Why Use Satellite Internet?
The top performers in our review are HughesNet, the Gold Award winner; WildBlue, the Silver Award winner; and Exede, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing satellite internet to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of six products.
Today, cable and fiber-optic internet services offer the fastest connectivity available and can be found virtually everywhere in metropolitan and urban areas. Unfortunately, access to these technologies is limited or nonexistent in rural areas, meaning you used to be stuck with slow internet at best if you lived outside highly populated areas. However, over the past few years, satellite internet providers have developed increasingly powerful high-speed internet comparable to cable and fiber services.
Satellite internet is ideal for people living in rural areas who don't have access to standard cable or fiber internet providers. The best satellite internet providers offer coverage over virtually the entire lower 48 states, with some coverage in Alaska, Hawaii, and even Puerto Rico and Canada, meaning you can stay connected to fast internet regardless of where you live. You won't have to rely on slow dial-up connections, which can tie up your phone line.
How Does Satellite Internet Work?
Integral to how satellite internet works are the satellites themselves, which are positioned roughly 22,000 miles above the equator. These satellites are geostationary, meaning they are always above a specific point on Earth as it rotates. The first internet satellites successfully brought the internet to a larger audience, but the rates were incredibly slow. Modern satellites, however, use more advanced technology to transmit information, allowing the fastest satellite internet access.
These satellites communicate with the gateway, also known as a ground station, in order to send information to and from your computer. The gateway essentially relays the internet data you request to and from the satellites, which then send the data to your home.
When you sign up for satellite internet, the company installs household equipment, which consists of an antenna dish and a modem. The antenna goes outside of your house and is generally 2 or 3 feet in diameter. It must have an unobstructed view of the sky, called the line of sight, in order to communicate clearly with the satellite. Because internet satellites are located over the equator, you need a clear line of sight to the south in order to get a good signal, which is typically not a problem for those living in rural areas.
The antenna is connected to a modem, which you connect to your computer with an Ethernet cable to start using the internet. You can think of this whole process as a delivery system of sorts. You request data by going to a website, and the gateway transmits the data to the satellite, which then relays the data toward your house, and your antenna catches the information for you to use.
Satellite internet is a vast improvement over conventional dial-up because it delivers a high-speed internet connection without tying up your telephone line. While satellite internet is a solution for those living in rural areas, cable or fiber internet service providers are ideal if you live in or close to a big city. To learn more about satellite internet service, browse our in-depth articles on satellite internet reviews.
Satellite Internet: What We Evaluated, What We Found
As we evaluated each satellite internet option, we looked at how readily available the information like plans, pricing, and terms and conditions is. We judged them on their optimal speeds, data allowance, technical support options, and whether or not they throttle bandwidth. We checked how widely available each service was and evaluated fees and contract details.
We learned that often the availability and pricing of plans differ based on your individual location. As we gathered information such as bandwidth, number of plans and pricing of each service, we used two addresses from each state, one in the state's capital and one from a rural town. While there were a range of variables, we used an average in our comparison to give you an idea of what is available.
Speed & Performance: Share & Receive Quickly
Though it depends on your connection and the plan you subscribe to, downstream speeds are generally faster than upstream speeds and can range from about 0.5 MBps to roughly 15 MBps, as you can get with dishNET. The downstream, or download, speed can affect how long it takes to buffer a movie or download music or photos, as it's essentially how fast you can get a signal from the satellite and provider. Upload speeds range from 1 to 3 MBps, and this affects how long it takes to share videos, pictures or music on social media sites, for example. Typically, you have much more downstream allowance than upstream.
Each company we reviewed offers multiple internet speed plans, from cheaper, low-data plans to more expensive, high-data plans. Most companies offer a tool to help you assess how much data you use so you can determine which service plan is right for you. Note that extensive data plans for streaming lots of movies or playing online video games don't really exist for satellite internet, given the strain they cause and the need to keep bandwidth open for other customers.
Bandwidth Threshold: More Means Multitasking
Each plan gives you a certain amount of data to use per month, similar to a cell phone plan. The amount of data you are allotted depends on your plan, typically ranging from 5GB to 50GB per month. With some internet service providers, if you go over your allotted data, your internet speeds will be throttled. This can limit you to slow internet connections until the next month, when your data limit refreshes. However, some companies allow you to pay for a small amount of additional data once you go over your original limit, though usually no more than a couple of gigabytes.
Another thing to consider when looking at satellite internet providers is whether or not a company offers unlimited, unmetered or extra internet access during off-peak or early-bird hours. This time period ranges from around midnight to 8 a.m., depending on the service provider, during which you can download any large files without it counting against your allotted data for the month. This feature helps to balance the monthly data caps and let you get a little more enjoyment for your money.
Account & Contract: Know Your Options
Purchasing satellite internet usually means signing a lengthy contract with the provider, which is typically for two years. Talk with the provider you choose to see whether it can lock you in at its introductory price for your entire contract term, or if that cost rises after a few months. In case you travel for a certain period of time each year, most providers offer hibernation plans. These plans stop your service while maintaining your contract, though they may still charge you the same or a reduced service cost each month.
You have the option to cancel your service before your contracted term is up, but you will most likely have to deal with early termination fees. Many companies charge a large lump sum plus an additional fee for each remaining month in your contract, but this cost varies by company.
Equipment & Installation: What's Included
Installation of your satellite dish takes roughly three or four hours and must be performed by a licensed professional with company-provided equipment. There are no options to install any part of the system yourself or use cheaper alternative equipment. Some companies provide a 90-day warranty on the installation, but not all do. For the best protection against potential equipment damage, choose a company with a long warranty.
Typically, you can expect the dish to be included in the installation along with its mounting and cable hardware. You can purchase the necessary equipment up front or make a monthly lease payment. Some providers offer free installation if you choose to lease. Make sure the installation professional checks that your router and other equipment work before leaving.
Support & Resources: Get Information & Answers
Another thing to consider before you make a decision about your satellite internet provider is the company's customer support. Look for a company that offers 24/7 technical support in case you run into any issues while you browse the internet on the weekend or early in the morning. The company should also offer multiple means of contact, such as telephone, email and live chat support. The best companies provide a dedicated support portal along with online resources.
Coverage Areas: Be Connected Wherever You Are
For the right price, you can have access to satellite internet in many places across the world. Most of the providers on our lineup focus on North America, however. With them, you can stay connected virtually anywhere within the contiguous United States. Most of the companies also service Hawaii and Alaska, and a few even have your back if you live in Puerto Rico or Canada.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our evaluations were not provided to the providers in advance of publication.
Satellite Internet: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three satellite internet providers – HughesNet, WildBlue and Exede – soared above the rest in our comparison, mostly because of their speeds, high bandwidth thresholds, stellar coverage areas and informative technical support. These are the factors we weighed as the most important in our rankings.
HughesNet beat out the others with its high bandwidth capacity, great customer service, and the fact that it doesn't throttle your internet if you go over your billing period allotment. WildBlue and Exede are also some of our top picks because they offer 90-day installation warranties and some of their plans give you unlimited late-night bandwidth.
There isn't a budget option in our lineup of satellite internet providers. Because this is such a small market, the prices do not usually spread across multiple brands. However, you can always opt for a basic plan over a premium plan if you don't need so much download speed or bandwidth.
Satellite internet is a significant investment, so you should thoroughly evaluate your options before signing up with one of these services and be sure that you understand all terms and conditions. Nonetheless, if you live or work in a rural area, satellite broadband with a high-speed connection can be worth the investment in keeping you connected to the rest of the world.