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What is Satellite Internet? Coverage, ISPs, Prices, and More

a satellite dish with woman using phone in background

In the simplest terms possible, satellite Internet is wireless broadband Internet that is sent down to your home by satellites up in space. By contrast, land-based Internet systems like DSL, cable, or fiber optic broadband transmit Internet through cables.

Satellite Internet is the only Internet service that’s truly available across the nation since it’s not limited by areas that cables can reach. In many cases, such as rural homes and businesses, RVs, or houseboats, it’s the only Internet option available.

In this guide, we will demystify how satellite Internet works, including breaking down expected speeds, availability, pricing, and providers.

Definition of Satellite Internet

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get a little more technical. Satellite Internet works by transmitting signals between your device and the Internet via a satellite in Earth's orbit, but there are a lot of moving parts involved. 

When you click on a website or send an email, your satellite dish sends a request to a satellite in space. This satellite receives your request and relays it to a ground station, also known as a gateway. The ground station processes your request, connects to the Internet, and fetches the data you asked for. The ground station then sends the data back up to the satellite. Finally, the satellite beams the data back to your satellite dish, and from there, to your computer or router.

Satellite Internet Speed & Performance

Historically, satellite Internet has faced criticism for high latency and slower speeds compared to cable or fiber Internet. There’s a good reason for this slowness – the data has to travel vast distances to geostationary satellites orbiting approximately 22,000 miles above Earth before returning. This not only introduces significant delay, known as latency, but also limits the bandwidth, affecting overall Internet speed. 

In practical terms, that means that if you’re a satellite Internet customer, you can expect download speeds to range from 12–250 Mbps, and upload speeds of around 3 Mbps. At the fastest speeds satellite Internet offers, it would take you around three minutes to download a two-hour movie in 1080p HD. At upload speeds of 3 Mbps, it would take you nearly four and a half hours to upload that same movie online. 

Note that the most cost-effective plans are closer to 50-100 Mbps and that actual average speeds experienced can be much slower than the top speeds advertised – we’ll get into this in the provider action below in more detail. 

For most folks, satellite Internet speeds are enough for common online activities like emailing, browsing, and scrolling through social media. It’s even possible to stream videos, although you may experience some lag. 

The main challenge is that most satellite Internet plans come with data caps, unlike most fiber, cable, and DSL plans which offer unlimited Internet. That means the plan only offers a certain amount of data at those speeds. If you use up all your data too soon, your speeds will be throttled to 1.5–3 Mbps for the remainder of the billing cycle.

Satellite Internet performance also depends on the weather. Heavy rain and storms can affect speeds, as well as bandwidth availability. Remember, all data has to go through the one satellite serving that geographic area. If too many requests come in, the satellite can’t process everything, which results in slowed speeds. 

There have been some recent developments to improve satellite Internet speeds, however. Some providers have introduced low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which orbit much closer to the Earth's surface at altitudes ranging from 200 to 1,200 miles. This reduction in distance dramatically decreases latency, making satellite Internet more competitive with its terrestrial counterparts in terms of both speed and responsiveness. Companies like SpaceX with its Starlink project, Amazon's Project Kuiper, and OneWeb are deploying or planning to deploy thousands of these LEO satellites to create a more robust, faster satellite Internet service.

Satellite Internet Availability

In theory, if you're in a location with a clear view of the sky, chances are you can secure a satellite Internet connection. Most estimates suggest that around 99 percent of Americans are covered by at least one satellite Internet provider, making it the most available ISP in the U.S. This is useful for rural and remote areas, where other types of Internet, such as cable or fiber optic broadband, might not be available.

Satellite Internet Pricing

Satellite Internet pricing can be a bit steeper than that of DSL or cable Internet. This is due to the sophisticated technology and infrastructure required to maintain a satellite Internet service. The average cost for an Internet plan of any kind is estimated to be just over $70 per month. Generally, for satellite Internet, you can expect to pay somewhere between $50.00 to $300 per month.

Note that the higher the data cap and speeds, the higher the prices will typically be. For example, a plan that offers download speeds of up to 50 Mbps and a data cap of 100 GB will cost much less than one that goes up to 100 Mbps with a data cap of 200 GB.

Satellite Internet Requirements - What You'll Need

To get a satellite Internet subscription, you'll need a few essentials:

  • A contract or agreement with a satellite Internet provider
  • A satellite dish to communicate with orbiting satellites
  • A modem to convert satellite data into a usable Internet signal
  • A router for distributing Wi-Fi throughout your home
  • A clear line of sight to the sky, free from obstructions like trees or buildings

Your ISP will provide you with the satellite dish, the modem, and the router either for rent or purchase. Most satellite providers do not let you bring your own equipment. 

Satellite Internet Providers

When choosing a satellite Internet provider, your choice is made simpler by the fact that right now, there are only three main contenders: HughesNet, Viasat, and the emerging SpaceX Starlink satellite service. 

Each offers different satellite Internet plans, catering to various needs, from basic browsing to more data-intensive usage. There’s no single standout among them, so in this section, we’ve highlighted their various pros and cons.

