Satellite Internet Options

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:

  • $64.99 for 15GB
  • $74.99 for 30 GB
  • $109.99 for 45 GB
  • $159.99 for 75 GB

And for each tier, HughesNet describes their typical use cases (focusing on data usage):

  • 15 GB – Designed for basic internet access for email, chatting and web browsing
  • 30 GB – Great for shopping online, listening to music and being active on social media
  • 45 GB – Perfect for sharing large files, watching videos and connecting multiple devices
  • 75 GB – Excellent for the connected household to enjoy the best of the Internet

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:

  • $79.99 for Business 35 GB (10 GB anytime data + 25 GB daytime data)
  • $109.99 for Business 50 GB (25 GB anytime data + 25 GB daytime data)
  • $159.99 for Business 75 GB (50 GB anytime data + 25 GB daytime data)
  • $199.99 for Business 100 GB (75 GB anytime data + 25 GB daytime data)

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:

  • $69.99 for 40GB @ 12 Mbps
  • $99.99 for 60GB @ 25 Mbps
  • $149.99 for 100GB @ 50 Mbps
  • $199.99 for 150GB @ 100 Mbps

And again, for each tier, Viasat describes their typical use cases (focusing on download speed):

  • 12 Mbps – Best for email and web browsing on up to 2 small screen devices.
  • 25 Mbps – Best for email, web browsing and occasional streaming on up to 3 small screen devices.
  • 50 Mbps – Best for email, web browsing and occasional streaming on up to 4 medium and large screen devices.
  • 100 Mbps – Best for email, web browsing, streaming and more on up to 5 large screen devices.

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:

  • $175 for 35 Mbps
  • $300 for 60 Mbps
  • $500 for 100 Mbps

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:

  • $110 per month for unlimited data @ 50-250 Mbps and (as low as) 20 ms latency
  • $599 one-time charge for equipment (sat dish, WiFi router, cables, power supply, base)
  • No contracts (but you’re hardly spending $600 without significant commitment on your part)

And for small businesses, Starlink is offering this single plan:

  • $500 per month for unlimited data @ 150-500 Mbps and 20 ms latency
  • $2,500 one-time equipment charge
  • No contract required

Satellite Internet Shortcomings and Solutions

There are several significant and inherent problems with satellite internet. They can generally be broken down into 4 areas:

  • Latency
    • As discussed earlier, this is the time it takes to get a response from your ISP. It’s a very serious problem with GEO satellites (HughesNet, Viasat) due to their distance from earth. It’s not an issue with the much close LEO satellites (Starlink).
  • Bandwidth
    • A single satellite has limited maximum throughput or bandwidth that must be divided up among the thousands of customers using the internet simultaneously. By necessity this means the ISP is forced to use bandwidth capping and throttling for individual users. This means you can count on significantly slower internet during peak times.
  • Performance
    • The fact that the signals must travel a long distance through the atmosphere and the fact that satellite internet uses high frequency K-bands (12-30 GHz) means that atmospheric conditions and physical obstructions will negatively impact performance.
  • Cost
    • Satellites are very expensive to build and launch and that cost is passed on to the subscriber base for satellite-based internet

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:

  • Proxy Type (Spoofing)
    • The PEP can either “split” a connection by pretending to be an endpoint, or “snoop” into it by controlling transmissions in both directions by ack-filtering and reconstruction.
  • Distribution
    • The PEP can be either “integrated” which runs on a single box, or “distributed” which runs at each end of the transmission link.
  • Symmetry
    • The PEP may or may not be symmetric with respect to each leg of the transmission, for cases where each leg (uplink/downlink) has varying characteristics

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.

Wrapping Up

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:

  • The absolute cheapest that you can obtain satellite internet is through HughesNet, and it will cost you $64.99 + $14 = $78.99 per month for 15 GB of data at 25/3 Mbps speeds.
  • HughesNet offers 25/3 Mbps for all their plans, including all business plans. This seems to be a very strange way to provide service – Dividing up that 25/3 Mbps among a small business, or even a large family, is less than ideal, and may not be sufficient for all users to enjoy seamless internet use.
  • Viasat is a bit more expensive, but their higher service tiers actually deliver more speed and data allotment per tier so you can get service from 12 Mbps all the way up to 100 Mbps. Also, all of Viasat’s business plans offer unlimited data – while with HughesNet, their “soft data caps” seem a bit antiquated and unnecessary.
  • Starlink is the most expensive, and with a 6-month waiting list for service is the most difficult to procure. But the Starlink performance is clearly world-class, offering residential clients a single plan with unlimited data at 50-250 Mbps, and a game-changing 20 ms latency, compared with 500 ms latency for HughesNet and Viasat. Similarly, their single business plan offers the same low latency, with unlimited data and blistering unbeatable speeds between 150-500 Mbps.
  • Starlink’s RV plan is also very interesting as well, offering a more limited and lower priority connectivity that you can “pause and resume service” whenever you like. And this plan has no waiting list so you can get an immediate connection wherever Starlink has coverage.

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.

https://www.mushroomnetworks.com

 

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