Satellite Internet - How Does it Work & Why is it Right for Me?

By: Liz Dick

America is a BIG place. Most Americans live in cities and small towns served by cable TV and/or DSL. But a sizable number of homes (approximately 20 million) are not served by these traditional broadband providers. Internet usage has skyrocketed due to the popularity of email and web-surfing. With the increased size of modern email, simple dial-up internet access is no longer sufficient. Similarly, downloading complex webpages (featuring flash animation and ecommerce capability) has caused high speed internet access to evolve into one of the 21st century's necessities.

Unfortunately, many cable TV and phone companies have delayed (or abandoned) plans to provide broadband to rural America. The reason is simple economics; there are too few customers to justify the large infrastructure build-out costs. Laying cable costs thousands of dollars per mile, as a result, the majority of investment capital bypasses America's low density population areas. The advent of satellite TV further stunted the returns available to cable TV companies, as many potential subscribers installed satellite TV systems to receive multi-channel TV programming.

As satellite TV provides one entertainment solution for rural Americans, satellite internet provides another. There are two competing technologies in the marketplace: one-way and two-way. One-way systems utilize existing copper phone wires as a request path to the internet; satellites relay the requested data at high speed back to an inexpensive home dish antenna. A special satellite modem decodes the signal for the personal computer. Two-way systems utilize a more expensive dish and low power transmitter both to send and receive data to the satellite. Each system has advantages.

For reliability and economy, the one-way systems come out on top. Two-way systems utilize an extremely low power transmitter and can experience frequent service interruption in bad weather due to "rain fade". Additionally, the complex and delicate LNB transmitter must also be pointed precisely at the satellite 22,300 miles away, or the connection is lost. Two round trips to the satellite doubles the latency (time-lag) as well. However, some users prefer giving up their land based telephone connection to enjoy slightly faster upload speed than dial-up, which is only possible with a two-way system. One other consideration is the costly professional installation and servicing required by the FCC for two-way systems, whereas one-way systems are simple enough to be self-installed.

Other technologies on the horizon could eventually provide broadband to rural America. Wi-Max and Broadband over Power lines await further development, and suffer from some of the same economic hindrances as cable and DSL. Alternatively, some smaller communities have deployed point-to-point wireless systems, often with government assistance. Unfortunately, high build-out costs and trouble with line-of-sight connections plague wireless internet. For many rural Americans, satellite internet provides the only affordable and available solution for high speed internet access.

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