Why your internet probably doesn’t come through a satellite, but maybe will one day

Which sounds like an easier way to deliver internet to every person on the planet: run billions of miles of cables and wires to every single home or strategically place transmitters in locations where millions of homes can communicate with them wirelessly?

Despite sounding simpler, the wireless option aka satellite internet, is still nowhere near as popular as the wired one. Through advancing technology, changing industry mindsets, and increasing reliance on connectivity, the economics for beaming our communications from earth to space and back are looking more viable than ever.

To start with, satellite internet basically covers the entire earth.

Providers tout their wide coverage area through maps. There are dozens of satellites all positioned and oriented to serve different continental swaths. There’s less coverage toward the poles but there are also fewer people.

Speeds have historically been slow, but connections have been getting faster.
Iridium, circa 1997, 0.01 MBps
ASTRA, circa 2007, 20 MBps
OneWeb, in development, 100 MBps target

Satellite internet is typically used to connect people located in isolated areas—whether it be a Pacific island chain, or a home on the outskirts of town in the US. So, chances are, you’re using a fully terrestrial connection right now. With prices and speeds comparable to wired service in many areas satellite internet has yet to hit the mainstream for one reason: latency.
Despite being capable of broadband speeds, the time it takes for communications to travel to a satellite and back is much longer than terrestrial connections because the distance is farther.

Currently most internet satellites are in geosynchronous orbit. That’s 35,000 km away

It takes a radio wave at least 230 milliseconds to get to geosynchronous orbit and back

That’s enough time for a signal to travel through a fiber optic cable between New York and London nine times.

Currently, the internet satellites closer to earth are only capable of low bandwidth connections. Previously stymied by technological limitations, planned low earth orbit constellations from OneWeb and SpaceX are slated to offer broadband speeds with low latency. OneWeb’s constellation is designed to have just 30 milliseconds of latency.

Latency isn’t much of an issue for streaming activities—a movie will play normally after a slight delay. (Important, considering video data accounts for 70% of all internet traffic.) But latency does impede real-time applications like gaming where data is constantly being transmitted back and forth over the network and slows general web browsing since every loaded page has a longer fixed amount of time it will take to load. There are some places where satellite internet is the only option (or a better one).

It isn’t economical to physically connect remote locations with small populations like Pacific islands.

For the same reason, when broadband companies run their cables, they might not do so on every road or in every neighborhood.

Also, some ships and airplanes use satellites to connect to the internet, especially when far from land.

These are the satellites of some of the current internet satellite operators

There are wide-ranging differences in quality and type of service among these providers. Some are slow and can only be used for email, some are fast and can be used for anything. Some sell direct to consumers, some only sell access to local providers who in turn use the network to connect customers to the broader internet. Typically newer satellites allow for faster connections and have more bandwidth.

Companies are arranged by the number of active communications satellites in orbit.

Average age: 18 years
Iridium operates in low earth orbit and data speeds are very slow but its design allows for connectivity at the poles.

Average age: 12.3 years
This company sells the bandwidth on its orbiters to internet providers.

Average age: 11.5 years
SES operates in a similar fashion to Intelsat.

Average age: 9.2 years
Globalstar offers voice and slow data services from low earth orbit.

Average age: 11 years
Orbcomm operates a low bandwidth constellation targeted for communications like fleet tracking and equipment monitoring.

Average age: 10.1 years
Once part of DISH Networks, Echostar serves as the backbone for HughesNet consumer satellite internet.

Average age: 2.3 years
O3b Networks satellites were intended to provide broadband internet to the “other 3 billion” internet users in emerging markets. Now owned by SES, it sells its bandwidth to local internet service providers.

Average age: 12 years
Nearly half of Inmarsat’s revenue comes from selling connectivity to maritime clients. It is starting to use recently launched satellites to offer high speed connections.

Average age: 8.2 years
Telesat is the largest provider of satellite internet in Canada. Not only does it own and operate its own satellites, it also owns payloads on ViaSat’s orbiter.

Average age: 7.6 years
A joint venture funded by the Arab League member countries, Arabsat orbiters focus their beams on Northern Africa the Middle East, Western Asia, and Europe.

Average age: 12 years
Hispasat operates satellites pointed at Latin America and Europe. Its internet service includes providing wifi on Italy’s high speed trains.

Average age: 7.7 years
Thaicom’s satellites provide internet from geostationary orbit to much of Asia and Africa.

Average age: 14.5 years
Eutelsat offers consumer broadband across Europe through its subsidiary Tooway. It also sells bandwidth to industry.

Age: 21 years
QuetzSat works very closely with SES to provide internet in Mexico.

Age: 2 years
Through its satellites pointed at Asia and Australia, AsiaSat sells bandwidth to internet providers.

Age: 5 years
ViaSat offers broadband internet from geosynchronous orbit to consumers through its subsidiary, exede, and direct to organizations, including governments and notably to airlines for inflight wifi.

Age: 13 years
HellasSat offers less than broadband speeds to home and bandwidth for industry uses in an area that covers Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa.
Satellites are shown orbiting at their relative distance from earth. Not every satellite shown is providing internet. Satellites are also not evenly distributed around an orbit as depicted nor necessarily orbiting around the same axis.

Yet still with all of these providers and all of these services, satellite internet is a niche business compared to terrestrial services. To go mainstream, Tim Farrar, a satellite-industry consultant, says it’s all about finding the right balance of quality and price.
“How much do you need to increase capability for it to be competitive?” Farrar said. Are consumers looking for low-latency service like OneWeb is trying to offer or will new higher throughput satellites from ViaSat be more successful? “How much cheaper does it need to get?” Farrar wondered aloud. “That’s the multibillion dollar question.”

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