Satellite internet is one of those things that most people think they understand, but there are a lot of misconceptions about it. It’s not recommended in most cases, many people don’t know anyone that uses it, and people browsing it just see the expense and limitations and just pick out a different ISP. And these aren’t wrong reactions to have with most people.
Yet satellite internet does remain the best option for millions of people in the United States, and it doesn’t look like standard terrestrial connections are coming to their doorsteps anytime in the next few years. That means satellite internet might be their only lifeline to the outside world when it comes to internet service. And it is important for them (and perhaps yourself) to know about their options and generally how it works.
Here is everything you need to know about satellite internet and some guiding advice on whether it is an option for your household:
How Does Satellite Internet Work?
To start with, consider that satellite internet works a lot like satellite television. An ISP has satellites orbiting the earth in space. The satellites might be in high or low earth orbit. A signal is sent through the satellites and routed to where the receiver dish picks it up on earth. This receiver dish is in a good spot to pick up the signal. A modem is used to translate the dish's signal into an internet connection. All of this happens constantly and as needed to maintain a connection.
Without too many technical details, it is as simple as that. There are efforts to launch more satellites to provide better coverage and faster connections to people, and there are similar efforts to improve satellite dish technology as well. Therefore, we might see some slight changes to the fine details in the future, but the fundamental steps are likely to remain the same.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Satellite Internet?
Now that the basic details are out of the way, what does all that mean for the average customer? How well does that translate into internet service, and how does that internet service compare to other options available to most people? Here are the main pros and cons of satellite internet that you should consider:
• The first and main advantage of satellite internet is that it can reach places other service types cannot. The satellite dish needs electricity, but that’s about the only external requirement. An internet connection is possible if there’s no obstruction between the dish and the sky. This makes it perfect for rural areas with few other options or people on the go in RVs and the like. Some spots in the United States may get better coverage than others, but overall, anywhere in the country can get satellite service.
• This is less of an advantage so much as a hope, but improvements are being made regularly to satellite service, and many people are hoping that it will be a key component of the internet of the future. Part of this is due to the efforts of Starlink (more on them later), and part of this is simple improvements and maintenance of existing infrastructure. The fundamentals of cable or fiber service don’t seem likely to change on an infrastructure level, though more equipment may become available. Satellite internet is still rife with possibilities.
• People who need to be online regularly can likely trust a satellite connection if not using much bandwidth. As mentioned, internet service is likely if the dish works and is powered. It is far more likely to get back up and running first after a disaster. This gives it the advantage in a rare set of circumstances compared to the problems of downed lines.
• The costs of satellite internet are high. After all, it isn’t cheap to send satellites into space and maintain all of the technology required for satellite internet. This means that the average user's price will be much higher than for other service types. The download speed price per megabyte will be awful compared to those options.
• Satellite internet has improved somewhat over the years, and Starlink promises to be the next generation of satellite internet technology. Yet for most users, as of this writing, satellite internet is slow. And the upload speeds are abysmally slow. It is often comparable to DSL, and often that comparison would be generous.
• Satellite internet isn’t as slow regarding download speeds as some options. With a good plan, you can get 20-50Mbps for a download speed and a barely acceptable 5Mbps upload speed. Most people who just want basic internet access can work with that. The problem comes with the latency or the measurement of how long a request takes to reach an outside server and get a response. Most people getting satellite internet will have extremely high latency, often topping 500ms. Anyone hoping to play games online or regularly get on video calls online using their satellite connection will have a hard time. Additionally, such latency is just annoying for regular users.
• In addition to being slow and expensive, users are usually limited to a certain monthly data allowance. The exact amount can vary depending on the satellite provider and plan you are using, but it often isn’t very much. Satellite internet users will need to budget their downloads or else deal with monthly throttling or extra charges.
A Rundown of the Three Satellite Service Providers
While dozens of significant providers offer terrestrial internet in the United States, satellite internet is done by three companies (not everyone can send satellites into space and manage all that, after all). You’ll pick from them (or which ones are available) if you want satellite service.
What do the three major providers currently operating in the United States look like, and what plans do they offer? We consider it important that you have a clue about your options before diving in, so keep on reading to learn a bit more about the companies and plans:
First off, let us discuss HughesNet, the biggest satellite ISP in the United States and one of the most well-known. Having been around as an ISP for around 25 years, you might expect them to either be out of date or one of the most reliable options you can find. And a little of both expectations is true. They might be something standard and not as experimental as some providers, but they are still planning on some improvements, and they are perhaps the most trusted name in satellite internet.
