Satellite internet: Reaching across the globe to connect the unconnected

Advances in technology enable high-speed connectivity in many areas where terrestrial providers leave coverage gaps


Satellite internet reaches more people than ever before, in more remote areas of the globe, using innovative ways to connect people. Until recently, for example, nearly 2 million people in rural Mexico had never had a local internet connection. For many of those same people today, a short walk down to the local satellite-enabled community hotspot can connect them to the rest of the world.

In its early days, satellite internet technology was considered a replacement when “fast” dial-up delivery wasn’t available, mostly for people in rural areas. Two decades ago, in the early days of residentially available dial-up, speeds topped out at only 56 Kbps. For comparison, a 1 GB file that might take just 30 seconds to download today would have taken 3.5 days to download in 1996. And that was the fastest speed available.

Dialup modem

Like most technologies, satellite internet has improved greatly over time. To get a perspective on just how far satellite communications — and internet particularly — has advanced in the past decades, we need to go back in time to its beginnings in the early 1960s.

Communicating through space

July 10, 1962 marked the launch of Telstar, the first ever commercial communications satellite.

Two days later, Telstar beamed the very first international television broadcast between a French and American “Earth station.” It was a test outside of the public eye. A new age had begun.

Since Telstar, many satellites have been placed in orbit. While the original use was primarily for telephone and TV signals, satellites have also evolved to play a major role in our lives with global positioning systems we all have on our phones.

Read more about the history of satellite communications

Some may recall “C-band” satellite TV service. These large antennas used to dot the landscape of farms and ranches so people in rural areas could receive television signals. In many cases, cable was tied to cities and suburbs, so satellite was the only option for people in less populated areas to get programming outside of their local TV stations.

C-band antenna
An old C-band satellite dish used for TV reception.

Those large antennas were necessary to capture the relatively low-powered signal from the C-band of the electromagnetic spectrum. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when small dish systems changed the satellite broadcast industry with their ability to pick up a geostationary satellite signal from a much higher orbit. It was called Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), which used a higher-frequency Ku-band capable of handling much greater amounts of data — and a much smaller antenna. More data meant DBS systems could deliver dozens of channels instead of just a few.

However, that delivery was just that, a one-way communication channel, with no ability to “talk back,” or respond to the information arriving via our television sets.

The next step was to create a two-way system, capable of sending and receiving data from the internet. To manage that greater amount of data, the bandwidth shifted to the even higher frequency Ka-band.

This has prodigiously changed the way people live and communicate on the planet. People are connected now from all corners of the globe like they never have been before. They watch videos, shop, receive healthcare, do homework, and follow each other on social media platforms that weren’t even dreamed of 20 years ago. In essence, we are not just mere recipients of information; we are responders and creators, as well. And this is rapidly creating an ever-increasing demand for high speeds, along with the demand for new satellite technologies to deliver the abundance of new data that comes with it.

Satellite’s promise

For many, the arc of internet technology grew quickly, from painfully slow dial-up connections to faster digital subscriber line (DSL) and, later, much faster cable and fiber options. But, most of those “terrestrial” technologies require some kind of cable, either buried in trenches or strung on towers.

Satellite requires fiber connectivity to the internet at its ground station, but for user terminals, it only takes a small dish and a clear view of the southern sky (all geostationary satellites orbit over the equator). But delivering high-speed internet, whether via fiber or satellite, is very different compared with just watching TV, and requires a much more sophisticated technology. That’s because satellite TV technologies only receive broadcasted data, while satellite internet must be able to both send and receive data. That requirement meant a new technology first had to be invented and then improved over time.

Like most technologies, internet over satellite has improved greatly since its early days a few decades ago. Initially, the service was only marginally better than dial-up.

“It was pretty clunky. At that point in time the technology wasn’t there to transmit and receive,” said Brad Behmer, a satellite industry veteran who serves as Director of Sales Operations at Viasat. “So you’d do your dial-up connection for the upload and then you would use the satellite as the download.”

