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What is satellite broadband? All you need to know about satellite internet

Satellite broadband is a type of internet access which uses satellite signals, bypassing phone lines, mobile cell towers and other terrestrial services, and relying instead on communication between an orbital relay and a dish on the ground.

The major selling point of this technology is that satellite internet is available absolutely anywhere - if you can mount a dish with a clear view of the sky you’ll be able to get satellite broadband in your area. That’s a game changer for anyone living in a location where fixed line and mobile broadband is very slow or not available at all. And since it doesn’t use a phone line you don’t need to pay line rental to BT or anyone else!

How fast is satellite broadband?

Consumer satellite broadband is available with a top speed of between 30-50Mb. While easily outpaced by fibre optic, that is faster than the average 10-11Mb of ADSL, and definitely a big improvement if your only option otherwise is dial-up internet. Upload speeds are better than ADSL too, typically providing up to 6Mb.

Advantages and disadvantages of satellite internet

Is satellite broadband right for you? There are some key differences between satellite internet access and regular broadband services which mean that it’s not the right choice for everyone.

Satellite broadband advantages

  • Available everywhere. Availability is limited only by the footprint of the orbiting satellite, and UK satellite broadband services cover the entire country. No matter where you are, no matter how remote, you can get broadband with a satellite ISP.
  • Faster than some fixed line broadband services. Satellite internet is now available with speeds of up to 50Mb (though the majority of packages offer a top speed of 30Mb or 36Mb). This means satellite is quicker than ADSL and can be faster than an entry level fibre optic broadband service, which offer average speeds of around 35Mb.
  • Doesn’t require a phone line. Satellite broadband doesn’t need any kind of fixed line connection so it doesn’t matter if you don’t currently have a phone line, or don’t want to pay for line rental.
  • Running costs can be reasonably affordable. Satellite sounds like it should be very expensive, but monthly prices start from under £30 so it’s something that many households can afford.

Satellite broadband disadvantages

  • Very high latency, or lag. Latency is the response time of a connection - how long it takes to send data and receive a response from another computer. On a regular fixed line home broadband connection the latency is not something we ever have to worry about because it’s very low, but satellite inherently has very high latency due to the time it takes to send and receive a signal. This won’t affect things like web browsing and email, but any activity which relies on rapid real-time communication (such as remote desktop access, or online gaming) is badly impacted.
  • Most packages have data caps. It’s easy to find a cheap fibre optic package with unlimited data, but the majority of satellite internet deals will have a monthly data usage cap. Some providers do offer unlimited off-peak usage, but if you want unlimited data at any time you can expect to pay a hefty premium.
  • Higher setup cost, and more expensive overall. While the monthly fees aren’t too shocking (provided you’re happy with a low data cap) the setup fees can be a lot more expensive. Installation and activation can run to several hundred pounds, though you can opt to rent the equipment rather than purchasing it outright. Overall, satellite is significantly more expensive and poorer value when you compare first year cost, speed, and data usage caps to fixed line home broadband deals.
  • You have to be able to mount a dish. While satellite broadband covers the whole country, it does require a dish with a clear view of the sky. Also worth noting that the dish is larger than a Sky TV minidish.
  • The signal can be affected by bad weather. Heavy snow, rain, and wind can interfere with satellite broadband either by damaging or moving the dish, or interrupting the signal.
  • Slower than many fixed line broadband services. Although satellite providers are now offering speeds of 30Mb - 50Mb, fibre optic home broadband using the Openreach telephone network offers speeds up to around 65Mb, Virgin Media can go up to 516Mb, and fibre to the home is slowly expanding around the UK to offer incredible gigabit speeds.
  • Small choice of ISPs. Satellite is a niche service and only offered by a handful of providers, so your options are limited. You’re also not going to get the kind of special offers, free gifts and rewards found with other home broadband packages.

Who needs satellite broadband?

There’s just one question you should ask yourself when considering satellite broadband: do I have any alternative?

Satellite internet’s ability to work anywhere is the big selling point, but it also comes with some major drawbacks so if you can get broadband any other way it’s probably best avoided. Even a basic ADSL service offering just a few megabits per second could be better (and you can always combine multiple ADSL lines into one faster connection).

Satellite is best suited to those in very remote locations where no other broadband internet access is available. If you live in an area where there is no mobile signal and no broadband via the telephone line, then satellite is going to be the most affordable way to get fast internet service.

Alternatives to satellite broadband

Even if you can’t get a regular fixed line home broadband package, you may have other options for getting broadband before considering satellite.

Fixed Wireless Access

FWA is broadband using a fixed wireless transmitter to deliver broadband access via wireless receivers in homes. Like satellite this doesn’t require any kind of telephone line or cabling to come into your home, you just need to be within range of a FWA network and be able to mount a receiver.

FWA tends to operate in rural locations where other broadband is not available or very limited, so while there aren’t a huge number of providers offering this service it’s worth checking your local area for a FWA operator.

Mobile broadband

If you can get a mobile network signal then a mobile broadband connection could be a very attractive alternative. Some providers - such as Three and EE - are now offering mobile internet services for home which include a Wi-Fi router. And there are specialist rural broadband ISPs which use mobile networks. Speeds can be good as well, but you’ll ideally need a 4G signal (3G will work but is much slower).

If you are going to use mobile broadband on anything more than a temporary basis it would be worth buying an external aerial to boost reception as this can have a significant impact on speed and reliability.

Community broadband

A broadband project can be a worthwhile investment for rural communities. You club together with other nearby homeowners to split the cost of installing a high speed fibre optic line, and get very fast internet access without any of the drawbacks of wireless solutions. There are also companies such as Gigaclear and B4RN which can take on the financial burden if there is sufficient interest in your location.

Frequently Asked Questions about satellite broadband

How do I get satellite internet?

Getting satellite broadband is much the same as any other broadband service: choose a provider, choose a suitable package, sign up and wait for your installation date.

Installation is a little different of course. The dish needs to be fixed to your home, and a cable has to be run from the dish to a modem inside your home. An engineer will usually attend to carry out this work, however a DIY installation may be an option.

What do I need to use satellite broadband?

You need three pieces of equipment to get online with satellite broadband:

  • Satellite dish. This must be mounted somewhere with a clear view of the sky. But note that the dishes can be more prominent than a Sky TV minidish.
  • Satellite modem. This is like any other home broadband modem, except it's connected to the dish outside your home (with a cable that an engineer will usually install, though DIY may be an option).
  • Wireless router. A standard home router shares the connection and provides networking capabilities. This can be supplied by the ISP as part of your satellite broadband plan, or you can choose your own hardware.
Who offers satellite broadband?

Some satellite ISPs include:

Is Sky satellite broadband?

Sky has been beaming TV into our homes via satellite since the 90s, and more recently it got into the home broadband game with no small degree of success. But Sky does not offer satellite broadband - its home internet deals use the Openreach BT line network.

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