Satellite internet is a specific mode of wireless communication used for providing internet access. An entire satellite internet system includes three primary components: a communication satellite in space, specific ground stations called internet gateways, and end-use ground stations or satellite transmitters placed on the ground. The communication satellite acts as a bridge between internet gateways and end-user transmitters.
Hence, to be more specific, a particular space-based communication satellite receives signals from a ground-based internet gateway and beams these signals back to the satellite transmitters of end-users. These end-use ground stations also beam signals to the communication satellite in space, which in turn beams these signals to an internet gateway.
Innovations in satellite technology have also advanced satellite internet access. Communication satellites used to be placed in geostationary orbit alone. These are called GEO satellites. However, more satellites are being deployed in low Earth orbit and medium Earth orbit. These are called LEO and MEO communication satellites.
Several companies have also emerged to provide satellite internet access. Some of the notable ones are the Starlink services of SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, and services from Kuiper Services of Amazon, a technology company founded by Jeff Bezos. These services promise to provide low-latency and high-speed broadband internet access.
The Pros: Advantages of Satellite Internet
1. Wireless Internet Access Less Dependent on Ground Infrastructures
Most internet service providers serve communities and customers either through fiber optics such as in the case of cable internet and direct service lines or through cellular network technologies such as 4G and LTE networks and 5G networks, including the more specific Sub-6 GHz 5G and mmWave 5G technologies. However, the problem with these is that they are heavily dependent on physical telecommunication infrastructures.
Wired or fixed broadband services are easier and more inexpensive to deploy in communities with a considerable population size because of existing infrastructures. The same is true for cellular network services. But these services are not readily available in remote areas such as rural communities or places that are too far from cities. Telecommunication companies often think twice about investing in telecommunication infrastructures if the population in a particular community that needs servicing is too small for them to earn.
Nevertheless, one of the advantages of satellite internet is that it is less dependent on physical telecommunication infrastructure. Remember the three components mentioned above. Communication satellites can provide service to remote areas. Expanding the network of these satellites called satellite internet constellation can also expand the coverage area to make internet access available to almost anywhere in the world.
2. Promises of Low-Latency and High-Speed Broadband Internet Access
Services that use GEO communication satellites are notorious for providing broadband internet but at high latency. However, the utilization of MEO and LEO communication satellites by newer internet service providers such as Starlink and Kuiper Services, as well as the megaconstellations of these satellites, are promising to deliver high-quality internet access characterized by low latency and faster data transmission speeds.
Network latency pertains to the time it takes for data carried by electromagnetic radiation or signals to travel from one point to another. It essentially describes the delays in digital communication over a network. This is expressed in milliseconds. GEO communication satellites have a latency of around 477 milliseconds while LEO communication satellites have less than 27 milliseconds. Note that LEO satellites have a lower network latency because they are placed at lower altitudes and are nearer to ground stations.
These LEO satellites can also transmit data at a speed of at least 1Mbps downstream and around 30Mbps upstream. The faster transmission speed comes from the fact that these satellites use high-frequency bands within the radio wave and microwave territories of the electromagnetic spectrum or the K-under band with specific frequencies ranging from 12 GHz to 18 GHz and the Ka band with frequencies above 24 GHz.
The Cons: Disadvantages of Satellite Internet
1. Unreliable Service and Connection Intermittency Due to Signal Limitations
One of the main disadvantages of satellite internet service is that it is unreliable and can be intermittent compared to fixed broadband internet services. This drawback is similar to the disadvantages of mmWave 5G cellular networks. Note that the communication satellites in space should have a direct view of the ground stations. The placement of ground stations is critical to overall network reliability and performance.
Higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths. They cannot travel long distances unlike frequencies in the lower end of the radio wave territory. In addition, the higher the frequencies and the shorter the wavelength, the more vulnerable the signals to physical obstructions. Frequencies in the higher end of the radio wave territory and those within the microwave territory cannot pass through solid objects such as wood and concrete. They can also be limited by weather interferences such as overcast or rainy weather conditions.
These frequency limitations specifically correspond to line-of-sight limitation and susceptibility to physical obstructions. There should be a clear line of sight between a particular communication satellite in space and the specific ground station to ensure network reliability and maximize the full benefits of satellite internet. The ground station should have a clear view of the sky. The service might not be ideal in dense urban areas or near forests and mountainsides.
2. Considerably Expensive than Fixed Broadband and Cellular Network
Access to satellite internet service can also be expensive. This is understandable because building and launching communication satellites is exorbitant. Maintenance also adds up to the total costs of the entire network infrastructure. Subscriptions can cost an end-user between USD 50.00 to USD 500.00 each month depending on his or her subscription plan. The cost of purchasing the ground station and other hardware is separate.
Of course, as more competitors enter the market, in addition to further improvements in satellite communication technologies and other related technologies, the price would go down in the future. A Starlink plan is priced between USD 99.00 to USD 110.00 depending on the market. There is also a one-time fee of around USD 599.00 for the entire Starlink kit that includes the ground station or terminal, a hundred-feet cable, and a router. The fact remains that other alternatives to internet service are more affordable.
Subscribing to a fixed broadband internet service such as a direct service link or internet cable only costs around USD 25.00 to USD 50.00 for high-speed and household-grade subscription plans. Furthermore, cellular network plans that provide access to 4G and 5G cellular networks have prices ranging between USD 60.00 to USD 70.0. Remember that these alternatives offer high data transmission speed on top of more reliable network performance.
Takeaway: Advantages and Disadvantages of Satellite Internet Service
Internet access has been regarded by the United Nations General Assembly as a basic human right. It cannot be denied that one of the salient advantages of satellite internet is that it can provide internet access to people and communities in remote areas. These areas have been neglected by governments and most telecommunication companies because of the costs required to build and operate needed telecommunication infrastructures.
However, considering the disadvantages mentioned above, satellite internet is not ideal for individuals living in dense urban communities with medium-rise to high-rise buildings or those areas near forests or mountainsides. The inconsistency of network performance due to physical obstructions means a bad internet experience. Consumers are better off choosing fixed broadband or cellular networks with respectable service reliability.