Which sounds like an easier way to deliver internet to every person on the planet: run billions of miles of cables and wires to every single home or strategically place transmitters in locations where millions of homes can communicate with them wirelessly?

Despite sounding simpler, the wireless option aka satellite internet, is still nowhere near as popular as the wired one. Through advancing technology, changing industry mindsets, and increasing reliance on connectivity, the economics for beaming our communications from earth to space and back are looking more viable than ever.

To start with, satellite internet basically covers the entire earth.

Providers tout their wide coverage area through maps. There are dozens of satellites all positioned and oriented to serve different continental swaths. There's less coverage toward the poles but there are also fewer people.

Speeds have historically been slow, but connections have been getting faster.

Iridium

circa 1997

0.01 MBps

ASTRA

circa 2007

20 MBps

OneWeb

in development

100 MBps target

Satellite internet is typically used to connect people located in isolated areas—whether it be a Pacific island chain, or a home on the outskirts of town in the US. So, chances are, you're using a fully terrestrial connection right now. With prices and speeds comparable to wired service in many areas satellite internet has yet to hit the mainstream for one reason: latency.

Despite being capable of broadband speeds, the time it takes for communications to travel to a satellite and back is much longer than terrestrial connections because the distance is farther.

Currently most internet satellites are in geosynchronous orbit

It takes a radio wave at least 230 milliseconds to get to geosynchronous orbit and back

that's 35,000 km away

That’s enough time for a signal to travel through a fiber optic cable between New York and London nine times.

Currently, the internet satellites closer to earth are only capable of low bandwidth connections. Previously stymied by technological limitations, planned low earth orbit constellations from OneWeb and SpaceX are slated to offer broadband speeds with low latency. OneWeb's constellation is designed to have just 30 milliseconds of latency.

Latency isn't much of an issue for streaming activities—a movie will play normally after a slight delay. (Important, considering video data accounts for 70% of all internet traffic.) But latency does impede real-time applications like gaming where data is constantly being transmitted back and forth over the network and slows general web browsing since every loaded page has a longer fixed amount of time it will take to load. There are some places where satellite internet is the only option (or a better one).

It isn't economical to physically connect remote locations with small populations like Pacific islands.

For the same reason, when broadband companies run their cables, they might not do so on every road or in every neighborhood.

Also, some ships and airplanes use satellites to connect to the internet, especially when far from land.

These are the satellites of some of the current internet satellite operators

There are wide-ranging differences in quality and type of service among these providers. Some are slow and can only be used for email, some are fast and can be used for anything. Some sell direct to consumers, some only sell access to local providers who in turn use the network to connect customers to the broader internet. Typically newer satellites allow for faster connections and have more bandwidth.

Companies are arranged by the number of active communications satellites in orbit.

Satellites are shown orbiting at their relative distance from earth. Not every satellite shown is providing internet. Satellites are also not evenly distributed around an orbit as depicted nor necessarily orbiting around the same axis.

Yet still with all of these providers and all of these services, satellite internet is a niche business compared to terrestrial services. To go mainstream, Tim Farrar, a satellite-industry consultant, says it’s all about finding the right balance of quality and price.

“How much do you need to increase capability for it to be competitive?” Farrar said. Are consumers looking for low-latency service like OneWeb is trying to offer or will new higher throughput satellites from ViaSat be more successful? “How much cheaper does it need to get?” Farrar wondered aloud. “That’s the multibillion dollar question.”