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Satellite Internet Explained

Satellite internet is nothing new, but there’s growing interest in the category now that Amazon, Elon Musk and others are working on expanding its availability and capabilities. That’s welcome news, especially with the ongoing pandemic keeping people at home and more dependent on internet access than ever before.

Available almost all over South Africa, satellite internet isn’t as fast as fiber. Still, it might be one of your only options if you live in a rural part of the country, where internet infrastructure remains woefully underdeveloped. Here’s everything you should know about it before you sign up.

Satellite internet works similarly to satellite TV. It relies on the combination of a signal routed through a satellite in low- or high-Earth orbit and a receiver dish that receives that signal. The receiver is typically placed on your home or business in a spot where it has as unobstructed access to the sky as possible. You’ll connect a modem to that satellite to translate the signal into a workable internet connection.

While electricity is needed, the satellite internet world isn’t dependent on cable wires, fiber or phone lines.

These ground-based technologies are expensive to extend into rural areas, where companies get fewer customers for their investment in a given amount of cable. Satellites are difficult to launch into space, sure. Still, once a sufficient network of them is available, companies can offer broadband satellite internet to customers over a wide swath of the planet, even in pretty remote places.

Recent advancements and proliferation of satellites in orbit have brought satellite internet into the range of speeds that are available from some of the other common modes of internet. If you aren’t sure what your current internet speed is, you can check your connection to put the various numbers in context; the connection is measured in megabits per second or Mbps.

For instance, ADSL and cable internet are very common, with DSL download speeds in the range of 3 to 50Mbps and cable typically providing anywhere from 10 to 500Mbps, depending on your plan and other factors. Satellite internet generally comes in at 12 to 100Mbps, which is slower, but Elon Musk promises that speeds of up to 300Mbps will be possible when Starlink’s infrastructure is complete.

Fiber internet, which uses fiber-optic cables, can offer blazing-fast download speeds as high as 2,000Mbps or 2 gigabits per second. However, installing fiber cable is expensive, and some areas with very low population density may not become priority locations for fiber internet until long after satellite internet options grow.

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