically placed on your home or business in a spot with as unobstructed access to the sky as possible. You'll connect a modem to that dish to translate the incoming signal into a workable internet connection.

You'll need electricity to keep the receiver dish powered (and, again, a clear view of the sky), but that's really about it. Satellite internet isn't dependent on cable wires, fiber or phone lines. Ground-based technologies like those aren't as well-developed in rural areas because the lack of population density means that internet providers need to spend more to cover more ground to bring the same number of households online. Satellite internet sidesteps that problem by skipping ground-laid infrastructure altogether.

And sure, launching satellites into space is expensive, too. Still, once a sufficient network of them is available, companies can offer broadband satellite internet to customers over a wide swath of the planet, even in pretty remote places. 

Amazon's Blue Origin rocket

Amazon's Project Kuiper has reached deals with multiple launch partners, including Blue Origin, to send thousands of satellites into orbit over the next five years.

Amazon

Who currently offers satellite internet?

The two top satellite internet providers in the country are Viasat and HughesNet, and each has been in the business of satellite-based communications for decades. Most recently, HughesNet began offering its Gen5 service plan for satellite-based home internet, where all plans come with the same speeds (25Mbps down, 3Mbps up) but different data caps. Meanwhile, Viasat has started offering a plan with download speeds as high as 100Mbps, but it's not available in all locations. In fact, some Viasat locations might max out at 12Mbps, which is lower than what HughesNet offers.

Those two long-established names now face the prospect of new, high-profile competition. In July 2020, the Federal Communications Commission approved Amazon's Project Kuiper to deploy thousands of satellites to create its own satellite-based broadband service. As many as 83 launches are planned over the next five years.

Even farther along is Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. His company's Starlink satellite internet service already boasts more than 2,000 satellites in orbit and reaches hundreds of thousands of customers in the US and beyond. It doesn't come cheap, but with a constellation of satellites flying through low-earth orbit, Starlink's network promises faster speeds and lower latency than we've traditionally expected from satellite internet. You can check out our first impressions of Starlink in the video above.

You'll find satellite internet available from at least one provider in just about every part of the US. This FCC coverage map from December of 2020 shows universal availability for HughesNet (blue) and near-universal availability for Viasat (orange). If you squint at the Pacific Northwest, those yellow dots are the first areas of availability for Starlink, and coverage has undoubtedly grown in the two years since.

FCC/Mapbox

Where is satellite internet available?

Most areas of the US can receive satellite internet signals due to the proliferation of satellites attuned to those latitudes. HughesNet, for instance, offers service in all 50 states. Viasat offers universal coverage in the US, except for Alaska, where service is only available in certain regions. Meanwhile, Starlink is still expanding its coverage map, and Project Kuiper is working on getting off the ground.

Some satellite internet companies are also exploring coverage in other parts of the world and experimenting with new deployment approaches, like using community hot spots instead of residential dishes and connections. 

How does satellite compare to other internet connection types?

Recent advancements have helped satellite internet to hit baseline broadband speeds. However, it's still more expensive than most other common modes of internet, and in most cases, other options will offer better speeds with lower latency. If you aren't sure what your current internet speed is, you can check your connection to put the various numbers in context; uploads and downloads are measured in megabits per second or Mbps. 

For instance, DSL and cable internet are very common, with DSL download speeds ranging from 3 to 50Mbps and cable typically providing anywhere from 10 to 940Mbps, depending on your plan. Satellite internet generally comes in at 12 to 100Mbps, though Musk promises that speeds of up to 300Mbps will be possible when Starlink's infrastructure is complete.

Fiber internet, which uses fiber-optic cables, can offer blazing-fast download speeds as high as 5 or even 10 gigabits per second (5,000 or 10,000Mbps). With fiber, your uploads will typically be just as fast as your downloads, which isn't the case with cable, DSL or satellite. However, installing fiber cable is expensive, and deployments aren't cost-efficient in areas with low population density, so there's no telling if or when fiber will become a viable option across most of rural America.

Here's a quick rundown of the pros and cons of a satellite connection

Pros

  • Waiting for broadband internet to be provided in your area could take a long time, and satellite internet is available now.
  • Satellite internet is relatively simple to acquire: find a company that offers it, rent a receiver dish or buy it upfront, and sign up for the right plan for your needs.
  • Major companies like SpaceX and Amazon are bringing new competition into the satellite internet market, which could mean better speeds and value over the long term. At the very least, availability is expected to widen.

Cons

  • Typically more expensive than other forms of internet, with the potential for steep upfront costs for your receiver dish. The cost-per-Mbps, a rough indicator of value with home internet plans, is relatively high with satellite internet.
  • With many satellites located in far-away orbit above Earth, high latency is a common issue with satellite internet. Your traffic will need a few extra moments to make it up to outer space. That said, Starlink claims to be deploying its satellites in lower orbits much closer to Earth, which should help reduce latency.
  • Satellite internet can be finicky if there isn't a clear connection with the constellation overhead. For instance, satellite dishes must be aligned well with a "clear view of the Southern sky," as HughesNet says. Snow buildup or other kinds of bad weather can create spottiness or even an outage.

Satellite internet FAQs

Do I need a phone line to have satellite internet?

No. Satellite internet does not require a phone line, a cable connection, or any other special wiring in your home. All that's required is electricity to power the receiver dish, a place to mount it outside your home and an unobstructed view of the sky. From there, you'll use an Ethernet cable to connect the dish to a router and broadcast the signal throughout your home as a Wi-Fi network.

Does satellite internet come with data caps?

In most cases, yes. With HughesNet, the cheapest plan comes with a monthly data allowance of 15GB, while the most expensive plan comes with 100GB. You won't be charged a fee or cut off once you use more data than that, but you will experience extreme slowdowns. It's the same story at Viasat, where plans are more expensive but come with more data, with caps ranging from 40-150GB.

Starlink is the exception, at least for now -- the service does not currently enforce data caps on any of its customers.

Is satellite internet fast enough to stream video?

Yes. You can stream video from the web over a satellite connection. Streaming in standard definition doesn't require download speeds much faster than 3Mbps, and streaming in 4K requires download speeds of at least 25Mbps. All HughesNet satellite internet plans come with download speeds of 25Mbps, while Viasat offers plans as fast as 100Mbps. Meanwhile, the speed-testing site Ookla found that satellite service from Starlink hit average download speeds of 105Mbps in the US during the fourth quarter of 2021. Remember that your speeds will dip if you're connecting wirelessly over Wi-Fi, especially if you're more than a few rooms away from your router.

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