Hughesnet

In a nutshell, Hughesnet is reliable, but not especially fast. Hughesnet was the first satellite Internet service provider to hit 25 Mbps back in 2017. Today, it offers plans that go up to around 100 Mbps, though Ookla’s 2023 report noted that Hughesnet only recorded median download speeds of 15.87 Mbps in the third quarter of 2023. 

In terms of availability, it’s available in all 50 states according to the FCC’s coverage map. It offers “unlimited” data – meaning you won’t get completely cut off or charged overage bills for going over your limit – but you can expect slowdowns once you hit your monthly priority data cap. It’s worth pointing out that even the highest Hughesnet data cap – 200 GB – is less than what the average American family consumes in a given month, which reached 641 GB in Q4 of 2023.

Hughesnet only offers two-year contracts, so you’ll be tied in for a while if you choose this provider. Want to cancel before the contract is up? Expect to pay a hefty early termination fee. The fee amount decreases over time, but you would pay a fee even up until the very last month of early termination. Hughesnet also requires modem rental or purchase, with no option to source your own. 

Viasat

Viasat’s main claim to fame is that it offers a wide range of plans to meet your needs, so if you need a plan that offers faster speeds or includes more GBs of premium data, you can find one. Plans go up to 150 Mbps, and soft data caps can stretch to 500 GB per month. However, this flexibility comes at a cost – literally. The rates are higher than what you’d get with other providers for similar plans, getting into hundreds of dollars per month.

Although you can get data caps that are higher than what you’d get at Hughesnet, it’s still less than what an average U.S. household consumes in a month. Also like Hughesnet, this provider will lock you in for two years, unless you choose to pay a large upfront fee of several hundred dollars, which allows you to pay month-by-month rather than being locked into a contract,

While Viasat is widely available across the U.S., its high-speed plans are only available in specific locations. It’s also worth pointing out that while higher speeds are offered, the median speed recorded was 36.47 Mbps in Q1 2023. However, Viasat has committed to increasing the number of areas it services with high-speed satellite Internet.

In terms of extra fees, Viasat charges you either an upfront fee or a monthly rental fee for your modem, with no option to bring your own. There is also an installation fee.

Starlink

Behind door number three, we have Starlink. Starlink, owned by aerospace company SpaceX, is only available in select areas of the U.S. Of the three satellite Internet providers, it’s the most promising. Where it is available, it offers faster speeds and lower latency than its rivals – plans offer speeds reaching 250 Mbps, which is faster than some DSL plans. 

Unlike its rivals, it offers just two simple service tiers for residential use – Starlink Standard and Starlink Priority. Starlink Priority includes equipment for higher download speeds but comes at a higher price. 

Starlink is also unique in that there are no data caps. Instead, on the Standard plan, your data is deprioritized, a term that may be familiar to you from cell phone plans. Basically, when the network gets busy, people who still have non-deprioritized data left on their plan get priority access to the network, while you might get slowed down. However, your speeds won’t slow to the absolute crawl that you’d get on Viasat and Hughesnet, and it’s only until the network is less busy. If you want priority speeds, you can spring for a Priority plan, which includes an allotment of priority data.

What’s most impressive is that ​Starlink’s average download speeds were close to 67Mbps in the US in Q1 of 2023. While that’s not anywhere near as fast as the media download speeds for the whole category of broadband Internet (193Mbps), it’s still close to double the media download speeds of Viasat and an impressive four times faster than Hughesnet’s median download speeds. 

The entry-level Starlink plan price is more expensive than what you’d pay for Hughesnet or Viasat entry-level plans, but the plan comes with faster data and a higher data cap. The only other downside is that the equipment and installation fees are much higher than its competitors, but there’s the added bonus that there’s no contract. 

Satellite Internet Plan Considerations

Before committing to a satellite Internet plan or carrier, think about your Internet usage. Factors like data caps, download and upload speeds, and contract requirements can vary significantly among providers. Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind.

  • Data Caps: If you're a heavy Internet user, these caps can be a deal-breaker. Look for a plan that accommodates your monthly data needs without throttling your speed or charging exorbitant overage fees.
  • Download and Upload Speeds: Satellite Internet traditionally lags behind terrestrial services in terms of speed, but some more premium plans offer higher speeds.
  • Contract Requirements: Be wary of long-term commitments. Some satellite Internet providers require lengthy contracts, which might lock you into a service that doesn’t meet your needs or expectations. Look for providers offering flexible contract terms or, better yet, month-to-month options that allow you to switch or cancel without hefty penalties.
  • Pricing: Analyze the cost carefully, considering installation fees, equipment rental costs, and monthly service charges. A cheaper plan might seem attractive but could come with lower speeds, stricter data caps, or more expensive one-time equipment fees.

It’s also worth looking if you can get coverage from any other kind of Internet. Satellite Internet is great to have – if there’s nothing else available. However, if you can get DSL or cable, those are typically faster and more cost-effective than satellite Internet. 

The Bottom Line

In short, satellite Internet can be expensive and data-limited, but in some cases, it’s your only option. The good news is that satellite Internet is getting faster, more carriers offer contract-free options, and some providers offer plans with no data caps. In other words, while it may be your only option, it can be pretty good.

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