Those were the days when dial-up was king, patience was a must, and internet delivery was slow and often unreliable. A typical dial-up connection might be able to transfer 256 Kbps of data — or about a quarter of a megabit per second. And many of us may recall the dropped modem connections during the middle of an upload. Even so, many parts of the country couldn’t even get landline dial-up service, opening the door to other options — such as satellite.

WildBlue, a Denver-based startup, was one of those options. (Viasat purchased the company in 2009.) It began offering service off the Anik F2 satellite in 2004.

“In the early days of WildBlue, we were offering a .5 Mbps service, a 1 Mbps service and a rocket-fast 1.5 Mbps service. Believe it or not, that was very, very popular at the time,” said Behmer, an original WildBlue employee.

WildBlue satellite antenna and modem

It was so popular that the Anik satellite was soon at capacity. A few years later, the company launched its own satellite, WildBlue-1.

Since then, more satellites launched around the Earth, which has meant added capacity. Yet the demand for internet at faster speeds is still growing. At the same time, streaming audio and video services have made the ability to handle more and more data a must - pointing to an even greater need for capacity. Cable and fiber have expanded rapidly, but there are physical and financial limitations to terrestrial internet delivery. These technologies are prohibitively expensive to build in areas where there are few people.

A phone-line based DSL connection works for those who are close to a hub, but service slows down rapidly for those not close to one.

“You get too far from the central office and the service is so substandard that it isn’t even sellable,” said Behmer. “If you have to put a hub in to reach two houses, it doesn’t make sense financially.”

That’s why satellite internet is becoming more popular and is a fast-growing industry, with millions of people connected in the world’s most isolated and hard-to-reach places.

Satellite delivery has come a long way technologically. Slower speeds, higher cost and latency issues were limitations in the past, but things have improved greatly. Viasat, for example, offers speeds up to 100 Mbps in many areas of the US, four times that of the 25 Mbps the FCC considers broadband, or high-speed internet. The company also offers plans starting at $50.

Improvements in technology help keep costs down, especially in rural areas where terrestrial internet is very costly or not even available. Latency times (the time it takes for a signal to travel the 45,000 miles up and back to a satellite) are still a factor - a limitation of how fast light can travel. But web acceleration techniques developed by Viasat’s engineers help reduce latency’s impact, while a new hybrid technology combining satellite with other terrestrial technologies, like DSL or LTE, has the potential to further mitigate latency effects. Speeds for the most popular internet uses — like web browsing, downloading music or streaming movies — are now a great deal faster.

And there’s the coverage. Satellites are capable of covering virtually any place, anywhere on Earth. That’s important for those who live in more remote areas, in rugged mountains and rough terrain. It also helps some people close to urban areas who, for a variety of reasons, have limited access to cable and fiber. It could be because they’re just outside the zone where the population density is enough to warrant that infrastructure investment, or they may be in a newer neighborhood that wasn’t “cabled” during the area’s initial buildout.

Whatever the reason, there are almost always going to be places where terrestrial providers either can’t or won’t go — and that’s where satellite fills the gaps.

Satellite’s reach around the globe

As the technology for satellite internet has advanced, so has its reach. As Viasat launches more satellites into orbit, high-speed internet is becoming available in some of the most remote parts of the globe, connecting people who previously had limited or no internet.

One of Viasat’s innovations now delivers high-speed internet to some of the most inaccessible places in Latin America. The service is called Community Wi-Fi. For the first time, small communities in rural Mexico and Brazil have a high-speed community connection within walking distance of their homes. Now, instead of traveling long distances on buses and truck-pools to large cities, just to get an internet connection, there’s a nearby local access point to log on. It is cost-effective even for the most economically disadvantaged areas. Users can pay as little as 50 cents an hour to connect to family, friends and the rest of the world.

Kevin Cohen, Viasat’s Managing Director of Community Internet, says the Community Wi-Fi service is easy to use. Viasat works with a local business owner, who is set up with a computer or tablet along with the satellite antenna and a wireless router. Customers come in and can buy as much time as they want or need. They pay for the package, get a PIN code, and are immediately connected via Wi-Fi on their own device.

