Satellite internet continues to build its footprint throughout the telecommunications industry. While just a few years ago, getting your internet service via a satellite link was not viable or prohibitively expensive, it is now mainstream enough to offer several legitimate, reliable and (mostly) affordable service options. Satellite internet continues to be a last resort of necessity – but a critical one – to the many millions of Americans living in more rural and less populated areas as well as businesses in those regions where wired internet access is not available.
In urban and more populated areas, broadband internet can usually be easily obtained through an ISP and brought into your home via cable, fiber, or possibly DSL. But the “digital divide” that differentiates those with broadband access from those without broadband access, typically affects those in rural areas. According to the annual FCC Broadband Deployment Report, approximately 15 million Americans have no access to broadband internet, with fully 75% of these located in rural areas. The report also states that approximately 99% of urban areas have access to 25/3 internet (25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload), while the number drops to 83% for rural areas, and 79% for tribal lands. For a more in-depth look, see our earlier blog, “Rural Broadband and the Biden Broadband Initiative.”
Quick Background on Satellite Internet
Before jumping into specific satellite internet providers, let’s take a quick look at satellite internet in general. For you to receive satellite internet access, you need to have your own satellite dish, installed at your home or business. Your satellite then communicates with an orbiting earth satellite owned (or shared) by your service provider. This earth satellite then relays your internet traffic down to the service provider’s base station, where it then enters the internet proper. Historically, the orbiting satellites have been in geosynchronous orbit at a distance of about 22,000 miles from earth. This is convenient for the provider since these satellites stay in a fixed location relative to the ground and are always visible to your home satellite dish. These satellites also provide a large footprint on the ground of usable signal strength, since they are so far away.
Non-geostationary satellites in low-earth orbit have been mainstreamed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX and its Starlink satellite system, which is the only commercial internet provider to use low-earth orbit satellites to provide broadband internet. The main advantage of these lower-earth orbit satellites is the 10-30 fold reduction in latency – the time it takes to transmit your data to/from the satellites. Also, the satellites can be smaller, less powerful, easier to build and launch, and cheaper since they are so much closer to earth than their geo-cousins.
Additional details and discussion can be found in our previous blog, “Satellite Internet – A Quick Primer and Survey of Solutions to Improve Performance.”
The Big Three Satellite Internet Providers
After a decade or so of jockeying for position and surviving numerous mergers and acquisitions, there appears to be only three viable solutions for obtaining satellite internet. Your options are HughesNet, Viasat, and Starlink. There are other companies that haven’t given up their aspirations for a piece of the satellite internet pie, including Amazon, but right now they are not ready to offer largescale services.
HughesNet Satellite Internet
HughesNet has several pricing/plan options depending on where you live. They have coast-to-coast availability, as long as your location has a clear view of the southern sky. Their plans boast free WiFi, 25/3 Mbps for download and upload speeds, and no hard data limits. I was presented with the following monthly plan options for the San Diego area – note that all tiers use 25 Mbps download speeds – there is no option for higher speeds, so each tier is defined by your data limits:
And for each tier, HughesNet describes their typical use cases (focusing on data usage):
As far as HughesNet’s boast of “no hard data limits” – if you reach your monthly maximum of data usage, you will be severely throttled down to 1-3 Mbps download speed for any excess data used.
And note that since HughesNet uses geosynchronous satellites, the latency/delay is on the order of a full ½ second, or 500 ms. This may not sound like much, but really means that any real-time application or game will not perform well, or at all.
HughesNet requires a 2-year contract with options to lease the equipment at $14.99 per month or purchase your equipment.
HughesNet business plans stay consistent with their residential plans. All business plans offer the same 25/3 Mbps download/upload speeds with 4 tiers of data caps:
These plans will throttle your speeds if you exceed your data caps and all require a 2-year contract, although they also have an option to purchase the equipment without the 2-year contact.
Viasat Satellite Internet
Viasat has comparable coast-to-coast coverage as HughesNet, but unlike HughesNet which has a fixed download speed of 25 Mbps, Viasat offers higher download speeds for a higher monthly premium. So their tiers are priced on both download speeds and data caps. Viasat offered me the following monthly plan options for my area in southern California:
And again, for each tier, Viasat describes their typical use cases (focusing on download speed):
Similar to HughesNet, Viasat will also throttle your download speeds once you hit your monthly data limits and also requires a 2-year contract at $12.99 to $14.99 per month for equipment rental, although you also have the option of purchasing your home satellite dish.
Viasat business offerings are for small to medium sized companies and claim to have costs starting at $80 per month for 35 Mbps download speed and “no hard data caps” – so expect to be throttled down significantly once you hit your “soft data caps”. But when I actually checked on business plans for my area these were the offered plans and they were quite a bit more than $80 per month! All these business plans have unlimited data and offer (up to) 4 Mbps upload speeds:
These plans all require a 2-year contract.
Starlink Satellite Internet
Starlink Satellite Internet has developed its own little niche outside of HughesNet and Viasat. While HughesNet and Viasat rely on relatively few and distant satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), Starlink has developed a system of many and relatively close low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. This means that Starlink delivers something no other satellite internet provider can match – truly low-latency communications.
With their LEO satellites orbiting at only several hundred miles (versus 22,000 miles for GEO) Starlink delivers very low-latency Internet – typically around 20 ms versus 500 ms for other providers. This means that Starlink can support most “real-time” applications and gaming. So Starlink can be expected to essentially match high-performance Internet provided by cable and fiber connections.
But Starlink has significant “operational” issues that will affect any new customers. These issues include a 6-month waiting list for new connections, as well as connectivity, performance, and reliability issues, a hefty monthly fee, and a very hefty initial buy-in to purchase your equipment – i.e. no option to rent the equipment monthly.
Starlink is currently offering (at least in my area) the following single residential plan:
And for small businesses, Starlink is offering this single plan:
Satellite Internet Shortcomings and Solutions
There are several significant and inherent problems with satellite internet. They can generally be broken down into 4 areas:
Performance Enhancing Proxies (PEPs)
Due to all the inherent performance issues with SATCOM (particularly latency), performance-enhancing proxies (PEPs) have been developed to improve overall performance.
PEPs can be classified according to three general classes:
A PEP that is commonly used in SATCOM to reduce latency is Split-TCP which works by breaking a single TCP session into multiple sessions and then using custom parameters (such as larger window sizes) to control transmission on each leg. Other PEP types include Ack decimation, Snoop, and D-proxy.
Satellite Bonding using Broadband Bonding
Performance enhancing proxies are network agents that help with some of the inherent issues, particularly latency, with SATCOM. However, many underlying issues still remain. Another very promising technique for dramatically improving SATCOM involves broadband bonding technologies that perform broadband bonding of the satellite links either with another satellite connection or with other broadband transports, such as DSL, cable, fiber, and even cellular.
Introducing an broadband bonding component to your satellite internet ensures that any brownouts or blackouts in the satellite signal will be immediately addressed by the bonding solution and your internet connection will remain optimized – even when the satellite connection suffers or drops out completely.
Let’s finish by putting together all the information for the three competing satellite internet providers. Note that these monthly service fees are not the lower, introductory rates that both HughesNet and Viasat routinely use. Typically you might save $20 per month for 3-6 months, but I wanted to look at the long term commitment.
Here are the residential and “RV” plans:
And here are the business plans:
A couple of final points are:
Rob Stone, Mushroom Networks, Inc.
Mushroom Networks is the provider of Broadband Bonding appliances that put your networks on auto-pilot. Application flows are intelligently routed around network problems such as latency, jitter and packet loss. Network problems are solved even before you can notice.
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