The Pros and Cons of Satellite Internet Service

Perhaps you live in a rural area and you can’t get cable or DSL high-speed Internet access, but you can get satellite. Or, maybe you are at your wit’s end with the cable and/or phone (DSL) companies and don’t want to give either of them another dime. Satellite may be the answer, but you’ll need to do a bit of research before determining if it will fit your needs. Here are answers to many of the most common questions regarding satellite service.

Q: How fast is satellite access?

A: Satellite providers typically offer several levels of service with download speeds ranging between 700 Kbps and 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds as high as 256 Kbps. Note, though, that these are optimal speeds. Typical speeds, particularly during peak times, can be somewhat slower.

Q: How much does satellite access cost?

A: The price depends on your provider and the service plan that you acquire. As a generalization, prices range from approximately $60 a month for service providing roughly 700 Kbps download speed to about $80 a month for service in the 1.5 Mbps range. In addition, your equipment costs can be as much as $300 or $400 and installation can cost another $200, although vendors often have special offers for equipment and installation.

Q: What impact can weather have on satellite access?

A: As is the case with satellite television, severe rain or snow can slow or stop satellite Internet access. That is true both for bad weather in your area as well as bad weather at the location of the satellite provider’s network operations center (NOC). However, while severe weather can break the connection, satellite systems typically operate even in strong, steady downpours.

Q: Besides the weather, how reliable is satellite access?

A: Besides service degradation due to weather, satellite access is extremely reliable. The outdoor equipment is quite rugged and, while it does break down occasionally, such problems are rare.

Q: Still, should I keep a dial-up connection “just in case?”

A: While it is tempting to keep a dial-up connection because of the complex technical nature of satellite connections, it isn’t necessary for most people. As mentioned above, the satellite equipment is very robust and rarely breaks down and weather-related problems occur infrequently. However, if something does go wrong, it can take days before repair personnel can get to your house. If that concerns you, you may want to have a dial-up back-up but know that you’ll rarely, if ever, use it.

Q: What equipment is required?

A: Satellite access requires installation of two pieces of equipment. Outdoors is a dish that collects and transmits the signal to and from the satellite. Indoors is a “satellite modem” that is connected to the dish via coaxial cable. The modem is connected to a PC or to networking equipment such as a router using an Ethernet cable.

Q: Is any on-going maintenance required?

A: Although nothing is absolute, typically, no on-going maintenance is required. On rare occasions, you will need to have your dish “re-peaked,” or re-aimed at the satellite. Even more rarely, there will be an equipment failure and some part of the system such as the receiver, transmitter or modem, will have to be replaced. But, as mentioned above, the equipment is quite rugged and such problems are rare.

Q: Can I network my satellite connection so that more than one computer in my home can have access?

A: The satellite systems can be networked the same as DSL or cable connections. That is to say, you can connect the indoor satellite modem to a router using a standard Ethernet cable, which then distributes the connection to other computers. Note, however, that the satellite providers won’t help you set up or troubleshoot home networks.

Q: What is latency and how will it impact me?

A: Latency is the time required for a signal to travel from its source to its destination. In the case of satellite access, that includes the time it takes to send the signal up to a satellite and back down to the ground. Since satellites typically orbit about 22,000 miles above the earth, that latency can be as long as a second every time data is sent and received.

That delay means that certain types of applications aren’t practical when using satellite systems. One notable example is voice-over-IP. Over a satellite connection, a second or more passes between the time you say something and the time it is heard, which makes communications clumsy. Satellite connections also aren’t good for so-called “twitch” real-time online games and for use with terminal server software, which lets telecommuters connect to their company’s servers as if they were in the office.

Q: How many satellite providers are there?

A: In the U.S., there are three primary satellite providers: HughesNet (, WildBlue ( and Starband ( Other vendors and organizations may offer satellite service, but it typically is provided by one of the three services. For instance, AT&T offers satellite service but actually is reselling WildBlue service.

Q: Does it matter where I mount the dish?

A: The dish must have a clear view of the southern sky, which is where the satellite is in orbit. Beyond that, the dish can be positioned using a pole stuck into the ground, on the side of your house or on your roof. Obviously, a ground-mounted dish is easier in case maintenance is required. Also, sometimes snow and ice collecting on the dish can slow down service — it is easier to brush snow and ice off a ground-mounted dish.

Q: Can I install satellite service by myself?

A: No — satellite access vendors won’t let you do that. And that’s probably a good thing since it requires certain skills to link the dish to the right satellite. Further, the Federal Communications Commission requires that professionals install satellite systems that both send and receive signals.

Q: How does satellite service operate in actual usage? Is it different than using cable or DSL?

A: Other than limits on a few specific types of applications mentioned previously, satellite service operates virtually identically to DSL or cable broadband.

Q: I live in the city. Are there any reasons to consider satellite access?

A: In most cases, DSL or cable access is faster and cheaper. If that type of service is available to you, chances are high that it will be preferable to satellite access.

Q: Is satellite access two-way access?

A: Yes. Data that you receive, such as downloaded files and Web pages, is sent via the satellite system, as are items you upload. Early satellite systems, however, were one-way systems. Downloads occurred via the satellite but information sent by you was transmitted via a standard dial-up connection. Such old-fashioned systems haven’t been available for several years.

Q: I’m a Mac user. Can I use satellite access?

A: Yes. All major satellite access systems work with Macs.

Q: Is mobile satellite access available?

A: No. A satellite connection requires a constant connection with a satellite that is in high orbit. It is a time-consuming task for a trained installer to aim your dish at that satellite. While some companies have been experimenting with antennas that can maintain a connection with the satellite while a vehicle moves, this technology isn’t yet practical for day-in, day-out use.

Q: I also get satellite TV. Can I use only one dish for both?

A: No. While single dish solutions once were available, vendors determined that separate dishes work better for both Internet Service and TV.

Q: Can I download as much as I want over a satellite system?

A: No. Like other broadband providers, satellite vendors have Fair Access Policies (FAP) that detail how much you can download at a given time. The purpose of the FAP is to prevent a few heavy downloaders from hogging bandwidth used by everybody. Satellite vendors tend to have stricter FAPs than other broadband providers. For instance, with HughesNet you can download as much as 350 MB at a time, depending on your service plan. That is roughly one-third the size of a typical downloadable feature-length movie. When you surpass the limits of the FAP, the provider has the option of temporarily throttling down your spe

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