What Is Satellite Internet?
Satellite internet is a type of internet connection that uses satellites rather than networks of physical cables to get you online. The best part? It’s available anywhere you have a view of the sky to the south.
Historically, satellite internet was painfully slow, with speeds often below 1Mbps. Recent upgrades mean speeds of up to 25Mbps or even 100Mbps are now possible, putting satellite in league with DSL internet.
How does satellite internet work?
Satellite internet connects you to the internet via a satellite orbiting the Earth.
Here’s how it works. You have a satellite dish and transmitter attached to your home, facing the sky to the south, which connects with a geostationary satellite. The satellite uses microwave radio frequencies to relay data to and from your dish and to and from your provider’s central hub, which is connected to traditional ground-level, wired internet. It’s the same system used for satellite TV, GPS, and weather forecasts.
Best Satellite Internet Service Providers
Following a wave of closures and mergers in recent years, there are currently just two satellite providers in the US. While some customers may lament the lack of competition, it does make your choice simpler.
In general, Viasat has faster speeds and more generous data caps. If you’re on a budget, competitor HughesNet offers a cheaper service. But let’s take a closer look at the best—or only—satellite providers on the market and why you might want to select each.
HughesNet offers just one speed—25Mbps. That’s comparable to the speed on many DSL connections and will be sufficient for many internet users, especially given the data caps intrinsic to satellite connections that will limit your streaming and gaming. Your speed will likely exceed that too: in 2018 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that HughesNet’s actual speeds are on average much higher than advertised.
HughesNet's prices start at around $60 per month and run up to $150, depending on your data allowance. The cheapest plans will come with just 10GB of data, which you’ll likely eat through quickly. The more generous offer 50GB. These prices are locked in for the length of your two-year contract with HughesNet.
With HughesNet, you’ll face a choice between buying or leasing your satellite equipment (the satellite dish and transmitter). If you chose to purchase the equipment, it’s $250 upfront plus a $200 installation fee. Leasing the equipment will cost you $15 a month on top of your bill and comes with a $99 lease setup fee. Buying the equipment thus costs about the same as leasing it for the two years of your contract and you don’t have to return it at the end, so your next contract will be cheaper.
HughesNet's satellite internet plans are available to nearly all homes in the lower 48. Its newest satellite, launched in 2017, filled up quickly, so there are a few areas not covered, but HughesNet has plans to launch another satellite in 2021 to fill in the gaps.
Viasat will give you more speed and data than HughesNet, but at a higher cost.
Viasat offers a wider range of plans, with speeds ranging from 12Mbps to 100Mbps and data caps ranging from 12GB to 150GB per month. Speeds largely live up to those advertised but, the fastest connections aren’t available in some areas.
Viasat’s fastest, most spacious connections, can start as high as $150 a month. Those prices will also climb, by between $20 and $50 a month, after the initial three months. Speeds largely live up to those advertised but, the fastest connections aren’t available in some areas.
Viasat advertises some of its plans as unlimited but they do operate traffic management policy, meaning your speed can be throttled if you use a lot of data in a month. If you want to continue using data above your allowance at normal speeds, you’ll need to buy add-ons. Each extra gigabit of data you want will cost you $10.
Viasat doesn’t give customers the option of purchasing their satellite antenna and modem, so you’ll have to lease it. Leasing costs $10 a month, or you can pay for a ‘lifetime lease’ for $300, but you’ll still need to return the equipment if you ever cancel your service. Installation usually costs $99 but some customers can get it for free.
How To get The Best Satellite Internet Plans
Both HughesNet and Viasat offer services to nearly all parts of the US in the lower 48. Usually, as long as you can see the sky, you can get satellite internet. However, available speeds can vary by area.
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Is Satellite Internet A Good Option?
Satellite internet is slower and subject to stricter data limits than other internet technology types, so for most households it’s not a good option. However for the approximately 10% of households not connected to ground-level internet, it’s their only option for getting online, except for mobile broadband (and coverage for that is often limited in these rural areas too).
Key benefits of satellite internet:
Available to everyone
You can connect to satellite internet anywhere in the world, as long as you have a view of the sky to the south. This means that houses that haven’t been connected to DSL, cable, or fiber, can receive an internet connection. Coverage for both HughesNet and Viasat is nearly universal, at least in the lower 48.
Speeds don’t deteriorate over distance
Some rural households can sign up to DSL or cable, but because speeds on those connections deteriorate over distance, find that they’re so slow at their homes as to be unworkable. In these cases, satellite internet may deliver a faster connection.
