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The Pros and Cons of Satellite Internet Service

Maybe you live in a rural area and you can’t get high-speed cable or DSL Internet access, but you can get satellite access. Or, maybe you are at your wit’s end with the cable and/or telephone (DSL) companies and don’t want to give them another dime. Satellite may be the answer, but you’ll need to do some research before you determine if it’s right for you. Here are answers to many of the most common questions about satellite service.

Q: How fast is satellite access?

HAS: Satellite providers typically offer various levels of service with download speeds ranging from 700 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds up to 256 Kbps. Please note, however, that these are optimal speeds. Typical speeds, particularly during rush hour, may be somewhat slower.

Q: How much does satellite access cost?

HAS: The price depends on your provider and the service plan you purchase. As a generalization, prices range from about $60 per month for a service that provides a download speed of about 700 Kbps to about $80 per month for a service in the 1.5 Mbps range. to $300 or $400 and can cost another $200 to install, though vendors often have special offers on equipment and installation.

Q: What impact can the weather have on satellite access?

HAS: As is the case with satellite television, heavy rain or snow can slow or stop satellite Internet access. That’s true for both bad weather in your area and bad weather at the satellite provider’s network operations center (NOC) location. However, while severe weather can disrupt the connection, satellite systems generally work even in heavy, consistent downpours.

Q: Other than weather, how reliable is satellite access?

HAS: In addition to service degradation due to weather, satellite access is extremely reliable. Outdoor gear 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?”

HAS: While it’s tempting to maintain a dial-up connection due to the complex technical nature of satellite connections, it’s not necessary for most people. As mentioned above, satellite equipment is very robust and rarely breaks down and weather related problems occur infrequently. However, if something goes wrong, it can take days before repair personnel can get to your home. If that worries you, you might want to have a dial-up backup, but know that you’ll rarely, if ever, use it.

Q: What equipment is required?

HAS: Satellite access requires the installation of two computers. In the open is a dish that collects and transmits the signal to and from the satellite. Inside is a “satellite modem” that is connected to the antenna via coaxial cable. The modem connects to a PC or network equipment, such as a router, using an Ethernet cable.

Q: Is there any ongoing maintenance required?

HAS: Although nothing is absolute, ongoing maintenance is generally not required. On rare occasions, you will need to have your antenna “peaked again” or re-pointed 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 hardy, and such problems are rare.

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

HAS: Satellite systems can be networked just like DSL or cable connections. That is, you can connect the indoor satellite modem to a router using a standard Ethernet cable, which then distributes the connection to other computers. Keep in mind, however, that satellite providers will not help you set up or troubleshoot home networks.

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

HAS: 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 to a satellite and back to earth. Since satellites typically orbit around 22,000 miles above the earth, that latency can be up to a second each time data is sent and received.

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

Q: How many satellite providers are there?

HAS: In the US, there are three main satellite providers: HughesNet (, WildBlue (, and Starband ( Other providers and organizations may offer satellite service, but it is usually provided by one of three services. For example, AT&T offers satellite service but is actually reselling WildBlue service.

Q: Does it matter where I mount the dish?

HAS: The dish should have a clear view of the southern sky, which is where the satellite is in orbit. Beyond that, the dish can be placed using a post driven into the ground, the side of your house, or your roof. Obviously, a floor mounted dish is easier in case maintenance is required. Also, sometimes snow and ice buildup on the pan can slow down service – it’s easier to remove snow and ice from a floor-mounted pan.

Q: Can I install satellite service on my own?

HAS: No, satellite access providers will not allow you to do that. And that’s probably a good thing, as it requires some skill to link the dish to the correct satellite. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission requires professionals to install satellite systems that send and receive signals.

Q: How does the satellite service work in actual use? Is it different than using cable or DSL?

HAS: Other than the limits on some specific types of applications mentioned above, satellite service operates virtually identically to DSL or cable broadband.

Q: I live in the city. Is there any reason to consider satellite access?

HAS: In most cases, cable or DSL access is faster and cheaper. If that kind of service is available to you, it’s most likely preferable to satellite access.

Q: Is the satellite access bidirectional?

HAS: Yes. The data you receive, such as downloaded files and web pages, is sent through the satellite system, just like the items you upload. However, the first satellite systems were one-way systems. The downloads occurred via satellite, but the information you sent was transmitted over a standard dial-up connection. Such outdated systems have not been available for several years.

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

HAS: Yes. All major satellite access systems work with Mac.

Q: Is mobile satellite access available?

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

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

HAS: No. While single-dish solutions were once available, providers have determined that separate dishes work best for both Internet and TV service.

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

HAS: No. Like other broadband providers, satellite providers have Fair Access Policies (FAPs) that detail how much you can download at any given time. The purpose of the FAP is to prevent a few heavy downloads from hogging the bandwidth used by everyone. Satellite providers tend to have stricter FAPs than other broadband providers. For example, with HughesNet you can download up to 350MB at a time, depending on your service plan. That’s about a third the size of a typical downloadable feature film. When you exceed the limits of the FAP, the provider has the option to temporarily reduce your speed.

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