Everything you need to know about satellite broadband

What is satellite broadband, how does it work, and what does it mean for you and your home? Here we explore all the biggest head-scratchers attached to this emerging technology, and dig into how it compares with current offerings, like fibre optic and 5G mobile broadband.

What is satellite broadband?

Unlike the broadband you probably have at home at the moment, satellite broadband is beamed down from space to a dish attached to your house, in a similar way to satellite TV. The dish is then connected to a Wi-Fi router, allowing you to wirelessly connect your devices to the internet – just as you would with traditional broadband.

The biggest player in the satellite broadband game at the moment is Elon Musk with Starlink, which is operated through SpaceX. Since 2019, the Tesla CEO has been launching small satellites into low orbit, with the end goal of having 42,000 floating around the planet – much to the displeasure of astronomers.

Hot on Musk’s heels is a UK-based consortium called OneWeb with a very similar game plan. OneWeb has fewer satellites in its fleet, but because they will operate at a higher altitude, they should be able to achieve global coverage with a smaller constellation.

As Starlink and OneWeb’s satellites don’t have to be physically connected to the dishes on the ground, the hope is that one day everyone in the world – regardless of where they are – will be able to access the internet, with reliable connections and high speeds.

satellite broadband

How does satellite broadband work?

If an ever-expanding fleet of low-orbit satellites wasn’t sci-fi enough, satellite broadband works via lasers. At the moment, most normal satellite communications work through radio waves, which is largely how we connect mobile phones calls and access mobile internet.

Compared to radio waves, laser communication is much ‘quicker’. Although both technologies operate at the speed of light, lasers function on a much higher frequency, which means they can deliver larger amounts of data at once over a broader bandwidth – a bit like expanding a country lane into a motorway.

Who needs satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband is generally designed for those who are unable to access a wired connection, because they live or work in a remote place.

In a lot of rural areas with low populations, high-speed, fibre optic broadband can be hard to come by, which means a lot of homes or businesses may have to rely on mobile internet connections, like 4G or 5G. The advantage of satellite broadband is that it doesn’t require the costly installation of miles of cabling, so it could be great news for those in notorious countryside blackspots. In fact, a small number of households in the UK are already making use of some form of satellite broadband.

How much does satellite broadband cost?

As with any new technology, satellite broadband is pricey – more expensive than any household wired broadband-only subscription available in the UK right now.

For example, a standard Starlink setup kit and dish costs £439 (at time of writing), followed by a monthly £84 subscription cost. However, if you’re looking for the quickest download speeds, Starlink Premium is the company’s superior offering, which runs at an even higher cost.

What is the difference between broadband and satellite internet?

Although satellite broadband is still in its infancy and very expensive, it won’t be long before it becomes more accessible and the prices come down. It’s thought that, in as little as a few years, Starlink will achieve complete global coverage, and will begin to replace the older wireless signals we rely on at the moment, which are transmitted through radio waves.

The difference between traditional broadband and satellite broadband is how data is transferred. Satellite broadband is completely wireless, transmitting data through lasers from satellites in low orbit to dishes installed on the ground. Traditional, wired broadband relies on underground cabling to transfer data to our homes and businesses.

How reliable is satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband will be music to the ears of those who have suffered through unreliable or slow internet connections due to their remote location. As the technology continues to expand, the reliability of satellite broadband will continue to increase. However, anyone considering an investment in satellite right now should explore other options first, like mobile broadband, as there could be more affordable options out there.

How fast is satellite broadband?

When it comes to speeds, Starlink, OneWeb and other emerging satellite broadband providers could potentially deliver speeds of up to 300Mbps – comparable to that of fibre optic. However, this is more like a maximum speed limit at the moment, and could realistically be more like 70Mbps – 100Mbps. Although this doesn’t measure up to the very best fibre optic broadband connections currently available, it’s still a very reasonable download speed, and would allow lag-free HD video streaming for multiple users in the same household.

What are the advantages of satellite broadband?

A big tick in the pro column for satellite internet is that it’s going to be available virtually everywhere – huge news for those in rural areas. And it will be much quicker than dial-up options, which some users may currently be relying on. As developments and innovations continue over the coming years, it will become more widely available all over the world.

What are the disadvantages of satellite broadband?

The main disadvantage of satellite broadband at the moment is its massive price tag, but this is true for all new technologies – remember how much DVD players were when they first hit the shelves? Were you to test out satellite broadband today, you may run into some latency issues, which will be bad news for online gamers. However, it’s thought that this will significantly improve over the coming years.

How does weather affect satellite broadband?

Starlink’s website offers a bit of insight into how its equipment fairs in difficult or adverse weather conditions, stating that it is “proven to withstand extreme cold and heat, hail, sleet, heavy rain, and gale force winds – and it can even melt snow”. However, that last point has attracted a crowd Elon Musk certainly wasn’t targeting.

In January 2022, a Starlink customer called Aaron Taylor tweeted a photo of five cats huddled together on top of his Starlink dish, as it gives off heat to melt snow. “Starlink works great until the cats find out that the dish gives off a little heat on cold days,” writes Taylor on Twitter. He went on to explain that the clutter of cats did disrupt his internet connection, writing that it “doesn’t shut it down completely, but definitely slows everything down”.

So, long story short – if you’re looking to install a satellite broadband dish, put it somewhere that local, chilly wildlife can’t access.

What are the alternatives to satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband won’t be for everyone, and probably won’t even be looked at for those in big cities with the infrastructure already in place to deliver high speeds through fibre optic lines. To check out all our latest deals, and find the right broadband solution for you, head over to our broadband deals page for more information and the best deals with Virgin Media.