Following the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, by the Soviet Union in October, 1957, the US successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958. The first commercial communications satellite was Telstar 1, built by Bell Labs and launched in July, 1962.
The idea of a Geosynchronous satellite — one that could orbit the Earth above the equator and remain fixed by following the Earth’s rotation — was first proposed by Herman Potočnik in 1928 and popularised by the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in a paper in Wireless World in 1945. The first satellite to successfully reach geostationary orbit was Syncom3, built by Hughes Aircraft for NASA and launched Aug. 19, 1963. Succeeding generations of communications satellites featuring larger capacities and improved performance characteristics were adopted for use in television delivery, military applications and telecommunications purposes. Following the invention of the Internet and the World Wide Web, geostationary satellites attracted interest as a potential means of providing Internet access.
A significant enabler of satellite-delivered Internet has been the opening up of the Ka band for satellites. In December, 1993, Hughes Aircraft Co. filed with the Federal Communications Commission for a license to launch the first Ka-band satellite, Spaceway. In 1995, the FCC issued a call for more Ka-band satellite applications, attracting applications from 15 companies. Among those were EchoStar, Lockheed Martin, GE-Americom, Motorola and KaStar Satellite, which later became WildBlue.
Among prominent aspirants in the early-stage satellite Internet sector was Teledesic, an ambitious and ultimately failed project funded in part by Microsoft that ended up costing more than $9 billion. Teledesic's idea was to create a broadband satellite constellation of hundreds of low-orbiting satellites in the Ka-band frequency, providing inexpensive Internet access with download speeds of up to 720 Mbit/s. The project was abandoned in 2003. Teledesic's failure, coupled with the bankruptcy filings of the satellite communications providers Iridium Communications Inc. and Globalstar, dampened marketplace enthusiasm for satellite Internet development. It wasn’t until September 2003 when the first Internet-ready satellite for consumers was launched by Eutelsat.In 2004 with the launch of Anik F2, the first high throughput satellite, a class of next-generation satellites providing improved capacity and bandwidth became operational. More recently, high throughput satellites such as ViaSat's ViaSat-1 satellite in 2011 and HughesNet’s Jupiter in 2012 have achieved further improvements, elevating downstream data rates from 1-3 Mbit/s up to 12-15Mbit/s and beyond. Internet access services tied to these satellites are targeted largely to rural residents as an alternative to Internet service via dial-up, ADSL or classic FSSes.
At the center of the new broadband satellite networks are a new generation of high-powered GEO satellites positioned 35,786 kilometres (22,236 mi) above the equator, operating in Ka-band (18.3–30 GHz) mode. These new purpose-built satellites are designed and optimized for broadband applications, employing many narrow spot beams, which target a much smaller area than the broad beams used by earlier communication satellites. This spot beam technology allows satellites to reuse assigned bandwidth multiple times, enabling them to achieve much higher capacity than conventional broad beam satellites. The spot beams also increase performance and consequential capacity by focusing more power and increased receiver sensitivity into concentrated areas. Spot beams are designated as one of two types: subscriber spot beams, which transmit to and from the subscriber-side terminal, and gateway spot beams, which transmit to/from a service provider ground station.
In conjunction with the satellite's spot-beam technology, a bent-pipe architecture is employed in the network in which the satellite functions as a bridge in space, connecting two communication points on the ground. The term “bent-pipe” is used to describe the shape of the data path between sending and receiving antennas, with the satellite positioned at the point of the bend. Simply put, the satellite's role in this network arrangement is to relay signals from the end user’s terminal to the ISP’s gateways, and back again. The satellite receives, amplifies, and redirects signals carried on a specific radio frequency through a signal path called a transponder.
The satellite has its own set of antennas to receive communication signals from Earth and to transmit signals to their target location. These antennas and transponders are part of the satellite’s “payload”, which is designed to receive and transmit signals to and from various places on Earth. What enables this transmission and reception in the payload transponders is a repeater subsystem (RF (radio frequency) equipment) used to change frequencies, filter, separate, amplify and group signals before routing them to their destination address on Earth. The satellite’s high-gain receiving antenna passes the transmitted data to the transponder which filters, translates and amplifies them, then redirects them to the transmitting antenna on board. The signal is then routed to a specific ground location through a channel known as a carrier. Beside the payload, the other main component of a communications satellite is called the bus, which comprises all equipment required to move the satellite into position, supply power, regulate equipment temperatures, provide health and tracking information, and perform numerous other operational tasks.
Along with dramatic advances in satellite technology over the past decade, ground equipment has similarly evolved, benefiting from higher levels of integration and increasing processing power, expanding both capacity and performance boundaries. The Gateway—or Gateway Earth Station (its full name)—is also referred to as a ground station, teleport or hub. The term is sometimes used to describe just the antenna dish portion, or it can refer to the complete system with all associated components. In short, the gateway receives radio wave signals from the satellite on the last leg of the return or upstream payload, carrying the request originating from the end-user’s site. The satellite modem at the gateway location demodulates the incoming signal from the outdoor antenna into IP packets and sends the packets to the local network. Access server/gateways manage traffic transported to/from the Internet. Once the initial request has been processed by the gateway’s servers, sent to and returned from the Internet, the requested information is sent back as a forward or downstream payload to the end-user via the satellite, which directs the signal to the subscriber terminal. Each Gateway provides the connection to the Internet backbone for the gateway spot-beam(s) it serves. The system of gateways comprising the satellite ground system provides all network services for satellite and corresponding terrestrial connectivity. Each gateway provides a multiservice access network for subscriber terminal connections to the Internet. In the continental United States, because it is north of the equator, all gateway and subscriber dish antenna must have an unobstructed view of the southern sky. Because of the satellite’s geostationary orbit, the gateway antenna can stay pointed at a fixed position.
At the far end of the outdoor unit is a small (2–3-foot diameter), reflective dish-type radio antenna constructed from and coated with a variety of materials. As indicated earlier, like the antenna used by the gateway, the VSAT antenna must also have an unobstructed view of the sky to allow for proper line-of-sight (L-O-S) to the satellite. There are four characteristic settings used to ensure that the antenna is configured correctly at the satellite, which are: azimuth, elevation, polarization, and skew. The combination of these settings gives the outdoor unit a L-O-S to the chosen satellite and makes data transmission possible. These parameters are generally set at the time the equipment is installed, along with a beam assignment (Ka-band only); these steps must all be taken prior to the actual activation of service. Transmit and receive components are mounted at the focal point of the antenna which receives/sends data from/to the satellite. The main parts are: