Satellite Internet 101: How Does it Work?

By Katie Nielsen
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Satellite internet has long lagged behind its other broadband counterparts, with its slower speeds, higher latency and sometimes, steeper costs. For millions of people living in rural America, satellite broadband is the only type of high-speed internet available. Despite its inherent drawbacks, it constitutes a vast improvement over a conventional dial-up connection.

In the past few years, however, new satellite technology and more competing services have yielded better and more reliable satellite internet. In fact, many providers now offer service packages with speeds that compete with those offered through cable and DSL. If satellite internet is your only option for high-speed internet, here's everything you need to know about how it works.

What Do I Need?
Satellite internet equipment is made up of three main components: a geostationary satellite in space, a satellite dish mounted on your home and a modem that transmits internet signals from the dish to your computer.

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You obtain satellite internet through a satellite broadband provider. There are only a handful of these providers on the market, and they vary in terms of pricing, connection speeds and the service packages they offer. When you sign up for service, you'll receive the satellite dish and required modem. Some services cover the cost of this equipment and its installation by a service professional when you sign up for a two-year contract, while others charge an extra activation and installation fee.

How Does it Work?
Satellite internet uses geostationary satellites, rather than telephone lines or cable systems, to deliver an internet signal directly to your home. Geostationary means the satellite remains in a fixed position relative to a point on the Earth by matching its rotation velocity as the satellite orbits the planet. The satellite provides two-way data communications between a satellite dish mounted on the exterior of your home and the hub of your satellite internet provider. When you access a webpage, the request is sent from your computer to the satellite. The satellite then transmits the signal to your satellite internet service's hub, where the specific website you've requested is located and beamed back to the satellite. The data  is then sent to your dish and the site loads on your computer through a modem connected to the dish. While the internet signal travels a staggering distance back and forth, it only takes a handful of seconds for this entire process to occur. With satellite internet, you can connect all the computers and internet-enabled devices in your home to the web.

In addition to the necessary equipment, you must have a clear view of the southern sky. This is because the satellite dish requires a clear line of sight to the geostationary satellite. In rare instances, extreme weather may affect your signal.

It may not be the fastest internet connection in the world, but with speeds approximately ten times faster than dial-up, satellite internet is connecting the most rural parts of the country to the World Wide Web.

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