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What is an IP Address?

The Internet Protocol (IP) is the principal communications protocol used for relaying datagrams (also known as network packets) across an internetwork using the Internet Protocol Suite. Responsible for routing packets across network boundaries, it is the primary protocol that establishes the Internet.

IP is the primary protocol in the Internet Layer of the Internet Protocol Suite and has the task of delivering datagrams from the source host to the destination host solely based on the addresses. For this purpose, IP defines datagram structures that encapsulate the data to be delivered. It also defines addressing methods that are used to label the datagram source and destination.

Historically, IP was the connectionless datagram service in the original Transmission Control Program introduced by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn in 1974, the other being the connection-oriented Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). The Internet Protocol Suite is therefore often referred to as TCP/IP.

The first major version of IP, Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), is the dominant protocol of the internet. Its successor is Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6), which is increasing usage.

Function

The Internet Protocol is responsible for addressing hosts and routing datagrams (packets) from a source host to the destination host across one or more IP networks. For this purpose the Internet Protocol defines an addressing system that has two functions: identifying hosts and providing a logical location service. This is accomplished by defining standard datagrams and a standard addressing system.

Datagram construction

Sample encapsulation of application data from UDP to a Link protocol frame

Each datagram has two components, a header and a payload. The IP header is tagged with the source IP address, destination IP address, and other meta-data needed to route and deliver the datagram. The payload is the data to be transported. This process of nesting data payloads in a packet with a header is called encapsulation.

IP addressing and routing

Perhaps the most complex aspects of IP are IP addressing and routing. Addressing refers to how end hosts are assigned IP addresses and how subnetworks of IP host addresses are divided and grouped. IP routing is performed by all hosts, but most importantly by routers, which typically use either interior gateway protocols (IGPs) or external gateway protocols (EGPs) to decide how to move datagrams among networks.

IP routing is also common in local networks. For example, Ethernet switches sold today support IP multicast. These switches use IP addresses and Internet Group Management Protocol for control of the multicast routing but use MAC addresses for the actual routing.

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