Satellite broadband has been around for many years now, and holds out the promise of internet access for users located pretty much anywhere in the UK that happens to be above ground. So why is this never mentioned when the issue of universal broadband access is raised?
Access to broadband internet is still an issue for many people in the UK, especially those living in remote or rural areas. The problem is that ADSL broadband delivered via a telephone line is limited by the distance to the telephone exchange; the further away you are, the more the signal quality becomes degraded.
This can be addressed in several ways, such as by using a fibre optic connection rather than the telephone line, but the latter can be costly to roll out, so providers like BT have focused first on areas where there are large numbers of subscribers, and may be reluctant to expand out to areas where there are few people to help them recoup the investment in infrastructure.
This can be frustrating for anybody in this situation, but especially for business users, for which the internet is increasingly vital for access to information and reaching customers. A recent episode of the BBC magazine programme Countryfile focused on farmers, who complained that vital information for their industry is increasingly delivered over the web, making internet access a necessity.
A common theme in features like this is simply to berate the government for its failure to stump up the money for broadband roll-out to rural areas. Few mention that such customers could be served by satellite broadband, at least until their area is served by an acceptable terrestrial broadband service.
Satellite broadband does what its name suggests: it delivers internet access via a two-way connection to a satellite in a geostationary orbit above the Earth. This is different from satellite TV, where a satellite simply broadcasts a television signal to everyone with a receiver within the satellite’s ground area footprint (Satellite TV companies such as Sky that also offer internet access provide this service via a telephone line).
To receive satellite broadband, a customer will require a satellite dish to be installed somewhere outside their premises. This is connected to a satellite modem, the equivalent of a broadband modem or router that you will see in a home with a typical broadband service.
So, the big advantage of satellite broadband is that you can access it pretty much anywhere. But what about disadvantages? Firstly, customers will have to stump up for an installation fee to have an engineer visit their premises, fit the satellite dish and orient it towards the satellite that delivers the service, as well as install the satellite modem. This typically starts at around £100 or so, but can be several hundred.
Secondly, potential customers should be aware that satellite internet access is subject to much longer latency than a terrestrial broadband connection. Latency is basically the “round trip” time taken for a signal from your computer to reach its destination and a response to come back.
Satellite broadband has this problem because data has to be transmitted from your computer up to the satellite in geostationary orbit, then back down again to the service provider’s ground station, from where it is routed onto the wider internet. The response has to return using the same route, and all of this adds delay.
For many applications such as browsing the web or downloading files, this latency is not really noticeable. Where it can become an issue is with videoconferencing or internet telephony, when users may notice a lag in the connection, and if you tried to play online action games, for example.
Another problem that satellite broadband customers may experience is that the signal quality can be affected by the weather conditions, especially rain or snow.
In terms of speed, most of the satellite internet providers can offer download speeds of up to 20Mbps, and upload speeds of 1Mbps up to about 6Mbps. The packages on offer from the providers vary, often based as much on the amount of data you are allowed to download each month as on the actual speed of the service, with some starting at just £10 per month.
What this all means is that satellite broadband is not for everyone, but if you do live in a remote or rural location and there are few other options, it is worth evaluating, rather than waiting for BT to get around to upgrading the infrastructure in your area.
Some satellite broadband providers covering the UK: