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Satellite broadband explained

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When other types of broadband have failed you, satellite broadband might be just the thing you need. With it, you can say goodbye to underground cables and patchy cellular coverage and have your internet connection beamed directly from space.

This guide tells you everything you need to know about how satellite broadband works to help you decide whether satellite broadband deals are right for you.

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What is satellite broadband?

Satellite broadband is a type of internet connection that’s enabled by communications satellites – just like satellite TV. 

Satellite TV has been in existence since the 1970s, but the first internet service for consumers and small businesses wasn’t introduced until 1996. Today, residents of most urban and suburban areas in the UK can get adequate connectivity by using fibre-optic networks or the mobile data networks that connect smartphones to the wider internet. But broadband service is inadequate in some areas, especially rural ones. For consumers who find it difficult to get sufficient broadband speeds in their homes, satellite broadband could be just the ticket.

Wired broadband, which is the most popular type in the UK, deploys fibre-optic cables and can provide high-speed service that has become available to an increasing percentage of UK homes. But the internet speeds that customers can get from fibre broadband providers varies greatly depending on where they live. 

Mobile broadband coverage, including the latest 5G, tends to be better in urban areas. Many places in the UK aren’t served well by wired broadband or mobile connections. That’s where satellite broadband comes in.

How does satellite broadband work?

You’ve probably seen the satellite dishes that satellite broadband customers use. People attach these large, curved transceivers (which are devices made up of transmitters and receivers) to the sides or roofs of homes and apartment buildings. 

When the customer uses an internet-connected device, it sends a data request to their router and modem, which pass it on to the satellite dish. The dish notifies an orbiting satellite. The data request bounces from the satellite to a ground station that is connected to the terrestrial internet by fibre. 

Then, the process is repeated in reverse. The signal bounces up to the satellite, down to the satellite dish and into the modem and router in the customer’s home.

Older satellite broadband systems use radio waves to transmit data, and newer systems use lasers. Both types of signals travel at the speed of light. With older satellite broadband, the signals take around 600ms, or half a second, to complete a full journey between all the necessary nodes. With laser systems, this journey can take as little as 25ms.

In recent years, companies such as Starlink have started launching satellite constellations that cover a large area of the planet’s surface and orbit slightly closer to the Earth, allowing for reduced latency and improved synchronous communication. These satellite constellations are expected to increase the global availability of internet services.

Who needs satellite internet?

If you live in a rural area, you might have limited wired broadband capability and patchy mobile data coverage. If this is the case, you might be able to get better internet service by becoming a satellite broadband customer.

The number of UK satellite broadband customers is low compared to the number of wired and wireless broadband customers. But there is a marked increase in appetite for satellite broadband alternatives. According to a report from UK communications regulator Ofcom, Starlink’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites now provide service to approximately 42,000 UK customers, many of whom live in rural areas. That number rose from 13,000 customers in 2022.

Ofcom’s analysis of Starlink’s data suggests that between 15 and 20 per cent of the company’s UK customers have access to full fibre broadband. However, Ofcom’s report says: “Relative to UK premises as [a] whole, premises with a Starlink satellite broadband connection are … more likely to be in a rural area and less likely to have access to a decent fixed line or FWA [fixed wireless access] broadband service.”

What are the benefits of satellite broadband?

  • Cable-free coverage: Satellite broadband isn’t limited to a network of underground cables and can offer good internet speeds almost anywhere in the UK. So it’s ideal for rural users who don’t have access to fibre-optic broadband networks or 5G service
  • Travelling data: Widespread coverage and portable satellite dishes enable customers to take high-speed internet with them when they travel
  • Early adopters: The satellite broadband market is still in its infancy, which means its customers are early adopters of services that may improve over time

What are the downsides of satellite internet?

  • High latency: Satellite broadband signals must travel long distances between a customer’s router and modem, the satellite that receives their data requests and the terrestrial internet. This means latency, or the amount of time it takes for data to move from its original source to its destination, can be as high as 600ms (just over half a second). This increases the amount of buffering that occurs while the customer watches online videos, streams TV programmes, makes video calls and plays online games
  • High prices: Satellite broadband is generally more expensive than traditional alternatives. Starlink’s prices start at £75 per month for its standard residential package. That doesn’t include the cost of its hardware
  • Limited speeds: Many UK fibre broadband packages offer download speeds of up to 1Gbps, which is a much higher speed than UK satellite broadband packages offer

How to get satellite broadband

Satellite broadband deals aren’t easily available through third-party comparison sites. Usually, you must go directly to a provider to sign up. The process may take longer than it does for other types of broadband because at least one of the companies, Starlink, sometimes has a waitlist for its services. If you want to join Starlink’s waitlist, you must put down a pre-order deposit.

What providers offer satellite internet? 

New LEO providers with faster internet speeds and lower latency are phasing out older satellite broadband companies that offer internet service at slower speeds. That makes it an exciting time to switch to satellite broadband service, even though there are just a handful of providers for UK residents to choose from. Starlink and Brdy are two of their main options. 

Starlink is the more high-profile of those options. It’s a division of SpaceX, the private aerospace company that tech entrepreneur Elon Musk founded. Starlink has a customer-friendly website and does a good job of explaining its setup process. The company offers deals at several different prices for residential and business customers and on-the-go users. Its prices are a little higher than Brdy’s. 

Brdy, whose previous name was Bigblu, is Starlink’s primary competition. Brdy’s prices, which start at £29.99 per month, are a little cheaper than Starlink’s. But Brdy has slower internet speeds and less market recognition. It has had 25,000 customers worldwide over the past decade compared with Starlink’s current 42,000 UK customers. 

