How Satellite Internet Receivers Work

satellite internet receivers
Those in remote locations might consider the satellite Internet option.

In today's wired world, everything on the information superhighway is just a few clicks away. And as technology advances, more and more people are able to access the Internet and contribute to this virtual community. Many of us have a whole slew of options when it comes to accessing the Internet, including DSL, cable Internet and dial-up.

In urban and suburban areas of the developed world, DSL and cable Internet access are popular because the connections are so fast. Traditional dial-up access is often a viable alternative because it can be less expensive or more accessible. For instance, in rural and remote areas, DSL and cable Internet may not available. That's because the terrestrial connections required for such services aren't installed everywhere. On the other hand, all that's required for dial-up is access to telephone lines.


It may be confusing to learn that DSL isn't as accessible as dial-up. Although both DSL and dial-up use telephone lines, the DSL technology is dependent on distance. If you're too far from the telephone company's central office, a DSL connection won't work as well -- if at all. As a result, many people living in rural areas settle for dial-up in order to connect to the virtual community. But this isn't their only remaining option.

­A lesser known type of access is satellite Internet. Because this connection relies on space instead of terrestrial wires on Earth, this alternative is more accessible than even dial-up. A satellite connection offers Internet to those who live in locations so remote that there are no telephone lines, or even to those who travel in mobile vehicles and boats. However, these Internet users still need the right equipment. When you think of helpful travel gadgets, satellite Internet receivers might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but they certainly come in handy when nothing else will get you connected.


Mechanics of Satellite Internet Receivers

mechanics of satellite internet receivers
The receiver (modem) is a pivotal piece in the satellite Internet process.
Image courtesy Skycasters

Most Internet connections rely on terrestrial communications. Even when you take your laptop to a coffee shop and use wireless, the weak signals aren't strong enough to extend the access out of a very limited range (perhaps a few hundred feet), let alone out of the Earth's atmosphere.

For satellite Internet, signals are stronger and able to carry all the necessary data from the provider hub up to the satellite and back down (in a downlink) to your computer. With only downlink capability, you need a way (such as dial-up connection) to send back any information, such as a request for a Web page. This isn't helpful for those who travel and have no access to telephone lines. However, two-way satellite Internet allows you to send Internet signals back up (in an uplink).


Satellites are able to send and receive messages through space using waves of the electromagnetic spectrum. Specifically, the waves necessary to carry two-way satellite Internet signals strong enough for broadband Internet fall under the 27.5 to 30.0 GHz ranges for uplinks and 17.7 to 20.2 GHz for downlinks [source: StarLan]. The dish that receives the signals must have a clear view toward the direction of the satellites, which are located over the equator. That means that in the United States, your dish would need an unobstructed path to the southern sky.

While these analog wave signals make the transfer of data through air and space possible, computers only understand digital language (combinations of 1s and 0s). In order to get computers communicating with each other, there needs to be a translator. This is where satellite Internet receivers come in. They're really just modems. The word "modem" is short for modulator-demodulator, and these gadgets basically translate analog signals into digital data and vice versa.

For a downlink in satellite Internet, the dish would get analog information from the satellite and send it along to the receiver, which converts it to digital data (bit streams) before sending it to the computer. During an uplink, the process is reversed. You may have two modems to accomplish this task -- one for an uplink and one for a downlink -- but many receiver gadgets can do both jobs.

The receiver connects to the satellite dish through coaxial cables. Otherwise, the mechanics of satellite Internet receivers are similar to that of other modems. For example, they convert analog to digital data and can connect to your computer through either Ethernet or USB port connections [source: Kota].

As handy as these receivers can be as travel gadgets, there are some problems with them.



Using Satellite Internet Receivers

using satellite internet receivers
Through no fault of the receiver, using satellite Internet can get frustrating.

If you've got satellite TV, the provider might've given y­ou the option of installing it yourself when you signed up for the service. The same isn't usually true of satellite Internet. Often, rules and regulations governing satellite communications prohibit nonprofessionals from installing it. This also applies to two-way satellite Internet [source: Briere]. The upside to this is that you won't have to deal with the hassle of installation, and using satellite Internet receivers is just a matter of keeping everything plugged in.

Basically, this is a simple task: Two coaxial cables run between the dish and the receiver, and an Ethernet or USB cable runs between the receiver and the computer. If you wish to go wireless, you can also connect Internet receivers to WiFi routers.


Perhaps the most frustrating part of working with this type of Internet access doesn't have to do with the satellite Internet receivers per se. The service itself isn't the fastest kind of Internet connection, nor is it the most reliable. Although satellite Internet might not be as fast as DSL or cable, it's typically faster than dial-up -- that is, when it's working.

Satellite Internet connections experience latency, or delay. Latency can have a variety of causes, and they aren't typically ones you can fix by replacing a few gadgets. One is distance, which is obviously a factor for satellite communications (even if the messages are traveling at the speed of light). The signals must travel the distance between the hub site and the satellite, and then to you, totaling about 46,000 miles (74,030 kilometers) in all [source: VSAT Systems]. This is why providers of the service will discourage you from playing certain games online that require quick response. However, providers do maintain that the connection supports streaming video.

Another factor in delay or disruption of service has to do with weather. Much like satellite TV, satellite Internet may not work well in bad weather, such as heavy rains. You'll have more trouble if there are any obstructions between the dish and satellite. One thing to look out for are nearby trees; anticipate trees growing a few inches taller over the lifetime of the satellite or sprouting leaves in the spring, both factors that will obstruct your connection.

In light of this knowledge and the prospect that satellite Internet can be more expensive than all the other options, you may wonder why anyone would get this service [source: Briere]. Don't underestimate the feature that sets it apart from competitors -- accessibility. Those who travel in RVs or in boats and those who live in the most remote areas certainly appreciate it when there's no other Internet connection to be had.

For related articles, including more interesting travel gadgets, browse the topics on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Briere, Danny, Pat Hurley. "Smart Homes For Dummies." For Dummies, 2007. (Jan. 23, 2009).
  • Kota, Sastri L. et al. "Broadband Satellite Communications for Internet Access." Springer, 2004. (Jan. 23, 2009).
  • StarLan. "WildBlue Satellite Technology Explained." StarLan. (Jan. 23, 2009).
  • VSAT Systems. "Satellite Internet Explained In Plain English: Latency." VSAT Systems. (Jan. 23, 2009).