A Communtity Wi-Fi location in Pouso Alto Brazil.

Cohen says Viasat’s Community Wi-Fi is improving the lives of people in thousands of communities. He says doctors can find precise dosage information for patients and learn about the latest medical research. Farmers are now using the internet to learn how to grow larger, more fertile crops. Local business people are learning how to operate more efficiently and can offer their goods around the world.

The most impactful changes he’s seen are in the day-to-day lives of rural villagers.

“I know of a father who talks about how relieved he is for his daughter’s safety to keep up in school,” Cohen said. “She used to have to get on a bus with strangers and ride several miles to the nearest city to go online and do her homework. Now, she just walks to the local village hotspot to get online.”

In Mexico, where fewer than 12 percent of schools have a broadband connection, satellite-delivered internet can be a game-changer. It allows poorer populations to get education, even when children or teenagers are working full-time jobs to support their families. It can give job training to those who don’t have access to it. Libraries and local Wi-Fi hotspots make it possible for those who can’t afford a mobile device or computer to access these things, along with public services and job opportunities.

Expanded coverage

The launch of ViaSat-2 in mid-2017 expanded high-speed connectivity and coverage into Mexico, northern South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Outside of large cities, there was virtually no internet access at all, and most of the population in those areas could not afford the traditional internet plans most have in the United States and Canada.

In 2016, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that online freedom is a human right, and must be protected. But today, about 3.6 billion people in the world do not have access to the internet. There are many reasons for this. Underdeveloped countries with high poverty rates don’t have the infrastructure in place for cable- or fiber-based delivery. Emerging countries or unstable governments do not have the funds to install internet stations, hubs, cable lines and fiber.

Internet service delivered via satellite is particularly well suited to overcoming these problems. Typical ground-based internet requires a lot of infrastructure, like cell towers and long trenches with buried fiber or cable. However, satellite delivery requires far less infrastructure on the ground, which is less costly, especially in areas with low populations.

It’s also important to recognize that different types of satellite internet can be offered based on a population’s ability to pay for it. A less affluent country is less likely to have people who can afford even a $50-a-month service, which is why Viasat created its Community Internet program.

The company plans to roll out the service in many regions of the world after seeing the initial successes in Latin America.

Delivering a high-speed education

In Mexico, Viasat and telecom wholesaler Ubix are working together to expand efforts to connect public spaces across Mexico by fueling the Internet para Todos program. The partnership leverages the powerful ViaSat-2 satellite to deliver high-speed satellite internet services.

That can make a big difference in the lives of students and the next generation of workers. Just 45 percent of Mexican students graduate high school, and 10 percent of young men are unemployed, along with 30 percent of young women. Only 17 percent complete college.


Internet and advanced education can change the lives of these students profoundly. A survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) found that the average salary of a college graduate is 80 percent higher than someone with a high school degree. Access to education through internet for rural and developing areas of the globe is crucial.

The International Labor Organization in Geneva found that, “the broad availability of good-quality education … nurtures a virtuous circle in which more and better education and training fuels innovation, investment, economic diversification and competitiveness, as well as social and occupational mobility – and thus the creation of more but also more productive and more rewarding jobs.”

Cohen has seen the positive impacts of connectivity firsthand.

“We have teachers in Mexico accessing the internet to keep in touch with students and their assignments,” Cohen said. “The teacher also is able to research and find more challenging lessons for his students.”

Access to internet everywhere, not just where it’s convenient, is becoming more imperative every day. It is an economic as well as social leveler. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the United Nations, has studied broadband’s global effects and potential. Its conclusion? That nations with poor connectivity will increasingly fall behind in a world economy that is digitally based on online trade, commerce and communication.

Not just rural areas

While satellite-delivered internet benefits those without access to broadband internet in rural and isolated areas of the United States and the world, it is increasingly filling gaps in suburban and exurban areas as well. Many of these areas didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago, or were considered rural areas. As cable and fiber expanded in the cities, many skipped over areas that are now filled in between two urban areas. That leaves these populations with no cable or fiber-delivered internet, and little prospect of it.

