Despite making huge strides towards universal connectivity in recent years, the UK’s broadband network remains a patchwork quilt of different connections, speeds and ISPs.
Inner cities sport hyperfast, hyperlocal internet services from energetic startups, piping gigabit connectivity into new-build homes.
In the suburbs, pavements are dug up to facilitate the installation of full-fibre cabling, capitalising on the large numbers of households close to central telephone exchanges.
In the countryside, things are rather slower.
Despite initiatives like Community Fibre Partnerships, rural residents often have to endure sluggish and unreliable broadband connections.
It’s simply not cost-effective to extend full fibre cabling out into the countryside to every hamlet and isolated cottage.
And as we explained earlier this year, rural homes are generally forced to rely on landlines – inefficient distributors of digital data.
With line speeds typically capped at 11Mbps (and uploads barely hitting 1Mbps), it’s unsurprising many rural residents routinely look to the skies for inspiration…
Ahead in the clouds
Domestic satellite broadband has been around since the early Noughties, when reductions in the cost of hardware and rockets enabled specialist firms to offer domestic connectivity.
Yet satellite construction, launch and maintenance costs a lot of money even today. Fifteen years ago, it was almost prohibitively expensive to launch a satellite into geostationary orbit.
That created a vicious circle.
High setup costs were passed onto consumers who baulked at paying them, leading to low adoption which meant there was little money to reinvest in making future launches more affordable.
Nonetheless, satellite broadband grew in popularity as the internet became increasingly essential for modern life.
Today, average download speeds of 75Mbps are achievable. That might not give Virgin Media sleepless nights, but it’s seven times faster than the connections offered along ADSL phone lines.
Indeed, there’s no need to have a phone line at all – or any other kind of hardwired infrastructure.
Even an off-grid home can receive satellite broadband, providing it has a dependable electricity supply.
And since every house is an equal distance from space, this is a democratic service. It’s not dependent on where you live, or how far away the nearest telephone exchange happens to be.
Better latency than never?
Despite broadcasting across the 18.3-30GHz frequency band, satellite internet has historically faced one major drawback – latency.
This is the delay between an end user issuing an instruction (click a hyperlink, fire a gun in a game, press Enter) and a response being received.
While a full fibre broadband connection may have latency of 20 milliseconds, satellite broadband can experience latency of 240 milliseconds – 120ms there, and 120ms back.
In fairness, it’s pretty impressive that you can distribute a request up to a satellite 22,000 miles up in space and receive a response inside a quarter of a second.
Yet that delay would prevent many online games being playable. It could cause issues with video calling. And it’s not ideal for smooth streaming, either.
That said, you probably wouldn’t binge on Netflix via satellite broadband, since these services tend to be extremely expensive per gigabyte of data consumed. It’s probably never going to be the cheapest broadband.
Satellite internet subscriptions are usually like mobile phone contracts. A certain volume of data is bundled in free each month, while additional data incurs considerable extra charges.
Another historic disadvantage has involved bad weather disrupting signals, from high winds to snow. This can exacerbate latency, or result in sporadic signal loss.
Download speeds could be as low as 2Mbps, with advertised speeds of 20Mbps often struggling to match ADSL services in terms of real-world performance.
Upload speeds also tend to be no better than ADSL, which is a problem if you’re heavily reliant on video calling, cloud storage or producing and distributing large files.
However, these challenges are all being tackled by a new wave of entrants into the satellite broadband market…
Reach for the skies
Foremost among the companies disrupting this sector is Starlink, who claim they will be covering most of the populated world by the end of 2021.
Promising speeds of 150Mbps and latency of just 20ms, Starlink will be powered by a network of thousands of low Earth orbit (LEO) mini-satellites.
Over 1,600 of these are already in space at the time of writing, with 2,800 future counterparts helping to distribute data to pizza box-shaped terminals instead of traditional dishes.
The perils of investing in this experimental sector are showcased in the travails of British company OneWeb, which entered bankruptcy last year but has now bounced back thanks to Government intervention.
Its roster of satellites will include 648 LEO satellites, manufactured by Airbus.
As of writing, 182 of these are in orbit, with the rest due to follow in 2022. A service rollout will begin in the Arctic region later this year, before expanding globally next year.
Even further into the future, Amazon’s Project Kuiper might see a one-foot antenna terminal resembling a small plate receiving data at up to 400Mbps from 3,236 LEO satellites.
It’s significant that all three firms have chosen to operate LEO rather than GEO satellites.
The latter remain approximately 22,000 miles in the air, whereas the former hover a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. That slashes latency and improves connection speeds.
Such progress could make satellite broadband far more appealing in the coming years. For now, consumer options are rather more limited, though still worth considering.
What do I need to receive satellite broadband?
If the above has persuaded you that satellite internet represents a viable option, it’s time to consider the practicalities.
You’ll typically need to install a 75cm satellite dish with a clear view of the southerly sky, though installing it won’t require planning permission from the neighbours.
It will require fairly deep pockets. Alongside the provision of a proprietary modem, installation costs routinely climb to several hundred pounds.
Just like fibre broadband, speeds may be throttled and distinguished by different pricing models. Konnect offers three packages with average download speeds of 22, 37 and 75Mbps.
Next, you’ll need to decide how much data you’re likely to use. Freedomsat allows you to subscribe to anything from 10GB to 150GB per month.
Some satellite broadband providers offer free and unmetered usage through the night, while demand is low. This is a great time to download streaming media, or upload data to the cloud.
It can also keep costs down, with some subscriptions priced at over £150 per month for large data volumes.
Is the user experience any different?
Once your devices are connected to a central router, there’s nothing to distinguish satellite broadband from any other kind of internet service.
You can’t swap the supplied router for a third-party product as you can with services provided via Openreach infrastructure, but any device will access the internet in the same way.
The main issue you’ll notice is a greater delay in response times – the lag or latency outlined earlier. There might also be issues during high winds, heavy rain or snowfall.
However, on a day-to-day basis, you can simply enjoy being online at speeds which might otherwise be unachievable in rural or poorly-connected corners of the UK.