At the end of 2020, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications company OneWeb was just emerging from bankruptcy and ramping up its plans to establish a constellation of craft to bring broadband to hard-to-reach places around the globe – and now it is at the vanguard of a satellite broadband sector that is gaining a higher orbit.
Despite the leading fixed broadband providers and mobile players developing full-fibre and cable gigabit networks and mobile operators rolling out 5G, given further impetus by the UK government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, there are still wide areas of rural UK that are poorly served by traditional connections.
Indeed, research has shown that almost a million rural households say satellite broadband could be a lifeline because of their unreliable or slow existing connections. Almost 200,000 UK homes are currently struggling with speeds below 10Mbps – the level that UK telecoms regulator Ofcom considers a decent service.
According to research from comparison and switching service Uswitch.com, more than a million UK households are already using satellite broadband. This number is set to rise as Tesla billionaire Elon Musk follows a January UK trial of his Starlink satellite broadband system and aims to have 500,000 users worldwide within a year.
Meanwhile, BT has announced a partnership with OneWeb to provide connections to people in remote areas. Other existing UK satellite broadband providers, including Broadband Everywhere, Freedomsat, Konnect and Satellite Internet, are also continuing offers.
But the research warned that despite the appeal of this new type of connection, set-up costs of about £500 are deterring two-thirds of consumers from trying the technology.
Set-up fees can be expensive because of the need to install a satellite dish, but users say they pay £29.70 a month on average for the service, compared with an average of £33.60 for all broadband users.
Another key issue revealed by the research was recognition of the services. Despite the growth of the technology, only two-fifths of consumers (41%) are aware of satellite broadband and only one in seven (14%) have considered trying it out. Coverage from satellite broadband is set to become universal, but only a quarter of households (27%) believe it is available in their area.
Uswitch.com suggested part of the problem may be a lack of brand recognition, with three-quarters of UK consumers not having heard of any satellite broadband providers. Starlink is the best known, recognised by one in 10 people.
More than half of satellite broadband users (53%) say it offers a better alternative than traditional connections, with two-fifths (41%) saying it was faster than the alternatives, and three in 10 (31%) believing it to be cheaper. That said, almost half of consumers (46%) fear that the weather in their area would be too bad for satellite broadband, a not unreasonable fear given that extreme weather can affect a satellite broadband connection, with heavy rain or wind potentially reducing speeds or even causing an outage.
“Satellite broadband is being thrust into the limelight by entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, and it’s amazing to think that more than one million UK households are already getting their internet this way,” said Uswitch.com broadband expert Ernest Doku. “The technology is improving all the time, and with big players like Starlink entering the UK market, connections are only going to get faster and more reliable.
“Satellite broadband offers hope to residents in rural areas who have struggled to get a decent connection from traditional providers, and we will be watching to see how BT’s partnership with OneWeb grows over the coming years. While it is tempting to think that one technology can solve the problem of the digital divide, there is no single solution to rural broadband.
“Many households are still on ADSL connections and enduring slow speeds unnecessarily, unaware that in many cases they could upgrade to fibre broadband and still save themselves money.”