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Learn about TCP

The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is one of the core protocols of the Internet Protocol Suite. TCP is one of the two original components of the suite, complementing the Internet Protocol (IP), and therefore the entire suite is commonly referred to as TCP/IP. TCP provides reliable, ordered delivery of a stream of bytes from a program on one computer to another program on another computer. TCP is the protocol that major Internet applications such as the World Wide Web, email, remote administration and file transfer rely on. Other applications, which do not require reliable data stream service, may use the User Datagram Protocol (UDP), which provides a datagram service that emphasizes reduced latency over reliability.

Historical origin

In May 1974 the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) published a paper entitled "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication." The paper's authors, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, described an internetworking protocol for sharing resources using packet-switching among the nodes. A central control component of this model was the Transmission Control Program that incorporated both connection-oriented links and datagram services between hosts. The monolithic Transmission Control Program was later divided into a modular architecture consisting of the Transmission Control Protocol at the connection-oriented layer and the Internet Protocol at the internetworking (datagram) layer. The model became known informally as TCP/IP, although formally it was henceforth called the Internet Protocol Suite.

Network function

The protocol actually corresponds to the transport layer of TCP/IP suite. TCP provides a communication service at an intermediate level between an application program and the Internet Protocol (IP). That is, when an application program desires to send a large chunk of data across the Internet using IP, instead of breaking the data into IP-sized pieces and issuing a series of IP requests, the software can issue a single request to TCP and let TCP handle the IP details.

IP works by exchanging pieces of information called packets. A packet is a sequence of octets and consists of a header followed by a body. The header describes the packet's destination and, optionally, the routers to use for forwarding until it arrives at its destination. The body contains the data IP is transmitting.

Due to network congestion, traffic load balancing, or other unpredictable network behavior, IP packets can be lost, duplicated, or delivered out of order. TCP detects these problems, requests retransmission of lost data, rearranges out-of-order data, and even helps minimize network congestion to reduce the occurrence of the other problems. Once the TCP receiver has reassembled the sequence of octets originally transmitted, it passes them to the application program. Thus, TCP abstracts the application's communication from the underlying networking details.

TCP is utilized extensively by many of the Internet's most popular applications, including the World Wide Web (WWW), E-mail, File Transfer Protocol, Secure Shell, peer-to-peer file sharing, and some streaming media applications.

TCP is optimized for accurate delivery rather than timely delivery, and therefore, TCP sometimes incurs relatively long delays (in the order of seconds) while waiting for out-of-order messages or retransmissions of lost messages. It is not particularly suitable for real-time applications such as Voice over IP. For such applications, protocols like the Real-time Transport Protocol (RTP) running over the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) are usually recommended instead.

TCP is a reliable stream delivery service that guarantees that all bytes received will be identical with bytes sent and in the correct order. Since packet transfer is not reliable, a technique known as positive acknowledgment with retransmission is used to guarantee reliability of packet transfers. This fundamental technique requires the receiver to respond with an acknowledgment message as it receives the data. The sender keeps a record of each packet it sends. The sender also keeps a timer from when the packet was sent, and retransmits a packet if the timer expires before the message has been acknowledged. The timer is needed in case a packet gets lost or corrupted.

TCP consists of a set of rules: for the protocol, that are used with the Internet Protocol, and for the IP, to send data "in a form of message units" between computers over the Internet. While IP handles actual delivery of the data, TCP keeps track of the individual units of data transmission, called segments, that a message is divided into for efficient routing through the network. For example, when an HTML file is sent from a Web server, the TCP software layer of that server divides the sequence of octets of the file into segments and forwards them individually to the IP software layer (Internet Layer). The Internet Layer encapsulates each TCP segment into an IP packet by adding a header that includes (among other data) the destination IP address. Even though every packet has the same destination address, they can be routed on different paths through the network. When the client program on the destination computer receives them, the TCP layer (Transport Layer) reassembles the individual segments and ensures they are correctly ordered and error free as it streams them to an application.

TCP ports

TCP uses port numbers to identify sending and receiving application end-points on a host, or Internet sockets. Each side of a TCP connection has an associated 16-bit unsigned port number (0-65535) reserved by the sending or receiving application. Arriving TCP data packets are identified as belonging to a specific TCP connection by its sockets, that is, the combination of source host address, source port, destination host address, and destination port. This means that a server computer can provide several clients with several services simultaneously, as long as a client takes care of initiating any simultaneous connections to one destination port from different source ports.

Port numbers are categorized into three basic categories: well-known, registered, and dynamic/private. The well-known ports are assigned by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and are typically used by system-level or root processes. Well-known applications running as servers and passively listening for connections typically use these ports. Some examples include: FTP (20 and 21), SSH (22), TELNET (23), SMTP (25) and HTTP (80). Registered ports are typically used by end user applications as ephemeral source ports when contacting servers, but they can also identify named services that have been registered by a third party. Dynamic/private ports can also be used by end user applications, but are less commonly so. Dynamic/private ports do not contain any meaning outside of any particular TCP connection.


TCP is a complex protocol. However, while significant enhancements have been made and proposed over the years, its most basic operation has not changed significantly since its first specification RFC 675 in 1974, and the v4 specification RFC 793, published in September 1981. RFC 1122, Host Requirements for Internet Hosts, clarified a number of TCP protocol implementation requirements. RFC 2581, TCP Congestion Control, one of the most important TCP-related RFCs in recent years, describes updated algorithms that avoid undue congestion. In 2001, RFC 3168 was written to describe explicit congestion notification (ECN), a congestion avoidance signaling mechanism.

The original TCP congestion avoidance algorithm was known as "TCP Tahoe", but many alternative algorithms have since been proposed (including TCP Reno, TCP Vegas, FAST TCP, TCP New Reno, and TCP Hybla).

TCP Interactive (iTCP) is a research effort into TCP extensions that allows applications to subscribe to TCP events and register handler components that can launch applications for various purposes, including application-assisted congestion control.

Multipath TCP (MPTCP) is an ongoing effort within the IETF that aims at allowing a TCP connection to use multiple paths to maximise resource usage and increase redundancy. The redundancy offered by Multipath TCP in the context of wireless networks enables statistical multiplexing of resources, and thus increases TCP throughput dramatically. Multipath TCP also brings performance benefits in datacenter environments. The reference implementation of Multipath TCP is being developed in the Linux kernel

TCP Cookie Transactions (TCPCT) is an extension proposed in December 2009 to secure servers against denial-of-service attacks. Unlike SYN cookies, TCPCT does not conflict with other TCP extensions such as window scaling. TCPCT was designed due to necessities of DNSSEC, where servers have to handle large numbers of short-lived TCP connections.

tcpcrypt is an extension proposed in July 2010 to provide transport-level encryption directly in TCP itself. It's designed to work transparently and not require any configuration. Unlike TLS (SSL), tcpcrypt itself does not provide authentication, but provides simple primitives down to the application to do that. As of 2010, the first tcpcrypt IETF draft has been published and implementations exist for several major platforms.

TCP over wireless networks

TCP has been optimized for wired networks. Any packet loss is considered to be the result of network congestion and the congestion window size is reduced dramatically as a precaution. However, wireless links are known to experience sporadic and usually temporary losses due to fading, shadowing, hand off, and other radio effects, that cannot be considered congestion. After the (erroneous) back-off of the congestion window size, due to wireless packet loss, there can be a congestion avoidance phase with a conservative decrease in window size. This causes the radio link to be underutilized. Extensive research has been done on the subject of how to combat these harmful effects. Suggested solutions can be categorized as end-to-end solutions (which require modifications at the client or server), link layer solutions (such as RLP in cellular networks), or proxy based solutions (which require some changes in the network without modifying end nodes).

Hardware implementations

One way to overcome the processing power requirements of TCP is to build hardware implementations of it, widely known as TCP Offload Engines (TOE). The main problem of TOEs is that they are hard to integrate into computing systems, requiring extensive changes in the operating system of the computer or device. One company to develop such a device was Alacritech.


A packet sniffer, which intercepts TCP traffic on a network link, can be useful in debugging networks, network stacks and applications that use TCP by showing the user what packets are passing through a link. Some networking stacks support the SO_DEBUG socket option, which can be enabled on the socket using setsockopt. That option dumps all the packets, TCP states, and events on that socket, which is helpful in debugging. Netstat is another utility that can be used for debugging.


For many applications TCP is not appropriate. One big problem (at least with normal implementations) is that the application cannot get at the packets coming after a lost packet until the retransmitted copy of the lost packet is received. This causes problems for real-time applications such as streaming media, real-time multiplayer games and voice over IP (VoIP) where it is generally more useful to get most of the data in a timely fashion than it is to get all of the data in order.

For both historical and performance reasons, most storage area networks (SANs) prefer to use Fibre Channel protocol (FCP) instead of TCP/IP.

Also for embedded systems, network booting and servers that serve simple requests from huge numbers of clients (e.g. DNS servers) the complexity of TCP can be a problem. Finally, some tricks such as transmitting data between two hosts that are both behind NAT (using STUN or similar systems) are far simpler without a relatively complex protocol like TCP in the way.

Generally, where TCP is unsuitable, the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) is used. This provides the application multiplexing and checksums that TCP does, but does not handle building streams or retransmission, giving the application developer the ability to code them in a way suitable for the situation, or to replace them with other methods like forward error correction or interpolation.

SCTP is another IP protocol that provides reliable stream oriented services similar to TCP. It is newer and considerably more complex than TCP, and has not yet seen widespread deployment. However, it is especially designed to be used in situations where reliability and near-real-time considerations are important.

Venturi Transport Protocol (VTP) is a patented proprietary protocol that is designed to replace TCP transparently to overcome perceived inefficiencies related to wireless data transport.

TCP also has issues in high bandwidth environments. The TCP congestion avoidance algorithm works very well for ad-hoc environments where the data sender is not known in advance, but if the environment is predictable, a timing based protocol such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) can avoid TCP's retransmits overhead.

Multipurpose Transaction Protocol (MTP/IP) is patented proprietary software that is designed to adaptively achieve high throughput and transaction performance in a wide variety of network conditions, particularly those where TCP is perceived to be inefficient.

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