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

Satellite orbiting Earth

Satellite broadband is a type of internet connection that uses satellite signals to transfer data. This removes the need for phone lines, fibre cables, and mobile cell towers.

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 rural areas where fixed-line and mobile broadband is very slow, or isn’t available at all.

And since it doesn’t use a landline, you don’t need to pay line rental to BT, or anyone else!

Satellite broadband: the key points

  • Satellite broadband works anywhere - as long as you can mount a dish with a clear view of the sky. It’s perfect for rural homes.
  • It provides broadband without a line.
  • It can be as fast as some fibre optic services
  • It can suffer from very high latency, which makes it unsuitable for some activities, such as online gaming.
  • Satellite broadband deals can be expensive, with high set-up costs and limited data caps.

How fast is satellite broadband?

Most consumer satellite broadband services have a top average speed of between 30-50Mb. The fastest satellite broadband service is SpaceX Starlink, which can provide download speeds up to 220Mb.

At these superfast broadband speeds, satellite internet easily outpaces basic ADSL broadband, and it's better than many fibre optic services, too.

  • What does ADSL mean?

    ADSL stands for ‘Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line’. It’s broadband technology that allows the transfer of data across regular telephone lines. You can make calls at the same time as being connected to the internet.

    An ADSL line will, at minimum, allow for a broadband connection of up to 8Mb. These days, that’s pretty slow and won’t allow you to do much other than emailing or basic web searches.

    ADSL2+ is now available at nearly all exchanges across the UK with slightly faster data transfer rates of around 10-11Mb.

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 that mean that it’s not the right choice for everyone.

Satellite broadband advantages

  • It's 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 or internet provider.
     
  • It's faster than some fixed-line broadband services. Consumer satellite internet is now available with speeds of more than 100Mb. Though it’s worth remembering, most packages offer a top speed of 30Mb-50Mb. This means satellite internet is quicker than ADSL and can be faster than some fibre optic broadband services.
     
  • It 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.

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 isn’t something we have to worry about because it’s very low. But satellite connection generally has very high latency, due to the time it takes to send and receive a signal. The further away the signal has to travel and bounce back, the higher the latency will be.

    This won’t affect things like web browsing and email. But this isn't great news for activities that rely on rapid real-time communication, such as remote desktop access, or online gaming. 

    An exception to this is SpaceX Starlink, which drastically reduces latency by placing its satellites in a closer orbit.
     
  • Most packages have data caps. It’s easy to find a standard broadband package with unlimited data, but most satellite internet deals will have a monthly data usage cap. Some satellite broadband 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, setup fees can be a lot pricier.

    Installation costs and activation can run to several hundred pounds, though you can opt to rent the equipment rather than purchase it outright.

    When comparing cost, speed, and data usage caps to fixed-line home broadband deals, satellite is poorer value for money.
     
  • 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. And it's worth noting that the dish is larger than a Sky TV dish. You’ll need to be able to provide roof access for the dish, so if you’re renting, you’ll need to get permission.
     
  • The signal can be affected by bad weather. Heavy snow, rain, and wind can interfere with satellite broadband.
     
  • Slower than many fixed-line broadband services. Although satellite providers are now offering decent speeds, fibre broadband using the Openreach telephone network offers around 65Mb at a very low cost. On top of that, Virgin Media can go up to 1.1Gb, and full fibre broadband 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 going to be limited. You’re also not going to get the kind of special offers, free gifts, and reward vouchers 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 other alternative?'

Satellite internet’s ability to work anywhere is the big selling point, but it also comes with some major limitations. It's probably best avoided if you can get broadband any other way.

Even a basic ADSL connection offering just a few megabits per second could wind up working out better. Especially since you can 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 can't get a mobile phone signal, or broadband via a telephone line, then satellite is probably going to be the most affordable way to get fast internet.

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 if you live in remote areas before considering satellite.

Fixed Wireless Access

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a broadband service that uses wireless signals to deliver broadband access over a wide area.

Like satellite internet, this doesn’t require any kind of telephone line or cables. You just need to be within the range of an FWA network and be able to mount an antenna. Unlike satellite dishes, these are typically small and can easily be bolted to the side of a building.

FWA tends to operate in rural locations where other broadband is unavailable or very limited. While there aren’t many providers offering this service, it’s worth checking your local area for an FWA operator.

Mobile broadband

A mobile broadband connection could be a very attractive alternative to other types of broadband if you can get a good network signal.

Some providers, such as Three and EE, are now offering mobile internet services for the home. These include a Wi-Fi router and offer very high or unlimited data usage caps. There are also specialist rural broadband ISPs that use mobile networks.

Mobile networks can be fast, too, but you’ll need good 4G or 5G reception. This might be a little harder to get in a rural area, but they will work on 3G too. It’ll just be much slower.

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

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Community broadband

A broadband project can be a worthwhile investment for rural communities. You can 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.

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Frequently asked questions about satellite broadband

  • How do I get satellite internet?

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

    Installation is a little different. 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 carry out this work, although 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.
    • Satellite modem. This is like any other home broadband modem, except it's connected to the dish outside your home.
    • 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.
  • How is satellite broadband installed?

    Installation is usually left to engineers for a reason, but it should only take a few hours.

    Engineers will install a satellite dish on your roof, somewhere with a clear view of the sky. Wires will then need to be connected from the dish and through your house. These wires will connect to a modem, like with other home broadband services.

    After this, the switch on should be fairly quick. It'll simply be a case of making sure everything is working and connecting.

  • Is Sky satellite broadband?

    Sky has been beaming TV into our homes via satellite since the 90s and also offers home broadband services. But though Sky offers satellite TV, it doesn’t offer satellite broadband. Its home internet deals use the Openreach network.

Expert Summary

For those in rural areas who don’t have any alternatives, satellite can be a surprisingly fast option to get you online. It doesn’t take too long to install and it doesn’t require phone lines to be installed. In a lot of ways, it’s a remarkable service. You do have to bear in mind that the weather can affect your signal.

If satellite broadband isn’t for you, then there are other options. If your problem is with phone lines, you and your neighbours can form a community scheme to pay for the lines to be installed. Or, if you’d rather have something just for you, mobile broadband is another viable option. Data limits can also be a problem here. You must have a strong network signal, but if you can get 4G or 5G, the speeds might surprise you.

Satellite broadband is a marvel as it means you can get online anywhere in the country. It’s just not something we recommend you get if you have a better option like fibre broadband, or even a very basic standard broadband package.

You can check the availability of broadband packages in your area at any time by popping your address into our deals checker. 
 

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Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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