General details and features include:
• HughesNet is available across the entire United States. This includes Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. HughesNet should always be an option for you, though you might need to look for it harder in some areas than others.
• The download speed for HughesNet is 25Mbps generally, and the upload speed is 3Mbps. That isn’t very much compared to other service types, and the upload speed won’t be good for much except basic tasks. HughesNet mentions plans to launch a new satellite that can boost speeds to 100Mbps in 2023, but we aren’t counting it until it is in space and working as intended.
• All the plans with HughesNet will be the same speed and effectively provide the same service. What you will be deciding upon and what will determine your monthly price is how much of a data allowance you want every month. You can pay $65 per month for 15GB, $75 per month for a 30GB allowance, $110 per month for a 45GB allowance, or $160 to get 75GB. If you’ve measured your usage in the past, you know this isn’t particularly much. We recommend one of the larger plans.
• In some rare areas, you might also find a 100GB plan for $150 a month, which is generally a pretty good deal. However, HughesNet and satellite internet providers generally are not known for heavy promotional offers or sales. They know that there aren't many other options if someone is coming to them. In those circumstances, why offer a sale?
• HughesNet offers unlimited data after your data allowance, but it isn’t particularly useful data. Your connection will be slowed down, and the most you can hope for is a download speed of 3Mbps. This is useless for all but the most basic tasks.
• You may be able to take advantage of off-hours, where you will get bonus data. If you need to do a large download, perhaps doing it between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. will help, as you get 50GB of extra monthly data.
• Equipment will always be an issue with satellite internet. With HughesNet, you can either pay $15 a month indefinitely or pay $450 one time to purchase the equipment. Purchasing is the best choice in the long term if you plan on sticking with HughesNet, but people on the fence might want to wait a while before doing so.
• There is another advantage to buying the equipment. Normally HughesNet charges a $99 installation fee. This is waived for people who buy their equipment.
• The last main fee or charge you must be aware of is an early termination fee. The fee changes depending on the time you have left in your contract when you want to cancel, but it can range between $100 and $400. You may want to really think about it before committing to HughesNet.
• HughesNet has a reputation for reliability, which is vital for internet service, especially satellite internet service. However, it also has a reputation for being relatively slow, which means that people who need fast speeds for occasional streaming or downloading important files might not find HughesNet the best fit. Gamers might not find HughesNet a good fit, but professionals who need a regular, minimal connection will be able to use it.
• When it comes to customer service has quite a few problems and many unhappy customers. We suspect much of that is based on expectations of satellite internet that were way too high, but HughesNet can do a better job of communication and provide quick and adequate responses to questions and problems. We hope that they will improve in the future.
The other major satellite internet provider that has been around for some time now, ViaSat, is the main competitor to HughesNet and provides a slightly different set of options to work with. When compared to HughesNet’s consistency and relative affordability, ViaSat provides more premium options, a higher data allowance, and potentially more speed.
Often ViaSat can be a bit more expensive and difficult to work with, but people who are dissatisfied with what HughesNet offers generally try it out. It might also be the only option for living a normal online life, especially for households of more than one person out in rural areas.
General details and features include:
• ViaSat is available across the entire continental United States. It is also available in Hawaii and parts of Alaska. People in Puerto Rico and some parts of Alaska will have to use HughesNet, but everyone else should have a choice.
• Unlike HughesNet, there are different speed options between plans that you will need to consider. The plans can get expensive, but they may be what you need. Options include:
• The Unlimited Bronze 12 plan costs $100 per month and has a data allowance of 40GB. You will get a download speed of 12 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
• The Unlimited Silver 25 plan costs $150 per month and has a data allowance of 60GB. You will get a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
• The Unlimited Gold 50 plan costs $150 per month and has a data allowance of 100GB. You will get a download speed of 50 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
• The Unlimited Platinum 100 plan costs $300 per month and has a data allowance of 150GB. You will get a download speed of 100 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
• The Unlimited Diamond 100 plan costs $400 per month and has a data allowance of 300GB. You will get a download speed of 100 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
• Additionally, ViaSat is coming out with “New Choice” plans, which can potentially offer even higher download speeds and potentially more affordable options. As of this writing, however, they are not widely available and are liable to change. If you have them as an option, consider them as well.
• As mentioned, these plans get expensive. Paying $400 a month for internet service is a lot to ask, but 300GB of data and a 100Mbps download speed is about enough for a household to live normally on, assuming one is careful with large downloads.
• There is an introductory pricing period that lowers the cost, but you shouldn’t consider it for your long-term decision on a provider. It is only for three months, and the savings is nice but not life-changing.
