Fibre vs Satellite: Who is the Winner?
We have written extensively about the benefits of fibre internet, especially regarding community-owned broadband networks. With growing numbers of consumers subscribing to Starlink and other satellite communications providers like SES and OneWeb, it may seem like fibre, long touted as a future-proof internet solution, is about to be edged out by satellite. Spoiler alert: it is not. In the battle between fibre and satellite, one is not superior to the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both have a place in communications. In this blog, we will provide an overview of the differences between satellite and fibre as well as explore different applications for each.
Fibre internet is delivered via optic cables made up of multiple fibre strands, each the width of a human hair, carrying information in the form of light.
A fibre optic cable has two primary elements, both made of glass: the core and the cladding. The core is the area where the light signals are transmitted. The cladding surrounds the core and keeps the light from escaping.
Fibre is often said to be “future-proof” because data capacity through a fibre link outperforms that of a radio frequency (RF) carrier. This allows substantial data capacity improvements through equipment upgrades long before the fibre itself must be upgraded.
Satellite internet works by connecting satellites orbiting the globe with antennas on earth via RF. There are three main types of satellites that are used for communications:
- Geostationary (GEO) satellites have a circular orbit at a constant altitude of 35,786 km above the equator. GEO satellites match the earth’s rotation of 24 hours, so they remain above the same point on earth. These satellites have higher latency than their MEO and LEO counterparts, and because of the earth’s curvature, they cannot provide complete coverage at the poles. Typically, coverage is not available plus or minus 70 degrees of latitude from the equator. Because of their distance from the earth, as few as three satellites can be used to provide full coverage.
- Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites take between two and 24 hours to orbit the earth, resulting in an altitude between 2000 km and up to 35,786 km above the earth’s surface. Because they are typically closer to the earth, less than 20,000 km, they have much lower latency than GEO satellites. MEO satellites orbiting at 8000 km above the equator would have a system latency of less than 150 ms but require many satellites to obtain full coverage around the equator. A minimum of eight satellites would provide a continuous narrow band of coverage. A constellation of 20 satellites will widen the band of continuous coverage to 50 degrees of latitude north and south.
- Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites orbit the earth in less than two hours. They typically orbit between 500 to 1600 km above the surface. Their proximity to the earth means they offer the highest speeds and lowest latency of all three options. They are also the smallest, which means they can be produced faster and at a lower cost than GEO and MEO satellites. However, since they are closer to the earth, a larger constellation of satellites is needed to provide complete global coverage.
Let us look at how fibre and satellite compare in some key areas.
Satellites that are farther out from the earth tend to cause more latency issues than LEO satellites. Since satellite internet relies on a wireless connection, it can experience more interference than fibre internet, which is hardwired and can perform more reliably. Obstructions like trees, buildings or precipitation can also compromise the strength and reliability of a satellite connection.
Fibre networks are typically entirely grounded, meaning they are buried in the earth. This protects the cables from common interruption-prone issues like weather events or curious wildlife.
In some rural areas, satellite internet is the only option as the region does not have the required power and fibre backbone infrastructure. For satellite connectivity, all that is needed is a clear view of the satellites, a terminal, and a power source to receive the RF signal.
On the other hand, fibre can be hard to access, especially in rural areas. Even in urban areas, fibre to the curb (FTTC) is still an occurrence. This means that fibre optic cable was laid in the ground up to homes or businesses, but cable or DSL cables were used to connect the “last mile” to the home.
Fibre to the home (FTTH) refers to fibre optic cables used to connect homes to a central location rather than using DSL or coaxial cable. FTTH is superior to FTTC because it delivers high speeds.
Satellite internet can have higher start-up costs in addition to standard monthly service fees. If you compare satellite internet costs to other types of internet services offering comparable speeds, the cost of satellite tends to be higher in most locations.
Fibre internet can be an affordable option depending on the internet service provider with the cost varying based on current infrastructure and the location of the terrestrial fibre optic line to the desired location.
Satellite data rates have come a long way in recent years. In the past, home Satellite internet used to be exceptionally slow, offering sluggish data rates of approximately 750 Kbps. Thanks to many advancements such as using higher capacity RF spectrum (Ka & Ku Bands) to improve throughput can expect data rates up to 100 Mbps, depending on the terminal and provider.
Fibre internet speeds can easily reach up to 1Gbps and more, depending on the plan and the provider.
Let’s look at some different ways that fibre and satellite are used:
End Consumer and Municipalities
Both fibre and satellite are viable ways to connect people to the internet. In rural areas, there is often no fibre infrastructure available at all and large telcos have historically been disinterested in building fibre networks in rural communities, viewing it as not worth their time financially. Some municipalities have taken it upon themselves to build community-owned fibre networks, but much of rural Canada remains disconnected.
GEO satellites have long been used to deliver the internet to homes. However, start-up costs can be high, weather events can cause outages, and latency can be a big issue. The emerging LEO and MEO markets are opening up new opportunities to access the internet in rural areas, and LEO satellites can be an appealing option for residents without access to a fibre network.
Municipalities across the country are tired of waiting for large telcos to build fibre networks and are taking it upon themselves to build community-owned fibre networks. Once built, these networks generate revenue for the community, which cannot be achieved with satellite technology.
We’ve written about the digital divide between rural and urban areas – travelling further north results in a deeper divide. Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada without access to fibre internet and the only territory in Canada without residential access to internet speeds over 25 megabits per second. Outside of Nunavut, 94% of Canadians have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits.
Undersea fibre lines can connect the remote Northern regions, though not always. For example, Greenland’s western coast is cut off from the country’s underwater fibre-optic cable by a glacier-producing fjord.
While communities in Canada’s north wait on government funding or a telco to build a network in the region, companies like OneWeb and Starlink, are building up their LEO constellations, while SES builds their MEO constellation, to serve the area.
Sometimes it’s impossible to connect to fibre internet, particularly in on-the-move military operations in remote locations. This is where satellite communications play a vital role. On-the-move communication refers to a vehicle equipped with a satellite antenna that is able to establish communication with a satellite and maintain that communication while the vehicle is moving.
Small form factor terminals like the ones built by GetSAT are ideal for military operations. They can easily be mounted on a vehicle and are even small enough to be mounted on a soldier’s back.
Internet of Things (IoT)
It is predicted that there will be 41.6 billion connected IoT devices by 2025. However, not all these devices can easily be connected to the internet as fibre access is not available everywhere. Some businesses, especially those located in remote areas or areas that cannot access fibre networks such as ships, need an alternate form of connectivity.
Small, portable terminals, such as those made by hiSky, can provide connectivity to satellites in even the most remote locations, such as on trucks travelling through rural areas or on fishing boats.
When it comes to satellite vs fibre, there is no clear winner. There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to internet connectivity. What might work for a municipality in rural Canada won’t work for a short-term resource extraction project or a military operation in a remote part of the world. Both fibre and satellite have their own unique applications.
Whether you want to build a community broadband solution, or you’re looking for a satellite terminal for your fleet fishing boats, ROCK Networks is here to help. As a unique provider of both end-to-end fibre and satellite solutions, we can get you connected. Contact us to find out how.