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How Does Satellite Internet Work?

Satellite internet works slightly differently than wired Internet. This article focuses on the differences between the two.

The main difference between how satellite internet and land-based internet work is the way signals are transferred between the users’ location(s) and the Internet service provider (ISP) hub. With land-based Internet, signals travel to and from the user’s home or business along the cables or wires owned by the ISP. Satellite Internet providers don’t run cables or wires to a user’s home. Instead, they use transmitters and receivers to bounce the signals off satellites orbiting Earth. The small dish satellite Internet providers mount on a customer’s home contains the transmitter and receiver.

When you access the internet, your computer or wireless device sends a message to your ISP requesting access to the ISP’s private network. With both types of ISPs the signal travels out of your device to your modem. This can be done wirelessly or with a wired connection. If you have a home network, the signal will travel through your router before reaching your modem. When the signal reaches your modem, it is transformed into data that can be sent on to the next step. This is where satellite Internet differs from land-based Internet.

With a land-based Internet connection, the signal travels out of your modem through the cables or wires installed by your ISP and eventually reaches the ISP’s point of presence (POP). The POP is the gateway to your ISP’s network. It receives your request message, verifies you subscribe to the company’s Internet service, and grants you access to the network.

With a satellite Internet connection, the signal travels out of your modem to the dish installed by your ISP. The dish transmits the signal to a geosynchronous satellite in orbit above the earth. The satellite bounces the signal to the IPS’s Network Operation Center (NOC) back on Earth. The NOC houses the POP for the satellite provider, which checks your subscription and grants you access to the ISP’s network. The rest of the process is the same for both types of ISPs.


Why does weather affect my satellite internet connection?

Satellite internet relies on transmissions between the earth and satellites orbiting the earth. Anything obstructing the pathway between your dish and the satellite can disrupt those transmissions. Disruptions in transmission can result in slow or low-quality connections and occasional loss of Internet connectivity entirely. Obstructions can include buildings, snow, trees or other foliage, and/or storm clouds.


Why does my dish have to face south?

To maintain an open path of communication with the geosynchronous satellite that transmits your Internet signal, your dish needs to face south. Geosynchronous means the satellite orbits the earth at the same rate as the earth’s rotation. That means it stays in the same location in relation to the earth.

The satellite is located 22,300 miles directly above the equator. Because the satellite is located at the equator, transmitters, and dishes in the northern hemisphere attempting to connect with it must face south. Transmitters and dishes in the southern hemisphere must face north to connect with the satellite.


Why do satellite connections seem slower than landline connections?

Although satellite Internet providers can offer high bandwidth connections, they often feel slower than land-based connections with the same speed. This is due to latency.

Latency occurs because the distance a signal must travel using a satellite connection is much greater than the distance it travels using a landline connection. The signal must travel over 22,000 miles to reach the satellite, then travel approximately the same distance to reach the user. Even at high speeds, covering that much distance takes time. That time is called latency. For more on latency, see bandwidth vs. latency.



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