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Satellite Internet Latency and What It Means

satellite internet latency

Satellite internet service providers have their own pros and cons different from those of terrestrial internet providers. But one of the most common issues with them is network latency. Lag, high ping times, delay, etc are all different names for satellite internet latency. Unfortunately, this is a big part of all radio transmission involving a geostationary satellite. Suffice it to say, latency is the most annoying aspect of being a satellite internet subscriber.

What is Latency?

Latency with satellite internet is the delay in milliseconds involving the transmission of data to and from the sender and the destination. The speeds you get vary based on a number of factors. These include the number of users in a satellite’s spot beam. It also includes the number of jumps a data makes on its way to the destination. Every element in the network adds a few milliseconds of delay, further increasing the latency.

Explaining How Latency Works

Even the best satellite internet providers can’t overcome physics. In its most basic form, data traveling thousands of miles divided by the speed of light equals latency. Here’s how it works. First, a radio signal travels from your home to roughly 23,000 miles in space to a geostationary satellite. It bounces off the satellite and goes another 23,000 miles to the service provider’s server.

If you live in one of the upper latitudes, this distance can be even greater. Hand these 40k plus miles are just the first part of the journey your data goes through. From your ISP’s server, the data travels thousands of miles across a fiber network to the destination server. So if the ISP’s server is in LA, and the destination server is in Quebec, that’s additional miles the data has to travel from Los Angeles to Quebec, Canada.

In the next step, the data returns from Quebec to Los Angeles then travels 23,000 miles up to the satellite. From there it travels roughly the same distance again back to your home. In a single instance, your data has covered roughly half of the distance from our planet to the moon. In such a perspective, perhaps a few milliseconds of delay can be excusable. It’s not a question of Viasat vs HughesNet but of the limits that physics imposes on this type of internet service.

Gaming on Satellite Internet

Just because you have a satellite internet subscription does not mean you have to give up playing games. But it does have a significant impact on your gaming experience when it comes to first-person shooter games or massively multiplayer online games. You may also experience packet loss, which can be very disruptive in both MMO and FPS games. You can still play a number of games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends. But you will probably be frustrated playing things like Call of Duty Black Ops 4 or Counter Strike: Global Offensive.   

VPN’s and Satellite Internet

Unless you’re using a virtual proxy network designed specifically for satellite internet, you will have trouble staying connected to the virtual servers. VPNs also result in degraded throughput most of the time on satellite internet. This has nothing to do with setting up Wi-Fi on Satellite Internet and everything to do with the intrinsic working of a VPN. The problem arises with how TCP impacts data packet delivery. Transmission Control Protocol or TCP ensures error-free data packet delivery. It does so by transmitting a small amount of data to the server first, then waiting for a response before transmitting the rest.

If the response from the server takes too long, the TCP assumes the packet delivery was lost in network congestion. In response, it sends the packet again at a slower rate. This will continue to happen, causing the VPN connection to degrade. Latency is not something that TCPs take into account.

Conclusion

The Federal Communications Commission relies on download and upload speeds as metrics to define broadband and does not include latency as a factor. However, this is something that needs to change, since the FCC includes satellite internet providers in statistics showing how many Americans have access to high-speed internet. These statistics impact the FCC’s decisions to allot network funding for more equitable internet access. However, with latency still not a benchmark of broadband access, satellite internet networks stand at a disadvantage.

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