• There are also the equipment costs and installation fees. You can either pay $13 a month for the equipment or purchase your equipment entirely for $299. We recommend the one-time purchase if you can afford it up front and know you will stick with ViaSat for a while.
• It should also be noted here that not all plans will be available in all areas. You will find some form of ViaSat service available, but if you are relegated to a lower tier of service, it might not be a realistic option.
• Looking at the plans, you might be impressed with the download speeds and data allowance, but don’t forget about some of the disadvantages of satellite internet. Latency is unlikely to improve much, meaning online gaming and video calls, among other things, are mostly off the table. Upload speeds are also rough to work with, at 3Mbps, and barely meet the minimum requirements for many tasks.
• While most of the plan titles have “unlimited” in them, and this is technically true, realistically, this isn’t the case. After the data allowance runs out, you can expect heavy throttling, making the connection hardly usable for all but the most basic of tasks.
• Customer service from ViaSat generally has the same reputation as other satellite providers (it doesn’t help that in some surveys, all satellite providers are just lumped together). There are some issues, but it may come down to user expectations. It’s hard to get a complete read on ViaSat individually, but they do seem to respond to complaints are there is nothing egregious to concern yourself with.
Overall, ViaSat may be your best chance at high-speed internet in a rural area, but remember that ViaSat can’t solve everything, and you will be lacking when it comes to service in some areas if you compare it to cable or fiber internet. However, ViaSat can be a good choice if you have the right expectations.
Starlink is the newest of the three options and the one with the most hype behind it, if not brand name recognition. Related to the efforts of Elon Musk and SpaceX, Starlink is a satellite internet enterprise meant to bring the technology to the next level, using a network of many low earth orbit satellites to deliver much faster speeds and better connections to customers. So far it has proven itself, but it is still in development in many ways and has some ways to go to reach universal coverage and meet its initial promises.
Yet is it for you? That depends on your priorities, how long you are willing to wait, and what backup plans you might have.
General details and features include:
• Unlike HughesNet and ViaSat, Starlink is not nearly universally available in the United States. You will want to check availability on their site.
• There are only three plans available from Starlink, and they are all that we feel are necessary. They are as follows:
• The Starlink Internet (residential) plan provides speeds from 50-250 Mbps and costs $110 per month.
• The business plan offers speeds of 150-500 Mbps for $500 per month. It won’t be for everyone, but it boasts impressive performance. Note that the equipment for this plan costs $2,500.
• The Starlink RV plan is the same as the residential plan in terms of basic stats but costs $25 more at $135 per month.
• The download speeds are impressive, and so are the upload speeds (for satellite internet), but the real difference is the latency. While ViaSat and HughesNet will have a ping rate of well over 500ms, Starlink averages around 50ms so long as the conditions are good. That is a great speed, if not as good as fiber and wired internet types. It should be good for gaming, video calls, and more. This latency makes Starlink almost indistinguishable from other service types in practice.
• When it comes to consistency, Starlink might not be the best option. The network of satellites is still being built, and not all of the processes have been perfected. While most users will not experience many issues, the truth remains that HughesNet and ViaSat are usually more reliable.
• The price is certainly reasonable for what you are getting, but there is the matter of the equipment fee. It is a $599 one-time fee, a huge investment for uncertain people, and twice as much as the equipment for ViaSat. This is a newer service and newer technology, so the high price here might be understandable to some, but it will be a filtering point for the service.
• Yet that doesn’t mean the service or equipment is available. This means you will need to put a $99 deposit down on the equipment until it becomes available. It goes towards the equipment purchase price, so it isn’t a complete loss, just an inconvenience for some.
• Additionally, with the growing popularity of Starlink, even those people who are using the service might need to wait a bit to get help. It seems as though the company has not anticipated (or at least prepared for) the amount of success and interest it has generated. While this has not seemed to affect actual service yet, there are issues when it comes to getting technical help and longer wait times than people would like. We cannot say how quickly Starlink will adapt, but we hope they resolve the issue soon.
Starlink is a bit of an unknown and liable to change. Yet at the same time, it is by far the best satellite internet option available for the best price for those it is available to and can get it. Check to see if it is available to you and if you are willing to ride out the bumps. You might thank yourself for it later.
Is Satellite Internet for You? Seven Questions to Ask Yourself
Now that you know a bit more about satellite internet and the three main options available to you in the United States, you need to ask yourself realistically if it’s an option for you. To help you answer whether satellite internet is for you, here are some additional questions and bits of information:
What Satellite Options Are There in Your Area?
It is easy to check what internet options there are in your location. You can use this very site to do so. Yet it is important to check and make a note of whether one of the providers isn’t available. In the United States, it likely comes down to a simple question: Is Starlink available in your area, and is it available within a reasonable timeframe? The answer to at least one of those questions will likely be no, but you may get lucky.
