The way most internet works these days is a simple, three-part process: The internet service provider (ISP) gets the internet signal via fiber from a collection of data servers, moves that signal to a central station, or hub, then distributes it to the modems of individual subscribers.
Those first two parts tend to be the easiest to accomplish, while the third — getting the signal to those modems — is the tricky part. That final leg is often called “the last mile,” and for many businesses without adequate internet service, it’s that last mile (or multiple miles) from the hub that makes the difference.
If you think about cable or fiber ISPs, they require a technician to come out and wire each location, then connect that to the local hub. If your business is in an unserved or underserved area — where it makes less economic sense for the ISP to serve you with short runs from the hub to your location — it’s less simple. In the case of cable or fiber, it may mean the ISPs don’t serve you at all, and even some of the most populated areas can remain unconnected from broadband speeds. For DSL from the phone company, they might serve you, but the farther you go from the nearest central station, the worse the service gets.
Filling broadband coverage gaps and providing redundancy options
This reality can result in significant coverage gaps for business. For stand-alone locations, it could mean your business can’t take advantage of modern business services, like online inventory management and point-of-sale tools, VoIP phone service or even streaming video for training, conferencing and more. If it’s a business with multiple locations, the coverage gap can translate to a patchwork of providers with multiple bills, varying levels of service and an uneven experience for all those individual managers.
That’s why Viasat helps businesses large and small to get real broadband speeds outside the cable and fiber zone. Satellite ISPs like Viasat work in essentially the same three-step fashion, but instead of a central station, the internet signal is delivered via fiber to a large antenna (called an “earth station”) on the ground, which then moves the signal via radio waves up to our satellite.
In this model, the satellite is functioning like that central office, and that “last mile” is more like 22,236 miles — the altitude at which our satellites orbit. The signal comes back down to the business location and is captured by an antenna (dish) outside that’s aligned with the satellite. From there, the signal goes into a cable through a hole in the wall or roof that connects to a modem — just like any other ISP.
The benefits of a service that can reach just about anywhere a business is located remains pretty clear, but there’s another huge advantage of satellite that many business owners and corporate IT professionals are becoming aware of: Even if a business location has good service from a terrestrial provider, having a reliable backup connection is essential. Cable, fiber, DSL and even wireless are subject to disruptions from line cuts, weather events, system outages and more. With a redundant connection in the form of a Viasat Business satellite dish, your business will stay online (so long as there’s power), and the losses that come from being offline are mitigated.
Satellite TV vs. broadband spot beams
Delivery of internet via satellite is quite different than how video is delivered through satellite. Satellite TV only goes in one direction, broadcasting video signals from the satellite to the antenna with no “return flight.” Internet signals have to go both ways, and since the signals to and from are not broadcast like video, there’s a much greater amount of bandwidth needed to move all that data.
This need leads to another interesting thing about how we deliver business internet via satellite. While the video satellites can broadcast one way in a very large beam that can cover an entire continent, doing so for internet would be a waste of that bandwidth. Think of a radio station at, say, 97.3. If you’re within 50 or so miles of your local station, you’ll get it at that frequency. In the next state over, your rock station at 97.3 might be a country station, because the distance has allowed for a re-use of that portion of the radio spectrum.
Our satellites receive the Ka band of the radio spectrum near 30 GHz and transmit near 20.2 GHz, and we deploy the signal in what are called “spot beams.” These are aimed at specific areas on the ground, and they overlap (see illustration). If we’re using the same part of the spectrum for this, then how does it work?
The answer is we break down the bands using different polarizations. In case you’re not an electrical engineer, just think of those polarizations as different colors. Within a single spot beam, we can use a number of different colors to carry the signal, reusing that same bit of spectrum. Viasat has dedicated quite a bit of effort over the past decade to improving how we do this, and it’s resulted in a highly efficient use of the radio spectrum we’re allocated. This, in turn, allows us to deliver more bandwidth to all of those modems out there — and more robust service for businesses.
As we’ve increased the power of our satellites, we’ve also had to up our game on the ground. Just as more towers equate to better coverage for a smartphone, more of those earth stations adds up to a stronger network for our satellite service. At the same time, moving the processing functions into the cloud has allowed us to create smaller, less-expensive earth stations than we did previously, making it economical to put up quite a few more of them.
We’ve touched on all the main components of how we deliver satellite internet, but there’s one more to mention because it’s something that’s visible at your business location. What many call “the dish” is actually a couple of different things. The dish itself is just a reflector — a piece of stamped steel aimed at the satellite that works to focus the signal read by the TRIA. This is the metal box at the end of the arm that’s connected via cable to your modem.
“TRIA” is an acronym for “transmit-receive integrated assembly,” but all you need to know is that it’s essentially a radio that can send and receive. The TRIA also has a powerful amplifier in it that enables it to push a signal back to the satellite in orbit. Along with the modem, the TRIA is the real workhorse at the business location — not the larger dish.
A modem, by the way, serves as the interface between the radio signals received via the TRIA and the business’s computer or router. It also does other things, like authentication to ensure the business is a member of the network and modulating and demodulating the signal.
Building an even more powerful network
Even if the basics of how the signal gets to you from the satellite seem relatively simple, such a transmission does involve a great deal of complex technology to make it all possible. It’s a technology we at Viasat work on constantly to improve, and the advancements we’ve made in capacity and coverage in the past few years are extraordinary. We went from having about 10 Gbps of total throughput over North America in 2011 to more than 400 Gbps today. While our ViaSat-1 satellite added coverage over the most populated parts of the U.S. in 2011, ViaSat-2, launched in 2017, added more capacity over the contiguous U.S. as well as Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and air and maritime routes all the way to Europe.
In 2020, we plan to launch yet another record-breaking satellite, ViaSat-3, with 1,000 Gbps, or a terabit, of capacity over North and South America. This will be followed in quick succession by two more Viasat-3 satellites that will provide global coverage. For businesses, this expanded capacity and coverage means all those locations that languished with yesterday’s slow speeds will be able to take full advantage of today’s internet — whether it’s for primary service or redundancy.
Our goal is to make high-speed internet access possible for business locations just about anywhere on earth in the next few years, and hopefully this article helps explain how satellite can make it happen.