Satellite communications basics tutorial

- an overview, tutorial and information about the basics of satellite communications and the various types of satellite communication systems that are in use today.

Satellites are able fulfil a number of roles. One of the major roles is for satellite communications. Here the satellite enables communications to be established over large distances - well beyond the line of sight. Communications satellites may be used for many applications including relaying telephone calls, providing communications to remote areas of the Earth, providing satellite communications to ships, aircraft and other mobile vehicles, and there are many more ways in which communications satellites can be used.

Communications satellite advantages & disadvantages

Satellites are able to provide communications in many instances where other forms of communications technology may not provide a feasible alternative.

Communications satellites provide a number of advantages

  • Flexibility:   Satellite systems are able to provide communications in a variety of ways without the need to install nw fixed assets.
  • Mobility:   Satellite communications are able to reach all areas of the globe dependent upon the type of satellite system in use, and the ground stations do not need to be in any one given location. For this reason, many ships use satellite communications.
  • Speedy deployment:   Deployment of a satellite communications system can be very speedy. No ground infrastructure may be required as terrestrial lines, or wireless base stations are not needed. Therefore many remote areas, satellite communications systems provide an ideal solution.
  • Provides coverage over the globe:   Dependent upon the type of satellite communications system, and the orbits used, it is possible to provide complete global coverage. As a result, satellite communications systems are sued for providing communications capabilities in many remote areas where other technologies would not be viable..

When considering the use of a satellite some disadvantages also need to be taken into consideration.

  • Cost:   Satellites are not cheap to build, place in orbit and then maintain. This means that the operational costs are high, and therefore the cost of renting or buying space on the satellite will also not be cheap.
  • Propagation delay:   As distances are very much greater than those involved with terrestrial systems, propagation delay can be an issue, especially for satellites using geostationary orbits. Here the round trip from the ground to the satellite and back can be of the order of a quarter of a second.
  • Specialised satellite terminals required:   Even though the operator will operate all the required infrastructure, the user will still need a specialised terminal that will communicate with the satellite. This is likely to be reasonably costly, and it will only be able to be used with one provider.

Telecommunications satellite links

Communications satellites are ideally placed to provide telecommunications links between different places across the globe. Traditional telecommunications links used direct "cables" linking different areas. As a result of the cost of installation and maintenance of these cables, satellites were seen as an ideal alternative. While still expensive to put in place, they provided a high bandwidth and were able to operate for many years.

In recent years the bandwidth that can be offered by cables has increased considerably, and this has negated some of the gains of satellites. Additionally the geostationary satellites used for telecommunications links introduce a significant time delay in view of the very large distances involved. This can be a problem for normal telephone calls.

However satellite communications systems provide significant levels of flexibility and mobility provide the opportunities for many satellite communications systems. Although the initial infrastructure costs are high, often new remote stations can be added relatively cheaply as new lines do not need to be installed to provide communication to the new remote station, unlike wire based telecommunications systems or many terrestrial wireless links were repeater stations may be needed.

Communications satellite applications

There are many different ways in which communications satellites can be used:

  • Telecommunications:   Satellite systems have been able to provide data communications links over large distances. They were often used in place of intercontinental submarine cables which were expensive and unreliable in their early days. Nowadays cable technology has significantly improved to provide much higher levels of capacity especially as a result of fibre optic technology and their reliability has also greatly improved. As a result satellites are less frequently used to replace terrestrial cables, although in some instances this remains the case.
  • Satellite phones:   The concept of using a mobile phone from anywhere on the globe is one that has many applications. Although the terrestrial cellular network is widely available, there are still very many areas where coverage is not available. In these situations satellite phones are of great use.

    As an example satellite phones are widely used by the emergency services for situations when they are in remote areas, even of countries that might have a good cellular network, but not in remote areas. They may also be for communications in rural areas where no cellular coverage may be available. They also find uses at sea, and in developing countries, or in uninhabited areas of the globe.
  • Direct broadcast :   While terrestrial broadcasting is well established it has a number of limitations: namely the coverage, especially in hilly areas where the hills may shade the signals from receivers, and also the bandwidth which is prime spectrum in the lower end of the UHF portion of the spectrum.

    Direct broadcast satellite, DBS, technology enables both these issues to be overcome. The high angle of the satellites means that for most latitudes a high angle of signal direction means that hills do not provide a major coverage issue. Also operating around 12 GHz, more bandwidth is generally available enabling more stations - both television and radio - to be accommodated.

Satellite communications summary

Although the basics of satellite communications are fairly straightforward, there is a huge investment required in building the satellite and launching it into orbit. Nevertheless many communications satellites exist in orbit around the globe and they are widely used for a variety of applications from providing satellite telecommunications links to direct broadcasting and the use of satellite phone and individual satellite communication links.

By Ian Poole

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