HughesNet and ViaSat will likely be operating in your area, and at least one of them certainly will. Given their similarities, you can use either if you’re just asking yourself if satellite internet is an option. And knowing what you know about the different providers from the information above, you have to ask yourself if it will be enough and if there’s a plan that will be sufficient. You can help answer that with the additional questions below.
Are There Any Other Internet Providers in Your Area?
Satellite internet should rarely be your first choice for internet service. It is usually slower, more expensive, often has data caps and other limitations, and can be a hassle to get set up, even compared to other service types. Therefore, if there is broadband internet of some sort available in your area, you should check that out first, as it will serve you better in most circumstances.
Again, this site can help you with that. We don’t advise going with dial-up internet (it does still exist, and it’s just as awful as you remember) or very slow DSL internet that isn’t much better. There might be cases where balancing out the price and consistency makes DSL the better option, but only if you hardly use the internet and just want to check your email every once in a while. And in those cases, you might be fine with your smartphone’s data plan.
What Do You Intend to Do Online?
Satellite internet is better suited for some online activities than others. Without Starlink with low latency, satellite internet is generally not a good choice for online gaming or video calls (especially larger video calls with multiple people). The connection's latency issues and relative inconsistency just don’t allow for a good experience.
On the other hand, satellite internet, assuming you have a good plan regarding data caps, can be perfectly fine for streaming content, regular daily internet browsing, and a few downloads here and there.
In short, if you are an internet power user, you might be able to get away with Starlink if it’s available, but that’s it. If you don’t use the internet for much other than simple browsing and checking on messages or social media, then satellite internet will likely be just fine for you. As for whether ViaSat or HughesNet is best, that depends on your budget and total data usage.
How Many People Are There in Your Household?
Too many people and not enough bandwidth generally lead to problems and conflict. A network is a network that doesn’t get better just because more devices are using it. And satellite internet usually has a limit. Given the download speeds and data allowances, larger families are generally at a huge disadvantage.
If only one or two of you are using the connection, however, you will likely be fine, and you will obviously have more control over how the data allowance is used.
Do You Have a Space for the Equipment?
While not the biggest consideration, you will need to have a satellite dish and some additional equipment installed for your satellite internet connection. Do you have the space for it? Small apartment buildings likely won’t be able to accommodate those needs (though, thankfully, apartment buildings usually have other internet options). Is there a place where the receiver can go unobstructed? If not, you might run into connection issues.
Also note that while you might have a place in mind, it might not be the best place for the dish. It could be a different spot in your yard or on your property entirely, and you’ll need to work around that. Be sure to ask ahead of time about these types of needs when getting satellite service.
Do You Need Internet on Top of Your Mobile Data Plan?
Practically everyone has a smartphone these days and has it on them constantly. People get internet service on their smartphones through their mobile data plan, and practically every major tool or website in the world has a mobile option.
This means a fair number of people worldwide can get by without a home internet connection. While it isn’t as convenient as having a nice WiFi network at home, and it isn’t a complete replacement, there is an argument to be had about just using a data plan for people who don’t use the internet much.
Of course, in some areas, the mobile data service isn’t all that great either, and that can mean that people have difficulties with internet either way. You will want to ensure that your connection is up to the task first and that you generally have good coverage in your area. Places with few ISPs in the first place likely don’t have the best 5G service or even the best 4G LTE service. Make sure that it is enough to get by with, and perhaps do a trial run for a month before committing fully.
Are You Ok with the Data Caps and Price Point?
If you have the opportunity to measure how much data you use each month, do so. There are usually default options and tools on most devices that can measure that, and you might have them enabled already. This will help make sure that you don’t get a nasty surprise when you run out of data
Related to this is the high price you will pay for most satellite internet plans, often costing hundreds of dollars each month after the often hefty equipment and installation fees. It is unlikely to get cheaper in the near future given the costs involved in creating satellite internet and the demand in some areas (being one of the only options available does not incline providers to lower prices). With added fees, satellite internet is quite a financial commitment.
Starlink does not have data caps at this time but is still very expensive for what you are getting compared to other ISPs.
Essentially, this is a reminder to do some math, measure what you need, and act appropriately, given those factors.
There is a lot more to satellite internet than what we talked about above, but most of it is technical details and circumstances that would rarely come up. We hope that we managed to provide you with a better understanding of Satellite internet, whether it is the right choice for you or not. Keep looking for your best internet provider, use this site if it will help you, and we wish you the very best with your connection.