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Fixed Wireless (4G and LTE) vs. Satellite Internet

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On November 25, 2015, Netcomm Wireless signed a purchase agreement with a US-based telecommunications provider (reportedly AT&T -- per Fairfax Media) in an effort to bring top of the line, high speed internet to rural Americans who currently do not have that kind of access. For many rural residents, satellite internet is the best internet they can hope to obtain. With download speeds maxing out at 12mbps and data caps that leave their customers yearning for more bandwidth, could this be the long awaited reward for their patience? .
NetComm Wireless is an Australian-based fixed wireless broadband device developer that has already brought internet speeds of up to 50mbps to Australia’s rural landscape. “This agreement is a key milestone in NetComm Wireless' global growth strategy for regional broadband,” CEO David Stewart stated regarding his mission to create quality service for those living all around Australia. “We see potential for this technology solution in many different countries," he goes on to say. Indeed, having brought Australia up to speed, his plan is to use the same technologies as Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) to bring fixed wireless to the US countryside, where upgrading fixed-line networks is not a feasible option.
Fixed wireless internet could very well be a viable alternative to satellite internet in rural United States. At the same time, there are areas where satellite internet can go that fixed wireless cannot. Three key concepts highlight the space in which we believe satellite and fixed wireless internet services will generate the most conversation and garner the most attention: latency, data caps and speed.
Latency
With the increasing popularity of online, competitive gaming and a constantly growing percentage of the workforce wanting to dial into their desktops remotely, the concept of latency, more commonly referred to as “lag,” is becoming an increasingly relevant topic of conversation. Latency is shorthand for the span of time between pressing a key on your keyboard and experiencing the desired outcome of that action. Because some web pages take longer to load than others, a delay of some kind is inevitable and unavoidable, whether you have fiber optic internet or DSL; however, what we really want to know is how often and to what degree these delays happen to determine how latency truly sets these types of internet service apart.
There is no doubt that, when it comes to latency, fixed wireless is the better option. Fast-twitch, online gaming is notoriously unfriendly with satellite internet due to the long distances the signal must travel and the delayed response time that results. To put it into perspective, the signal must travel from the satellite dish on your roof to a satellite in orbit over 22,000 miles away to your provider’s server, and then back again with the information you requested or another user requested you receive. And this happens for every request you or your fellow gamer makes.
That distance decreases dramatically with fixed internet service, in which your antenna will typically communicate with a tower no more than 10 miles away. The shorter distance means that the communication cycle can be much faster than with satellite internet and can often compete with the small latency numbers put up by cable internet.
Data Caps
Both satellite internet and fixed wireless internet have data caps, and no one likes data caps. People tend to recoil at the concept of limitations, particularly regarding the internet that they are paying monthly premiums to enjoy. But the fact that even cable providers often have unofficial data caps begs the question: are data caps necessary evils not unlike traffic lights?
The government thinks so. Satellite internet providers are mandated by federal law to limit data usage with data caps. The “Fair Access Policy” was put into place to stop the 1% of users, who are using more than their “fair” share of bandwidth, from slowing it down for the other 99%. The “Fair Access Policy” also does much to protect consumers from business interests that use far more bandwidth than residential users.
Fixed wireless companies apparently think so as well since, even though they are not yet mandated by federal law to limit their customer’s data usage, they do so anyway. Many providers claim this system keeps the traffic on the internet moving steadily, or at least as efficiently as possible, much like a highway. Despite the restraints, there are still millions of daily users generating activity, so no matter what kinds of limitations we set in place, we are all bound to encounter the occasional traffic jam.
Speed and Availability
In the U.S., fixed wireless internet speeds currently range from 15-20mbps, which is slightly faster than your average satellite internet speeds and comparable to your average cable connection. If fixed wireless in rural America follows in the steps of Australia, however, residents can expect speeds three to four times faster than that, which would establish fixed wireless as the clear choice. But will it ever be universally available?
On average, most states have around 30% of their population covered by fixed wireless internet, whereas satellite internet covers virtually 100% of rural America. Fixed wireless internet requires a network of antennas placed on high ground or high poles, but even so, a satellite always has a better reach. Any obstruction between the antenna and your home, be it a tree or a mountain or another building, compromises the signal and leaves the user with satellite internet as their only option.
Both satellite and fixed internet options have their advantages and disadvantages. Fixed wireless has far less latency and slightly higher average speeds, making it a much better option for the competitive, online gamer or those working at home, but its geographical limitations and limited availability leave plenty of space in the market for satellite internet to continue to thrive. At the same time, technology may very well overcome the hurdles that fixed wireless internet currently faces, making it the more available choice in years to come.
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