Did You Know? Satellite Internet Uses Radio Waves to Transmit Information

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How does satellite internet transmit data? While it’s easy to understand that an internet signal beams down from space into a satellite dish, providing us with access to high-speed satellite internet, it might be harder to understand what that signal is. The signal is, in fact, made of radio waves. However, these waves are very different than the ones that transmit your favorite tunes to an AM or FM radio. Understanding the differences between these mediums and how data is transmitted may also help explain why satellite internet behaves the way it does and how it differs from other high-speed internet service providers.

Satellite Internet and the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Satellite internet transmits data using radio waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum includes everything from X-rays and microwaves to the visible light spectrum (all of the colors we can see around us). The waves that transmit data for satellite internet, however, differ in both the frequency and wavelength from other mediums such as AM radios or X-rays. AM/FM radios, for example, have a longer wavelength than those used to transmit a satellite signal. These waves are also exponentially less frequent, with AM/FM radios cycling through about one million times per second and satellite internet signals cycling through at about 30 billion times per second.

Satellite Internet vs. Satellite Television or Radio

There are a couple of reasons why the radio waves being transmitted through satellite internet are different than those for AM/FM radios. For one, AM/FM radios must transmit signals that are less complex than those sent by satellite internet providers.

For another, AM/FM radio (and even satellite television or satellite radio providers) only need to send a signal one way. Satellite internet, on the other hand, must both send and receive transmissions.

Here is how the process works:

  • First, a request for a web page is sent from your computer to a satellite about 22,000 miles away in space.
  • The satellite then locates the website you selected through the Hughes Network Operations Center (NOC), which sends the information request to the website.
  • The website then beams information back through the NOC to the satellite, which then beams the information back down to your computer.

Because of the distance that the signal needs to travel to and from the satellite, there is a small delay in each action (called latency).  This latency is the reason for the different data capacity experienced on satellite internet.

The Effects of Weather

Why do some storms affect satellite internet more than others? Whereas storms can affect any internet service due to downed wires, etc., some heavy rainstorms have more of an effect on satellite internet. That’s because the water molecules in rain are the same size as the high-speed satellite internet wavelength. However, only some storms have heavy enough rain to disrupt transmission and most disruptions are very brief.

Different frequencies and wavelengths of radio signal are used for different mediums, from microwaves to satellite internet. Understanding the differences between waves used for services like AM radio and high-speed satellite internet (or even between satellite communications services like satellite television and satellite radio) can go a long way to understanding the differences between the services. For more on how satellite internet works, check out our blog.