Years ago, if you walked around any high-end RV resort, the signature blue glow of Datastorm dishes mounted on roof tops meant one thing: the people inside were online, while everyone else made do with clubhouse dial-up, or nothing at all.
But sadly, the glory days of relatively affordable, available-almost-everywhere satellite broadband have been fading into the past for mobile users.
But a renaissance may be at hand!
During the Summer of 2015, satellite internet began to get interesting again with some exciting new options debuting on the market for RVers.
But in the satellite world, things move slowly - and even as 2016 draws to a close many of the most promising new options remain "coming soon" - though there are some definite signs of progress happening.
And assuming certain ambitious plans ever (literally) get off the ground, there are signs of a full fledged satellite internet revolution coming in the years ahead.
Satellite is a great option for some situations.
Especially those situations where it is the ONLY option.
Table of Contents
- Satellite Realities: Today & Tomorrow
- Satellite Frequently Asked Questions
- Satellite TV and Internet Are Not the Same!
- The Signal: Spot Beam vs Broad Area
- Satellite Internet Options Product Guide
- Satellite Concepts (Member Only)
- Even Satellites Have Coverage Maps!
- Tripods vs Roof Mounted Dishes
- Latency & Satellite Communications
- Satellite Internet for RVers - Overview Video (Members Only)
- Satellite Past: Glory Days Fading (Members Only)
- The Slow Lingering Death of Classic HughesNet
- Exede, WildBlue & dishNET: Fixed Locations Only
- Present Satellite Options for RVers: A New Dawn (Members Only)
- Roof Mounted: RVDataSat
- Tripod Mounted: HughesNet Spaceway & Jupiter
- Nearly Obsolete: Legacy HughesNet
- BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network)
- Low Earth Orbit Options - Globalstar & Iridium
- Satellite Future: Revolution Coming? (Members Only)
- Mobile Pricing Revealed for HughesNet "Gen5" Satellite Internet Service Posted on: March 15, 2017
- HughesNet "Gen5" Satellite Internet Service - Coming April 1st! Posted on: February 2, 2017
- SpaceX Launches First Wave of Iridium Next Satellite Constellation Into Orbit Posted on: January 16, 2017
- EchoStar 19 Launches from Cape Canaveral, A Huge Step for Mobile Satellite Internet Posted on: December 20, 2016
- SpaceX Reveals More Details About Global Satellite Broadband Plans Posted on: November 19, 2016
- ViaSat Announces Plans to Build World's Highest Capacity Satellite Posted on: February 10, 2016
- 2015 RV Mobile Internet Year in Review Posted on: December 31, 2015
Satellite Realities: Today & Tomorrow
As fun as it is to fantasize about connectivity everywhere – for most people satellite internet as it exists today just doesn't make a lot of sense, and comes with too many tradeoffs.
Compared to cellular service - satellite internet is often slower and more expensive, and and the gear to get connected can be bulky and hard to use, especially on the road.
But there is something magical about being connected in the absolute middle of nowhere - places so far off the grid that cell towers and electricity alike are scarce.
If you plan to focus your travels on these sorts of places - satellite internet can be wonderful addition to your connectivity arsenal.
But if you are hoping for a simple go-anywhere alternative to cellular internet service or campground Wi-Fi, satellite will likely disappoint you.
If you do choose to explore satellite options, make sure that you do your homework, research the alternatives, and very carefully weigh the costs and the benefits.
You'll also need to decide whether to invest in what is available today, or if you'd like to wait for one of the next generation options that are perpetually coming "soon".
Satellite Internet: The Next Generation
Even once next generation satellite systems are fully deployed – they will for most people still be at best complimentary systems to terrestrial cellular service, not a full replacement.
In an urban or suburban area, the truth is that satellite will never be able to compete with fully built out LTE on the ground.
After all - how can a billion dollar satellite that needs to last in service for a decade compete with ground based cell towers that cost a tiny fraction of that to build, and which can be upgraded to the latest technology every year?
But on the other hand – in many remote areas it will never make sense to fully build a network of cell towers, and no matter how much cellular companies expand, there will ALWAYS be gaps in coverage.
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.
It will take a while for all the essential pieces to fall into place, and for the necessary partnerships and technologies to emerge.