Speeds are getting faster
Satellite internet was once notoriously slow, with connections barely cracking 1Mbps. New technology means that satellite speeds can now reach 100Mbps, making them comparable to DSL and some slower fiber packages.
Satellite internet drawbacks:
Strict data caps
While unlimited or 1TB download allowances are common with ground-level internet connections, satellite internet is still constrained by strict data caps. The most spacious—and most expensive—offer up to 150GB, while more affordable packages are often stricter.
Expensive equipment and installation
Installing a satellite dish or antenna is more involved than installing a router, so you’ll face higher upfront costs—both for the equipment itself and for the necessary professional installation.
Impacted by weather
Satellite service deteriorates and may even cut out during heavy rain and thunderstorms, as you might know if you have satellite TV.
How Does Satellite Compare To Other Types Of Connection?
Satellite internet is usually slower and less reliable than DSL, cable, and fiber. However, it is nearly universally available, making it a good option for remote and rural households that can’t get the internet any other way.
Satellite speeds have significantly improved in recent years. With HughesNet, you’ll get 25Mbps—the equivalent of many cheaper DSL connections. Viasat offers plans with speeds up to 100Mbps, equivalent to faster DSL and slower cable package.
Satellite internet connections use microwave radio frequencies to communicate with the orbiting satellite. Poor weather conditions will weaken the signal and heavy rain and thunderstorms can block it entirely. Snow and ice can also accumulate on the dish, blocking the signal even in clear weather.
Satellite internet is available to nearly everywhere in the United States, making it a great option for homes that haven’t been reached by ground-level internet technologies. In contrast, DSL is available to around 90% of homes, with many rural and remote properties excluded.
Frequently Asked Questions
Satellite technology has developed in leaps and bounds recently. Today its speeds—ranging up to 100Mbps—rival DSL and some slower cable connections. However, you’ll pay much more per month for satellite than you would for DSL or cable connections with equivalent speeds.
Fiber delivers much faster speeds--up to 1Gbps or 1,000Mbps, 10 to 100 times faster than satellite. However those speeds are often excessive to most households’ needs.
Yes, all satellite internet packages on the market will restrict the amount of data you can download each month. These limits range from 10GB to 150GB. The former will make streaming all but impossible since one hour of Netflix in HD gobbles up 3GB of data. The more generous packages will allow you to stream some content, but with caution. If you blow past your allowance, buying additional data is expensive: HughesNet charges $3 per additional 1GB, while Viasat charges $10 per GB, with discounts if you buy larger packages.
Viasat sometimes claims it offers unlimited satellite internet plans, but this is somewhat misleading. While they won’t cut you off after you exceed your monthly allowance or necessarily charge you for data add-ons, they will slow your connection to a crawl, with speeds between 1 and 3Mbps.
HughesNet gives you the option of leasing your satellite dish and transmitter for $15 a month or buying it for $250. It costs the same to buy your equipment as it does to lease it over your 24-month contract and you don’t have the return it at the end. So if you have the cash upfront, it makes sense to purchase the equipment.
Viasat gives you the option of paying $10 each month for your equipment or buying a lifetime lease for $300 upfront. The lifetime lease pays for itself in 30 months but you do have to return the equipment if you ever cancel your service with Viasat.
Many rural households will face a choice between DSL and satellite. And for some customers, satellite will come out ahead, despite its higher cost and stricter download limits, simply because it’s the only service that offers viable speeds.
DSL speeds deteriorate over distance, so homes living very far from their ISP’s local hub can receive internet so slow it’s unusable. DSL providers should be able to give you an estimate of the speed you can expect at your property and if it’s below 5 or 10Mbps, you might want to consider satellite instead.
Yes, while the satellite market is currently very limited in the US, with just two providers selling services, that’s expected to change very soon. Several new satellite providers are on the cusp of launching. They include:
- SpaceX: Elon Musk’s company has ambitions to go to Mars, but it also has more humble plans. It launched 60 Starlink satellites in March 2020 and plans to start using them to offer residential internet connections by the end of the year.
- OneWeb: This service currently has 74 satellites in orbit and plans to offer regional satellite internet service by 2020 and global service by 2021.
- Project Kuiper: Amazon has been mum about its satellite project and hasn’t announced dates for either satellite launches or service availability. But look for the internet giant to enter the satellite field in the next few years.