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What is satellite broadband?

By Jon Barrow

Satellite broadband is promoted to people who can't get a normal broadband service. Here we explain all you need to know about satellite broadband.

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Is satellite broadband the right choice for you? Our expert guide will help you decide whether you should invest in a satellite internet connection.

Most of us have standard broadband that uses a traditional wired connection – either ADSL (which relies on the BT phone network) or a faster cable service.

However, if you live in a rural area, it can be very difficult to access the internet through this sort of wired connection. Cable services are often unavailable, and even if ADSL packages are an option, they're often so slow that they're virtually useless.

One possible solution is to use a satellite internet service. Read on to find out more about this type of connection and to discover whether it's right for your needs.

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How does satellite broadband work?

Rather than relying on a network of broadband wires or cables, satellite broadband is transmitted wirelessly via a satellite dish. It works in a similar way to satellite TV, except those services just receive information. With a satellite broadband connection you also send out – or upload - data to the satellite.

The main advantage of satellite broadband is that it can be provided virtually anywhere in the world - generally as long as you have a clear line of sight to the southern sky (where the satellite will be).

How much does satellite broadband cost?

Satellite broadband is more expensive than standard wired services. Although one benefit is that you don't have to pay line rental to use it. This is because it doesn't rely on the phone network.

Prices tend to start at around £20 a month, rising to more than £100. However, the cheapest packages come with very small data allowances – often as little as 2GB a month. This won't allow you to do much more than the odd bit of web browsing or emailing.

Prices start at around £20 a month, rising to more than £100.

Spending more will give you more data to use, although most packages have Fair Access Policies (also known as traffic management). This means that heavy users may have their browsing speeds capped.

As well as paying a monthly package fee, you'll also need to pay for installation and equipment, both of which can be very pricey.  Some satellite providers let you rent their equipment.  This can be cheaper in the short term, but you'll be held responsible for any damage to the equipment - and you may end up paying out more than if you'd just bought it upfront.

How fast is satellite broadband?

Services vary, but generally offer satellite internet download speeds from 2Mbps up to around 20Mbps. That may not match the speeds available with fibre connections, but it's on a par with ADSL services and is fast enough for most online activities. And satellite upload speeds can be faster than those offered by ADSL connections.

However, speed isn't everything. You may also need to consider the latency of satellite services, which means the lag or delay caused by transmitting data thousands of miles to the service's satellite.

Latency won't be a concern when simply browsing the web, but would be a real problem if you're playing online video games, which demand instant reactions. It could also be a little annoying on Skype or other Voip calls.

Check how fast your internet connection is with our free broadband speed test.

Should I get satellite broadband?

The high costs, latency issues and small data limits (most ADSL and cable packages include unlimited allowances) mean that satellite broadband isn't likely to appeal to many people.

But if you live in a rural area, there's a good chance you'll be happy just to be able to get online – and a satellite service makes that possible.

A Which? member's story

Before deciding to sign up for a satellite service, Stephen Williams was forced to make do with broadband speeds that rarely exceeded 1Mbps. Previously put off satellite broadband by the long contracts, he was able to secure a two-year deal with Europasat that let him leave without penalty if superfast broadband was ever brought to his village.

Stephen had a special dish installed (not much larger than the standard Sky satellite dish) and his service was up and running within a week.

Verdict

Stephen's service isn't perfect. Speeds rarely match the promised 20Mbps and typically average closer to 10Mbps (they're even slower at certain peak times or in terrible weather). Connection and hardware costs are also high.

But Stephen feels it's a price worth paying for a generally reliable service that gives an acceptable speed. And local friends have followed his lead and signed up.

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