While we wait – we can look to the skies and dream!
Satellite Frequently Asked Questions
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 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 on the ground.
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 typically not satellite-provided internet.
These bundled plans are intended for stationary satellite TV consumers to combine their TV, internet, and phone bills into one. The satellite TV provider contracts out to local DSL or partner cable companies to provide the actual internet service – usually relying on a hard-wired internet connection.
Even when they do offer actual satellite data plans (like Dish’s dishNET – which is actually provided by either Exede or HughesNet behind the scenes), these are provided primarily to offer service to rural customers outside the range of cable and DSL, and they are strictly for fixed-location installs only.
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!
The Signal: Spot Beam vs Broad Area
Traditionally, communication satellites broadcast a signal on Ku-band microwaves that could reach an entire continent.
This is great for mobile users – the satellite doesn’t know or care whether you are in Boise or Boston, in the Black Rock desert or back-country Georgia.
But it is also horribly inefficient – with every user across the country assigned to a particular satellite and channel having to share the signal.
Newer satellite services such as WildBlue and Exede and HughesNet Gen3 (Spaceway) and Gen4 (Jupiter) use spot-beam technology to cover the nation with many small focused signals using higher frequency Ka-band microwaves rather than a single blanket Ku-band signal – allowing for many more users to communicate at once.
This allows for cheaper service and faster data rates. But it also means that if you travel more than about 100 miles from your “home” address, your satellite service will no longer work at all – assuming you can even physically move and then aim the dish correctly.
Why Not Just Change Spots?
It is technically possible for a satellite receiver to "change spots", but up until very recently none of the consumer satellite systems provided any support for automatically or even manually changing your assigned beam.
Relocating a dish to a new location thus usually required a certified installer aiming the dish while on the phone with the network operations center coordinating the move, and even with professional help at most you might be allowed to relocate service only once or twice a year.
Because of the mobility-hostile nature of spot-beam service, RVers in the past using satellite internet have been limited to older Ku-band options that are slower and more expensive.
Worse – the leading consumer satellite internet provider, HughesNet, has been actively phasing out their legacy Ku-band service, making it almost impossible to activate older mobile-friendly equipment on a consumer-priced service plan.
Policies however are evolving – and HughesNet is now actively supporting a trial program (covered earlier) to enable mobile Ka-band deployments that can change spots without needing an installer's help.
This is a revolutionary shift, and once again opens the door to truly mobile satellite internet installations.
But for the time being - regular HughesNet plans that have not been explicitly "mobilized" will NOT work if you take your Dish on the road, and HughesNet will not support customers who try to do this.
Your "Home" Address Matters
Think of each spot beam as a cell tower - and if there are too many customers in a single spot things get slower for everyone. To deal with this, satellite companies often attempt to manage supply and demand by adjusting plan pricing and availability based upon your official service address
For example, the HughesNet “Ultra” plan is a promotional plan that is only offered on under-utilized spots - so you need to have a home address in one of these areas to qualify for it.
It is actually possible for spot beams to become over-sold too, and in those areas satellite service providers might jack up the plan prices for new customers, or may stop offering new service signups entirely.
This need to manage spot capacity is one of the reasons that satellite companies have been so wary about offering mobile service, since then there would be nothing to prevent users from moving from a "cheap" spot to a more expensive one, sucking up capacity where it is already in short supply.
Satellite Internet Options Product Guide
Here are all the satellite options we are tracking in the review center - ranging from full-on mobile solutions to very basic on-the-go options.
Click on each option in the grid for more details:
Older HughesNet HN7000S satellite modems with legacy service, that are now nearly impossible to activate.
Broadband Global Area Network with laptop sized equipment, slow speeds and pricey worldwide data.
Handheld satellite communicator for remote tracking & one-way communication.
Satellite powered Wi-Fi personal hotspot supporting voice & data.
DeLorme InReach SE & Explorer
Handheld satellite communicator for remote tracking & two-way text communication.
Handheld satellite powered calling, text and data capabilities.
Roof mounted satellite internet system with unlimited usage plans.
HughesNet Spot Beam Gen3 / Gen4
HughesNet is now allowing select resellers to “mobilize” the new generation spot beam satellite service.
This Guide is written to be a 'living supplement' to The Mobile Internet Handbook.
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