Mobile Satellite Internet
As fun as it is to fantasize about connectivity everywhere, today’s typical geostationary satellite options come with many tradeoffs to consider.
Compared in particular to cellular service - most current satellite internet options can be slower, with MUCH higher latency, and overall more expensive than earthbound alternatives.
And the gear to get connected can be bulky and often requires cumbersome manual set up at each stop.
If you plan to focus your travels on being way out in the boonies where there are no other options, then the current challenges that come with satellite internet might be worthwhile.
But if you are hoping for a simple go-anywhere solution, satellite internet will likely frustrate you - at least for now.
But exciting stuff is (literally!) on the launching pad - with companies like SpaceX speeding ahead to bring out new generations of low earth orbit satellite constellations that promise to bring affordable, high speed, low latency satellite coverage to the entire globe.
These options will hopefully eventually prove to be mobile-friendly for RVs and boats - with smaller sized receivers that will not require setup at each stop.
This is an exciting industry to watch, and we have begun to see limited next-generation consumer satellite internet service entering beta in late 2020!
But will low earth orbit satellite be the magical one-size-fits-all universal solution many are hoping for?
Read on to find out more about what is available today, and what is coming tomorrow.
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Keep an Eye on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites
Traditional satellite internet options have relied on geostationary communication satellites that orbit over the equator. Since the satellites are moving at the same speed that the earth is rotating, they appear from the ground to be in fixed locations in the sky - sitting 22,236 miles above the equator.
Being in a fixed location makes these satellites easy to target with a precisely aimed dish, but there are major downsides that come from having to communicate over such vast distances.
A new generation of satellite internet options will instead rely on constellations of multiple satellites working together in much lower orbits - potentially zooming by as little as 200 miles overhead.
The advantage of having satellites in lower orbits is that they are physically close enough to users on the ground to provide fast low-latency communications rivaling 4G - and even 5G - cellular.
But the disadvantage of a lower orbit satellite systems is that the satellites are always in motion in the sky - and it takes many satellites in coordinated orbits to guarantee that at least one is always passing overhead at any given time.
This means that you can't roll out service after just a launch or two - you need to get enough satellites in orbit to provide uninterrupted coverage over your target areas.
There is a new space race underway to build next-generation LEO constellations more ambitious than any that have ever even been imagined before - with hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of satellites planned.
SpaceX's Starlink has jumped into an early lead in this race, but there are other players too - and the next several years are going to be extremely exciting as these new networks (literally) get off the ground.
We are tracking all of these developments, and reporting on major milestones and announcements.
If you're considering a satellite option for your mobile travels, it might be worth holding off on making any decisions until you consider all the latest details emerging on these new upcoming options.
Here's our most current satellite internet news coverage:
In addition to these news stories, we are doing our best to keep the below content updated for all of the major players too.
Satellite Internet Realities
With all satellite systems, one challenge is unavoidable - to stay connected, you will always require a clear view of the sky.
Satellite internet requires a clear line of sight between your receiver and the satellite to work - meaning you might not be able to get connected while parked under a shady tree, next to a tall building, or in a canyon.
With geosynchronous satellites, you might be able to aim between a gap in the trees at the fixed target. But since LEO satellites are in motion overhead - any obstructions nearby might result in dropouts as the satellite passes behind branches, buildings, or boulders.
Because of these constraints - LEO satellite constellations are NOT going to be a universal magical replacement for cellular service any time soon.
Even Elon Musk is clear that this is not his aim with the Starlink system:
"I wanna be clear, it's not like Starlink is a huge threat to telcos. I want to be super clear. It is not. In fact, it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest to serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble doing with landlines or even with cell radio stations, cell towers."
So is satellite internet just a pointless fantasy for RVers and cruisers then?
Not at all.
The future is bright with the new emerging satellite internet options, which can potentially make satellite a more integral part of a mobile internet arsenal - enabling low-latency broadband in many places where it was completely unavailable before.
But we predict few nomads will be able to rely solely on it.
For most RVers and cruisers - a mix of cellular, Wi-Fi, and satellite will remain the key to staying connected everywhere.
And it is not just about where you can get connected - satellites experience congestion in areas with too many customers, just like cellular.
In more populated areas, there may still simply not be enough satellite bandwidth to go around.
In an urban or suburban area, the truth is that satellite will likely never be able to compete with fully built-out cellular infrastructure on the ground.
But on the other hand – in many remote areas it will never make sense to build a network of cell towers, and no matter how much cellular companies expand, there will ALWAYS be gaps in coverage.
And this is where satellite internet - current and future generations - makes the most sense.
The ideal connectivity future involves a mix of satellite and cellular, with service roaming seamlessly to the best connection possible wherever you happen to be.
Getting Internet From Space - Basics
Satellite internet can be confusing. It is important to make sure that you understand the basics.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions answered and most confusing topics explained:
Satellite TV and Satellite Internet Are Not the Same!
