HughesNet, Viasat and… Elon Musk? Satellite internet, explained – CNET

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Viasat is a long-established option for satellite internet — but it’s facing new competition in 2021.


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Satellite internet is nothing new, but there’s growing interest in the category now that Amazon, Elon Musk and others are working to expand its availability and capabilities. That’s welcome news, especially with the ongoing pandemic keeping people at home, and more dependent on internet access than ever before.

Available in all 50 states, satellite internet isn’t as fast as fiber or cable, but it might be one of your only options if you live in a rural part of the country, where internet infrastructure remains woefully underdeveloped. Here’s everything you should know about it before you sign up.

Read moreThe best internet providers for 2021: Cable vs. DSL vs. satellite and more

How does satellite internet work?

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With satellite internet, you’ll need to mount a dish like this one outside your home to receive the internet signal from orbit.


Viasat

Satellite internet works similarly to satellite TV, in that it relies on the combination of a signal routed through a satellite in low- or high-Earth orbit and a receiver dish that receives that signal. The receiver is typically placed on your home or business in a spot where it has as unobstructed access to the sky as possible. You’ll connect a modem to that satellite to translate the signal into a workable internet connection.

While electricity is needed, the satellite internet world isn’t dependent on cable wires, fiber or phone lines. These ground-based technologies are expensive to extend into rural areas, where companies get fewer customers for their investment in a given amount of cable. Satellites are difficult to launch into space, sure, but once a sufficient network of them is available, companies can offer broadband satellite internet to customers over a wide swath of the planet, even in fairly remote places. 


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Testing out SpaceX Starlink satellite internet

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Who currently offers satellite internet?

The two top satellite internet providers in the country are Viasat and HughesNet, and each has been in the business of satellite-based communications for decades. Most recently, HughesNet began offering its Gen5 service plan for satellite-based home internet. Meanwhile, Viasat has started offering a new satellite/DSL hybrid service called Viasat Flex, which promises to improve signal reliability and lower latency. It’s available at no immediate extra cost in rural areas within AT&T’s DSL network.

Those two long-established names now face the prospect of fresh, high-profile competition. In July last year, the Federal Communications Commission granted approval for Amazon’s Project Kuiper to deploy thousands of satellites to create its own satellite-based broadband service under the Amazon umbrella. Even farther along is Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. His company’s Starlink satellite internet service already boasts more than a thousand satellites in orbit, and the service is currently in open beta in select regions with over 10,000 customers. You can check out our first impressions of Starlink in the video above.

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SpaceX is regularly launching satellites into orbit to build the Starlink constellation. As that happens, coverage should expand to more regions.


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Where is satellite internet available?

Most areas of the US can receive satellite internet signal due to the proliferation of satellites attuned to those latitudes. HughesNet, for instance, offers service in all 50 states. Some satellite internet companies are also exploring coverage in other parts of the world, including options for communities to have one or more community hot spots in lieu of residential dishes and connections. 

Is satellite better than other kinds of internet?

Recent advancements and a proliferation of satellites in orbit have brought satellite internet into the range of speeds that are available from some of the other common modes of internet. If you aren’t sure what your current internet speed is, you can check your connection to put the various numbers in context; the connection is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps. 

For instance, DSL and cable internet are very common, with DSL download speeds in the range of 3 to 50Mbps and cable typically providing anywhere from 10 to 500Mbps, depending on your plan and other factors. Satellite internet generally comes in at 12 to 100Mbps, which is slower, but Musk promises that speeds of up to 300Mbps will be possible when Starlink’s infrastructure is complete.

Fiber internet, which makes use of fiber-optic cable, can offer blazing fast download speeds as high as 2,000Mbps or 2 gigabits per second. Installing fiber cable is expensive, however, and some areas with very low population density may not become priority locations for fiber internet until long after satellite internet options grow.

Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of a satellite connection as compared to other kinds of internet connections.

Pros

  • Waiting for broadband internet to be provided in your area could take a long time, and satellite internet is available now.
  • Satellite internet is fairly simple to acquire: find a company that offers it, request that a dish be installed and get the right plan for your needs. That’s it.
  • Because major companies like SpaceX and Amazon are entering the satellite internet market, speeds are likely to increase and prices could become more competitive; at the very least, availability is likely to widen.

Cons

  • When other options besides satellite internet are available and offer you reasonable broadband download and upload speeds, they will often be cheaper than satellite internet, at least for now.
  • With many of the satellites located in far-away orbit above Earth, latency is a common issue with satellite internet, as your traffic will need a few extra moments to make it up to outer space. Starlink claims to be deploying its satellites much closer to Earth, which it hopes will resolve some latency issues.
  • Satellite dishes must be aligned well, for instance with a “clear view of the Southern sky,” as HughesNet says. Snow buildup or certain kinds of weather can create spottiness or even an outage.

More on satellite internet

Want to learn more about the latest in satellite internet? Things are changing rapidly, so keep up with the news here at CNET: Learn about the best internet providers for 2021, Starlink reaching the 10,000-customer mark, and how the network of satellites is intended to envelop Earth long-term.

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