(Fiber and cable providers) “usually try to connect small towns,” Behmer said. “Or they go from town to town, and even though the cable’s going between the two, those folks in the middle aren’t getting on.”

This is where satellite internet can be an attractive option.

“We fill in those gaps where so many of those cable, fiber and DSL providers just don’t have good service” — or the financial motivation to set up service, Behmer said.

Connected getaways

Americans love to hit the road and relax in the great outdoors. But they don’t necessarily want to be completely offline. Viasat is now delivering internet service to places that previously had little hope of getting a high-quality connection. And while satellite service for moving vehicles like RVs and cars is still in development, satellite can still help connect people on the go.

One example is at the Irons RV Park and Campground in Michigan, where Viasat service is now available in what’s a fairly remote area.

“There are a lot of trees and limited cell service,” Behmer said. “In fact when you drive into the park, the cell service goes away.

“We were able to put in one terminal and three wireless access points throughout the park, and now when people check in, they’re given a card that says, ‘This is how you set up your account.’ So they go online, set up an account, and we offer them six different options for service.”

Millions of Americans own an RV, and there are more than 18,000 public and private parks across the country. The cost of such a service is low, and gives campers a sense of security and comfort while letting them keep up with social media and expand nighttime entertainment options. And many campers are finding they really do want a connection to the outside world, even while getting away from it all.

“There are a lot of places where we can do a really good job servicing those customers. In those areas, customers love it, and they use it,” Behmer said.

Yet another example comes from our efforts to connect state parks. In Nevada, for example, Viasat is working with Nevada State Parks to enable Wi-Fi in many of the campgrounds. Many of these locations are quite remote, and satellite offers a powerful solution for enabling Wi-Fi hotspots.

Connectivity in the air

Satellite-delivered internet is also connecting airline passengers to the ground while they are in-flight. Cell towers over land can deliver Wi-Fi to those in-flight, but only satellite internet is available for overseas flights, and the capacity is much greater. Viasat’s service for passengers allows people to stay in touch with loved ones, stream their own movies or entertainment, and catch up on office work. It’s a service that passengers are beginning to expect while on board.

How equipment on a plane is configured to connect to satellite.

And they should. Viasat’s high-speed, high-capacity service is now available on more than 1,300 aircraft on some of the world’s largest carriers, including United Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and Qantas.

Remote Business Solutions

Satellite-delivered internet is the only solution for certain types of business and industry that, by their very nature, are remote and isolated. Oil and gas development and production are industries that would not be able to operate in today’s world without high-speed internet. Viasat’s Nomadic Satellite Services connects remote oil rig employees with real-time data such as sensor data and pipeline monitoring, as well as nearby seismic activity for instant analysis and response. Links can be set up anywhere and can be put up and taken down easily as drilling locations move from place to place.

What’s in store

More gaps will be filled across the world with ViaSat-3. The first of three ViaSat-3 satellites is expected to launch in 2021. Each ViaSat-3 satellite is designed to deliver more than a terabyte per second of network capacity - an enormous leap in what satellites have been able to offer up until now.

ViaSat-3: How just three high-capacity satellites in geostationary orbit can cover the earth.

It also has a revolutionary beam delivery system. Right now, satellite systems deliver information directly where the beam is pointed. If a beam is pointing at North Dakota, anyone with a subscription there can use that capacity. But there is also “stranded” capacity, if not enough population is in that area to use up the capacity.

ViaSat-3 doesn’t work that way.

“ViaSat-3 allows us to slide that capacity where we need it,” Behmer said. “And where we don’t need it, it won’t lay wasted. That’s something pretty new. We know it will have substantially more capacity, and have the ability to move it. That in itself is something that no one has ever done before. It is groundbreaking.”

More capacity, more flexibility. That adds up to more people across the globe, connecting for their present and their future.

More and more satellite capacity is needed to increase the growing demand for data moved over the internet.

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