Receiving a signal from space isn't particularly hard.
Transmitting a signal back to a satellite, on the other hand, is where it gets tricky.
Satellite TV dishes are receive-only devices and have no capability to transmit. Internet usage, however, requires two-way communication – and thus much larger and more complicated gear both on the ground and in space.
Some people get confused because they see satellite TV providers Dish Network and DirectTV (now owned by AT&T) advertising bundled packages that include internet service – but this is usually not satellite-provided internet.
These bundled plans are intended for stationary satellite TV consumers to combine their TV, wired internet, and phone bills into one. The satellite TV provider contracts out to local phone or partner cable companies to provide the actual internet service – usually relying on a hard-wired internet connection.
Customers in rural areas beyond the reach of a wired partner may instead get partnered with a residential stationary satellite internet option - usually ViaSat or Hughes, with an entirely separate dish setup than is used for TV reception.
In other words – not mobile friendly at all.
NOTE: Though the dishes look similar, most satellite internet systems are strictly for internet service, and are NOT compatible with any satellite TV services. If you also want satellite TV to go along with satellite internet, you'll actually need a second dish!
Residential Satellite Service Generally Is NOT Mobile Friendly
There used to be more options, but other firms either went out of business or were acquired by these two companies.
Even if you're getting satellite internet from a differently branded provider, it is likely one of these two companies behind the scenes providing the actual service.
Both of these residential satellite internet services are NOT designed for mobility - and moving locations usually requires a visit from a professional installer, and sometimes purchase of new equipment and a plan change.
Even if you had the tools to move and aim their gear at a new location, the network will detect you have moved and will not allow you to connect without an installer signing off that things are set up properly.
While you can usually get a dish permanently mounted at your summer and winter bases, and then just move the modem in between - we don't consider either of these as viable connectivity options for users who move more than once or twice a year.
There are mobile satellite internet solutions out there presently suitable for mobile RVers, discussed later in this guide.
Member Only Content In This Guide
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If mobile internet is an important part of your lifestyle, here are ways you can help:
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Here's a sneak peak at the member exclusive topics in this guide:
Geostationary Satellite Concepts
Spot beam satellites, coverage maps, tripods vs roof mounts, latency and satellite communications.
Present Satellite Options for Mobile RVers
HughesNet and RVDataSat are the geostationary options available today, we go into more depth on both.
Satellite Communicators and Low Bandwidth Options
If you learn to think a bit differently - it is amazing how far (literally) 160 characters of text can take you. This section goes over options like Garmin inReach, Spot, and Iridium Go.
Satellite Future: The Coming Revolution
Low earth orbit satellites are the future, and this section dives in to SpaceX's Starlink, Amazon's Project Kuiper, OneWeb, and Iridium Next/Certus - all satellite initiatives we are watching closely. We also cover developments on high-altitude balloons and drones that are designed to provide internet service, and even upcoming plans to provide cellular service from space that is compatible even with existing phones!
Satellite Internet - A Bright Future Ahead!
We have a lot to look forward to when it comes to satellite broadband.
SpaceX is moving fast to having nationwide and global coverage by the end of 2021, and is aiming to be out of beta sometime in the middle of the year. The service is now portable, but many markets either don't have service yet or are already at capacity making moving service a bit of a gamble until more capacity is brought online.
OneWeb has a lot of launches ahead of it, and might actually be the first to offer service of some sort in Alaska later in 2021.
And perhaps at last Amazon will share some real details and a (literal) launch date for Project Kuiper in the year ahead.
With so much to look forward to - it is looking like it will be an exciting year, and decade, in space!
But keep in mind - even if all these next-generation networks pan out, satellite internet will likely never completely replace the need for cellular connectivity.
But it will be great to at last have truly no-compromise connectivity options that work absolutely anywhere!
Satellite Internet Options Product Guide
Here are all the satellite options we are tracking in the product center - ranging from full-on mobile solutions to very basic on-the-go options.
RV Note: For most RVers, the roof-mounted RVDataSat system and the tripod-based HughesNet Gen5 Spot Beam options will be the most interesting for those who want reliable coverage. For those willing to experiment with 'better than nothing', Starlink is now portable but may not provide coverage everywhere you want to go yet.
Marine Note: Satellite internet is currently a LOT trickier for boats unless you can mount the dish to a fixed dock. For boats rocking on the water, locking onto a broadband satellite in geosynchronous orbit is prohibitively difficult without a super-yacht budget. This tends to leave only the systems that do not require precise aiming as options, like satellite messengers, as worthy of consideration.
Click on each option in the grid for more details:
- Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs
- Travel Planning Around Connectivity for RVers and Cruisers
- Thinking Outside the Box - Alternatives to Tradtional Mobile Internet Options
- Testing & Understanding Your Mobile Internet Speeds
Explore the Resource Center
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