How It Works: Satellite Internet Access
Feeling left out of the broadband buzz because you can't get
Here's what you should know:
Satellite Internet access is a lot like satellite television: A "bird" orbiting the earth beams data to a dish attached to your house. The dish relays the data at speeds of 400 kbps or more to a special satellite modem connected to your PC.
Notice we didn't say anything about upload speeds. Currently, satellite services require an analog, ISDN, or wireless modem for uploading files. Each Web page request you make can only travel as fast as your current modem. The system was set up that way to keep costs down.
When you put all those pieces together, here's how it works: You dial into your ISP with your modem. While surfing a Web site, you click a link to view a different Web page. Software on your PC attaches a piece of code (called tunneling code) to your request. Instead of requesting the file directly from the Web server, the request goes to the satellite service's Network Operations Center (NOC), located on terra firma. The NOC then requests the Web page. The Web server sends the requested Web page back to the NOC.
The NOC beams the Web page to a satellite, which forwards the data to your dish. The dish passes the Web page to your PC through the satellite modem. The whole process should take less than half a second.
All these steps can result in latency (a noticeable delay between the time you click and the time you receive data). The delay can occur as your request is routed from your PC via modem to the NOC, to a Web server, back to the NOC, and then 22,200 miles to the satellite and back down to your dish. Latency is less of an issue with a steady stream of data, such as a shareware download or streaming music files.
Your performance may suffer when other users sign on to the service, since the bandwidth provided by the satellite is shared between users, as it is with cable Internet access. The satellite only has a certain amount of bandwidth it can dole out. However, upcoming two-way satellite systems, which will eliminate the need for an analog modem connection for uploads, will have greater bandwidth available--as much as 1.5 megabits per second down, 200 kbps up.
Consider the current broadband situation: According to the Yankee Group, at the end of 1999, about 63 percent of all U.S. households couldn't get cable or DSL Internet access. By the year 2004 that figure is projected to drop to about 30 percent. That still leaves a considerable segment of the United States without access to broadband for years to come.
Meanwhile, the Yankee Group estimates that about 50,000 homes received Net access via satellite in 1999. That figure is expected to jump to 3.9 million by the end of 2004, as new providers and services appear, and as speeds increase and pricing becomes more competitive with cable and DSL access.
Currently, the only satellite provider is Hughes Network Systems, through
To get started, you'll need a Pentium running Windows 95 or later, at least a 28.8-kbps modem, and 32MB of memory. DirecPC also recommends about 20MB of free disk space to install the software. The dish connects to a cable, which runs to your satellite modem, then to the PC from a Universal Serial Bus cable or PCI card.
You'll pay about $150 for a DirecPC dish and modem. Monthly fees are based on use, starting at $30 for 25 hours per month. The DirecPC Web site can steer you to an online or local retailer, and you should shop around because prices vary widely between vendors.
If you're a computer-savvy Bob Villa, you can install the dish yourself using a kit that costs $30 to $40, although it won't be easy. Or you can pay to have the dish installed, at a cost of between $150 and $200. Note that if you want DirecTV service, you'll need to pony up an additional $150.
Once the dish is set, you'll sign up with an ISP and install the DirecPC software. You have a choice of PCI (internal) or USB satellite modems. Unfortunately, notebook PC users are out of luck: There are no PC Card modems for laptops.
DirecPC is about to have some company in the satellite access market. By
the end of 2000,
Gilat is partnered with
DirecPC also says it will offer two-way service by the end of the year.
By 2002, we're likely to see speeds of at least 1.5 mbps, and potentially
much faster, provided by satellite services including
All of which means you'll be able to get broadband no matter where you are, even if your local cable and phone companies can't get it to you.