Satellite internet latency: What's the big deal?

online gaming

Gaming is one area where latency can be a factor.

One thing a lot of people ask about with Viasat satellite internet service is something called “latency.” If you’ve researched what satellite internet service is like, you may have run across this term and wondered what it’s all about. Latency is sometimes identified as one of satellite internet’s biggest drawbacks, so what’s the deal here?

Here’s the super-condensed story: Unless you’re doing some types of online gaming or using “VPN” work-from-home software, satellite latency is not a big deal for most internet applications. If you’d like to learn more, read on.

What exactly is latency, anyway? Latency is a measurement of time delay in any kind of system. In satellite communications, it’s the length of time that it takes our signal to travel from your home to the satellite in orbit above the Earth), and then down to a ground-based gateway which connects you to the internet. Each leg of that journey is about 22,300 miles, which sounds like a long way until you realize that our signal travels at the speed of light ( 186,282 miles per second). The whole round-trip is measured in milliseconds, often referred to as “ping.” The ping on satellite internet is usually around 638 ms, compared to ping of 30 ms or less on a typical cable network.

How latency got a bad reputation Given that latency doesn’t really seem to slow things down that much, how did it get such a bad rap? Here’s the scoop, revealed here likely for the very first time: Earlier generations of satellite internet weren’t nearly as sophisticated.

With the Viasat Internet service, we integrated a much better protocol acceleration technology, and then we updated it to something even better. Viasat Web Acceleration service uses hundreds of high-power servers hosted in locations around the country to optimize your browsing experiences.  When you browse to a webpage, these servers predict what the browser is going to need and fetch those items over very high-speed connections. The server then sends those items to the modem in your home, where they arrive just milliseconds before your browser needs them.

One limitation of the Viasat Web Acceleration service is that it works best for unencrypted web sites. For encrypted websites (like your bank, credit card site, etc.), performance is optimized at the networking layers only. In other words, it doesn’t work quite as well. However, over the last several years, Viasat has been working on a radical new approach to web acceleration that should provide up to 2x faster speeds for those encrypted webpages. We will soon launch an early access, invitation-only program for our Viasat Internet customers.

One last thing about gaming: Latency is usually not an impediment to an enjoyable online experience, but there is one application of the internet that is so time dependent that satellite internet may not be quite the thing. We’re talking the kind of online gaming where fractions of a second dictate whether you win or lose. That’s most often exemplified by Xbox Live and PlayStation games such as Call of Duty, Halo and Hello Kitty Online Battlefield (just kidding about that last one). In these games, the player with the fastest trigger finger wins, and that three-quarters of a second ping time can mean the difference between life and (online) death. Our acceleration software can’t help with this, so that’s why Viasat Internet – or any satellite internet service – isn’t always ideal for people serious about this type of gaming.

That said, there are plenty of online games that work well. Turn-based games like Words With Friends, Farmville, and Draw Something, should work great. There are also some online action games that work pretty well too. There’s an online video blogger named MakoRuu who tests games over Viasat Internet to see how they perform. You can see his results here.

So, will latency affect my …?

Activity Experience using Viasat Satellite Internet
Web browsing Very good experience. Effects of latency further reduced by our proprietary web acceleration software, included in every Viasat modem.
Online banking Good experience. Due to the nature of secure connections, online banking will be somewhat slower than regular web browsing — but that’s the case with any kind of internet service.
Email Excellent experience. Fast speeds make sending and receiving email quick and easy.
Video chat (such as Skype and FaceTime) Very good experience. Effect of latency is nominal.
Downloading music and software Excellent experience. Fast speeds = fast downloads
Streaming movies Very good experience. Fast speeds mean minimal buffering and stuttering.
Sharing Photos  Excellent experience. Fast upload speeds allow you to post photos faster.
Voice over IP (VoIP) Very good experience. Customers tell us it’s similar to using a mobile phone, and often better.
Gaming: first person shooter using Xbox Live or PlayStation Hit or miss depending on game. Many don’t perform well with satellite internet.
Gaming: turn-based or role-playing games Good experience. May vary depending on the game, but most will work just fine.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) Utilized by business users to securely connect with their corporate networks Varies, depending on the technology used. Some of our customers have found that certain VPNs work over our network but that speeds may slow down considerably. This is because the encrypted VPN traffic cannot be accelerated over the satellite link. SSL-based VPNs perform better as these connections benefit from TCP acceleration.



Alex Miller
Alex Miller is the editor of the Viasat corporate blog. A veteran newspaper reporter and editor, Alex has been with Viasat since 2012, working out of the company's Denver office.

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