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Has Satellite Broadband Finally Reached its Tipping Point Towards Success

Thursday, Jul 18th, 2013 (4:51 am) - Score 8,780

A recent report from Point Topic claimed that Satellite broadband ISPs might finally have become an “attractive option” for consumers seeking higher speed internet connections, especially those in UK rural areas. But has it really reached a “tipping point” towards even wider success and if so then why aren’t consumers lapping it up.

In theory satellite’s greatest selling point has been its unique ability to cover almost anywhere in the UK. In practice such connections have had a traumatic history. Only a few years ago satellite services could barely muster speeds of 0.5-2Mbps and most were hobbled by a serious lack of capacity or high costs (£800+ setup fees), which meant that they struggled to compete with even some of the slowest fixed line (ADSL) services.

Prior to that the situation had been even worse, with one-way services requiring you to retain a dialup or ISDN link to handle the upstream traffic (the satellite only did downstream). Lest we not forget the dire 1000ms to 2000ms (millisecond) latency times of the oldest analogue platforms.

But over the past four years all that has begun to change. Rival operators (e.g. Eutelsat, SES, Avanti, Hughes) have launched a plethora of new spacecraft into orbit around the Earth, each offering a more diverse range of flexible capacity, and costs have also come down. As a result it’s now possible to get download speeds of up to 20Mbps for around £25 a month (full list of UK satellite ISPs).

Oliver Johnson, CEO of PointTopic, said:

Now that twenty megabit bandwidths are commonly on offer and some tariffs offer customers unlimited data the case for satellite broadband has, in our view, reached a tipping point.

Satellite subscription costs are affordable for most, the bandwidth and data caps have improved significantly in the last ten years and you can be up and running comparatively quickly. In fact satellite isn’t just for those hard to reach areas anymore it’s turning into a real competitor for bandwidth provision in a number of situations.”

Admittedly latency (the time it takes for internet servers to respond) is still an issue and indeed we’ve seen pings of between 350ms to 800ms on some of the modern digital satellites (it takes longer for signals to go up into space and come back down again).

High latency (pings) are obviously no good for fast paced gaming or other real-time services where milliseconds count. But outside of this it seems like the satellite landscape is much improved and modern solutions offer a very viable alternative for rural areas, so why are only a tiny minority of people actually using them?

Satellite Bugbears

One reason, as alluded to by some satellite providers, is a simple lack of awareness and the fact that many people still remember satellite from the bad old days when related services were slow, expensive, poorly supported and gaining planning permission was a nightmare (in some cases it still is).

On the other hand speeds might be a lot better but some satellite ISPs still use a heavy degree of throttling that can sharply reduce performance. In addition the related traffic management policies are often not clearly explained by ISPs, which can cause confusion. On top of that the satellites themselves can easily become constrained by limited capacity, which results in slower speeds and is costly to upgrade (new satellites can cost millions).

The issue of cost hasn’t been completely resolved either. Monthly rental prices are certainly much more affordable but it’s worth remembering that £20-£30 a month for a capped package (e.g. around 10GB), or up to £80 if you want a 20Mbps “unlimited” service from Tooway, is still more expensive than a comparable fixed line service (not forgetting line rental).

The cost of hardware and installation will also set you back several hundred pounds, although some ISPs do allow this to be spread out as part of the subscription. Never the less many standard fixed line services offer a free or comparatively cheap connection.

Some ISPs also fail to supply customers with a geographic IP address for the United Kingdom or will charge extra for it, which is a problem because services like the BBC’s iPlayer won’t work as this is region-locked to the UK. A VPN could solve that but not all work well with satellite and this comes at an extra cost.

Suffice to say that Satellite still faces a challenge. Even its traditional focus on rural areas is now under threat after the government pledged to help make fixed line superfast broadband (25-30Mbps+) services available to 95% of the country by 2017. On the other hand that still leaves around 5% where satellite can focus.

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said (here):

We see satellite broadband as an essential means to deliver faster internet access for rural communities, businesses and individuals. Everywhere in Britain can therefore access broadband via satellite. This is an issue we regularly discuss with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

In the meantime satellite ISPs have been doing a good job of boosting their marketing efforts and this work needs to continue, which will help to raise awareness and correct for past perceptions. The service really can be a very effective solution for remote rural areas and, while it might not be perfect, it is a useful stop-gap until mobile or fixed line connectivity can catch-up.

But, outside of these areas, satellite solutions will continue to struggle against the often significantly cheaper, more flexible and more familiar fixed line services. In the long term it could be a losing battle but that assumes that such services won’t evolve again to keep pace. History has shown that satellite has continued to survive and can indeed grow.

Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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