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Once an Internet Underdog, Satellite Is Having a Moment

Satellite Internet may not have always received the best word of mouth, but the technology continues to advance with big names behind it and a market that has seen significant growth during COVID-19.

satellite orbitting earth
Shutterstock/Andrey VP
If one talks to enough people in the broadband game, it’s not unusual to hear the opinion that satellite Internet doesn’t cut it in terms of speed and reliability. Despite this viewpoint, more than 2 million customers in the United States pay for satellite Internet, and big-name players like Amazon and SpaceX are spending billions to enter the market. 

Steve Hill, president of the Satellite Broadcast and Communications Association, said the beginning of the pandemic was an “eye-opener” in terms of the increasing demand for satellite Internet. 

“We were seeing a lot of business in [a matter of] days that we hadn’t seen before,” Hill said. 

Assuming that the various complaints about satellite Internet have some merit, why is the industry growing so much?  

The simple answer is evolution and necessity. Commercial satellite Internet has only been around for about 20 years, and it was highly limited at first, Hill said. Despite the technology’s weaknesses, such as low speeds and data limits, satellite offered a path to improved connectivity for rural markets that had no other options.  

In 2017, the two major satellite Internet providers, HughesNet and Viasat, launched new satellites that “dramatically increased both capacity and performance,” Hill said. Today, both providers can, when the conditions are right, deliver Internet speeds that meet the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband definition of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. In some cases, Viasat’s service can achieve download speeds up to 100 Mbps. 

Satellite technology has the advantage of quick installation. Hill said the average wait time for a satellite connection is between three and five days, which explains why the satellite industry received such a boost during COVID-19. It takes far more time to connect underserved rural customers with wired solutions. 

Danny Bax, who owns Affiliated Technology Partners (ATP) Solutions with his wife Kathy, has been in the telecommunications business for about 40 years. Bax’s organization, which is “agnostic” when it comes to tech, represents hundreds of Internet and phone companies and helps architect network infrastructure. 

ATP Solutions, formerly known as WiFi in the Park, started focusing on rural and satellite Internet within the last four years. Bax explained that in the world of rural broadband, there are many instances where you can’t get Internet through fiber, cable or DSL. 

“I’m working on a particular project that’s 55 miles from Area 51,” Bax said. “It’s 45 miles down a dirt road with no signs. If you don’t have an escort, you’re lost, that kind of thing. There’s nothing out there. There’s no cellular. There’s no fiber. There’s nothing. The only way to get Internet into those areas is to bring it in through a satellite or multiple satellites. Period.”

Hill spoke about the importance of satellite Internet in disaster recovery situations. Disasters like fires, tornados and hurricanes destroy infrastructure, and the fastest way to get affected areas reconnected is through satellites. Hill cited the example of Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Without satellite, they probably wouldn’t have had Internet for close to a year in certain communities,” Hill said. “Some Puerto Rican government officials still use it.” 

Both Hill and Bax cited satellite Internet as a quality back-up for customers who want to remain connected when their main source of connectivity suffers or fails. Hill cited the story of a local liquor store that added satellite Internet because of the unreliability of a primary Internet solution. Bax called satellite “the only true back-up” because it’s not terrestrial. Even cellular can go out if fiber is damaged. 

“Anytime there’s been a major outage, satellite is the only thing working,” Bax said. 

Bax did point out that a shared satellite connection, which is the main commercial offering, can suffer during congested periods. However, he said congestion affects all types of oversubscribed Internet services, and customers who are willing to spend more can purchase a dedicated satellite package for the most reliable service. The U.S. military, for instance, utilizes dedicated satellite.

“Dedicated satellite is very expensive, but it’s what’s required in certain applications,” Bax said. 

Both Hill and Bax said the capacity of satellite Internet will significantly increase when HughesNet and Viasat launch new satellites in 2021.

Then there’s the other type of commercial satellite technology with which Amazon and SpaceX plan to provide service. HughesNet and Viasat use geosynchronous satellites, which are located about 22,000 miles above the equator and match the rotation of the planet, meaning that they appear to be in a fixed position and only require line of sight for a connection. Amazon and SpaceX will use low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that zip around the planet more quickly at lower heights, meaning that tens of thousands of LEO satellites are needed to maintain Internet connections on the ground. 

The advantage of LEO satellites, Hill said, is that they can bring reduced latency, which would be ideal for gaming and stock trading. Bax said one drawback of LEO satellites is that they need to be replaced more often than geosynchronous satellites. The jury is still out on the speeds that will be achieved by LEO satellites. Although the satellite Internet market continues to grow, there are still unknowns about its potential. 

“This is frigging rocket science,” Bax said. “Telecommunications is not for the faint of heart. It’s deep.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.