What are typical satellite internet speeds?

Satellite broadband speeds are increasing as the technology develops and more satellites get launched.

According to Ookla, Starlink’s median UK download speeds range from 77.4Mbps to 100.1Mbps. Those speeds are slower than Starlink’s median download speeds in some other countries. But they are faster than the UK’s median download speed for home internet, which was 69.4Mbps in 2023. Brdy offers deals for broadband service at speeds of up to 50Mbps or 100Mbps.

Broadband speeds vary, especially for satellite internet. Satellite broadband’s latency is relatively high regardless of its speed because of the long distances that signals must travel. That can affect synchronous activities, such as games and video meetings. 

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Data usage limits for satellite broadband

UK satellite broadband providers don’t have hard data caps, so technically, you can access unlimited gigabytes (GB) of data each month. But some of their deals allocate you a fixed amount of priority data, and if your usage exceeds that amount, you may experience reduced performance.

 

Provider Priority Data (per month) Standard Data
Brdy 100-300GB Unlimited
Starlink (Standard) N/A Unlimited
Starlink (Priority) 40GB-2TB Unlimited

Is satellite broadband more expensive than other types?

Starlink’s prices start at £75 per month for its standard plan. That doesn’t include the cost of its hardware, which you’ll need for accessing satellite signals. A new hardware kit sells for £449, and a refurbished one costs £199. Or you can rent hardware for £10 per month. 

High-demand users and business owners pay anywhere from £80 to £300 per month for Starlink broadband, depending on their data packages. Starlink charges more than £4,000 per month for its highest-priced business broadband plan, which provides 5TB of mobile priority bandwidth. Starlink’s website says this plan for on-the-go users is best suited to “maritime, emergency response and mobile businesses”.

Brdy’s plans are priced at £29.90 per month and £54.90 per month. The company offers a price match guarantee if a competitor undercuts its rates. Its pricing is roughly comparable to average UK broadband prices, which range from £20 per month for the slowest connections to £46 for the fastest connections.

Are there any ways to reduce costs?

Internet access has yet to be decreed a human right. But in the past, there have been government initiatives to give financial help to people without download speeds of at least 2Mbps. One such initiative was the Better Broadband Scheme, which ended in 2019.

The UK government’s ongoing Project Gigabit scheme is a £5 billion programme whose purpose, according to its website, is “to enable hard-to-reach communities to access lightning-fast gigabit-capable broadband”. Rural residents and business owners can apply for vouchers they can use for high-speed internet installation when part of a group project. The vouchers can be used for wireless or satellite broadband. Your eligibility depends on what postcode your home or business is located in and whether your existing internet speeds are below 100Mbps.

What are the alternatives to satellite broadband?

There are numerous alternatives to satellite broadband in the UK.

Most UK homes have access to some type of cable and fibre broadband, with speeds varying from a few megabits to over 1,000Mbps. You can start by using a postcode checker to find out which providers offer broadband in your area.

Community Fibre is a wired broadband provider offering a full-fibre network and service at speeds as high as 3Gbps, which is faster than other UK companies’ broadband speeds. But Community Fibre currently operates only in London. And you’ll have to check whether your home is in an area the company’s network serves.

Another option is mobile broadband, which uses radio waves to connect smartphones to the internet. Your smartphone may be sufficient for your internet needs. Or you can consider a mobile data connection for your laptop and home working setup. But even the latest 5G service’s effectiveness depends on your proximity to 5G cell towers. And it can’t quite keep up with full fibre-optic connections.

Satellite broadband FAQs

Satellite broadband signals suffer from high latency because they must travel long distances. High latency is less severe with LEO satellite constellations, though, because they orbit less than 2,000 kilometres (1,243 miles) from the Earth’s surface.

When your internet connection is beamed through space, the status of the atmosphere becomes relevant to your broadband’s strength. Even mobile data strength can be affected by poor weather conditions, and satellite broadband is no different. On its website, Starlink says its transceiver needs to be facing open sky. So, it’s logical to expect that storms and other extreme weather conditions could impact your internet connectivity. Minor, everyday weather fluctuations, such as light rain, snow or passing clouds, shouldn’t affect it, though.

The short answer is no. Satellite dishes are set up to receive and respond to specific frequencies. And the process for accessing satellite broadband is different from the one for receiving TV signals, though the base technology is the same for both processes.

henry st leger

Henry St Leger

Consumer Tech and Software

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former news and features Editor at TechRadar, where he specialised in consumer technology, software, and home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, soundbars, and smart speakers.

He has been writing about technology and related topics for over six years. His work for the Independent Advisor focuses on cyber security and internet-connected software including VPNs.

Henry has written for a wide number of prominent websites including NBC News, Healthline, The Times, Edge, T3, iMore, and GamesRadar.

Molly Dyson

Editor

After growing up with a passion for writing, Molly studied journalism and creative writing at university in her home country of the United States.

She has written for a variety of print and online publications, from small town newspapers to international magazines. Most of her 10-year career since relocating to the UK has been spent in business journalism, writing and editing for admin professionals at PA Life magazine and business travel managers at Business Travel News Europe and representing those titles at conferences around the world.

Now an Editor at the Independent Advisor, Molly is an expert in a broad range of consumer topics, that include solar panels and renewables, home improvements and home insurance, and consumer technology such as home security and VPNs.

In her free time, Molly can usually be found exploring the outdoors with her husband and their young son or gardening.