The Best Satellite Internet
Streaming from space means slower speeds
- Its speeds reach up to 12 Mbps.
- Choose from 12, 25, or 50GB per month.
- Service is available nationwide.
There are only two big names in the satellite internet world: HughesNet and Exede Internet. To determine our top pick, we compared what matters most — overall speed. Then we looked at extra data options, installation fees, and technology.
The Best Satellite Internet
If you don’t have access to traditional DSL or cable internet, you can still access the web via satellite. Providers use a satellite in space to transmit internet to a small dish on your roof, making it available virtually anywhere. That’s why, if you live in a rural area, it’s probably your only option. But despite its space-age nature, satellite internet is both more expensive and slower than traditional DSL internet technology.
Low data limits and high latency are the core issues with satellite internet. Satellite is pretty painful for cord cutters and gamers, but workable for people that just want to check email and watch the occasional YouTube video. People tend to think of it as a ‘last-ditch’ option.
While there are just two big names in the satellite internet market, HughesNet stands out for its relatively faster speed — up to 25 Mbps. That’s twice as fast as its competitor, Exede Internet, whose connection max out at just 12 Mbps. Hughesnet also boasts affordable extra data and a mobile app.
With HughesNet-level speed, your connection can handle more — downloading music, uploading photos, posting on social media. You can even stream video, though that will eat into your data allowance. Exede’s 12 Mbps will only work for users who stick to internet basics like web browsing and emailing.
While Exede’s plans are on average $10–$30 cheaper than HughesNet’s, its additional data costs around three times as much. Your bill will get expensive if you’re not tracking your data usage and need to buy more.
How We Found the Best Satellite Internet
We looked at the only two nationwide providers.
According to Jameson Zimmer from BroadbandNow, “The satellite market has been consolidating lately, just like the wired broadband market. HughesNet and Exede are really the only two options.” Of the satellite providers that were available nationwide, two were absorbed by bigger providers (EarthLink and Wildblue) and one phased out (dishNET), all within the last 10 years.
Service is available (almost) everywhere. Satellite speed can be limited if you live in an area that lacks visibility. The dish has to have a clear line of sight to, well, space — homes in wooded or mountainous areas might be out of luck or experience a slow connection.
Satellite is inherently slow, but Exede is slower.
Because information has to literally travel to space and back, satellite speeds are much slower than traditional DSL. Internet speed refers to the speed at which data transfers, measured in megabits per second (Mbps). As the technology advances and new satellites are launched into space, speeds become faster.
With the launch of the Gen 5 satellite in early 2017, HughesNet advertises the fastest satellite internet at 25 Mbps. Exede, by comparison, only promises 12 Mbps. The good news, the FCC reports that more than 90 percent of satellite users receive their advertised speed.
To help you understand what that difference actually feels like, we pulled data from providers’ websites and verified our findings with the team at BroadbandNow, a site dedicated to all things internet.
HughesNet's connection lets you do more.
HughesNet (25 Mbps)
Exede Internet (12 Mbps)
Number of users
Number of devices
It’s all about data.
With a satellite provider, it’s a one-speed-fits-all kind of deal. Instead of buying a plan based on speed, you purchase a monthly data allowance. Data is measured in gigabytes (GB), and is used whenever you send, receive, download, or upload from the internet.
To simplify, it works similarly to your phone data; it’s your allotted internet usage. If you go over your data limit, you won’t be totally cut off from the internet, you’ll just be restricted to slower speed (1–3 Mbps) for the rest of the month. This will allow some web browsing, but no video streaming or file downloading. That web browsing will likely be so slow that you’ll resort to the local paper for news and sudoku.
Video streamers will likely struggle with data caps. Streaming uses up a huge chunk of data. In fact, Netflix estimates you’ll need 1GB of data per hour to stream SD video alone. That’s 66GB to binge all five seasons of Orange is the New Black — more than both HughesNet and Exede offer in a month.
Zimmer told us that, “Satellite data plans are designed with basic activities in mind: checking email, cruising Facebook, surfing the web. The data plans seem limited, but they’re plenty if that’s how you use the internet. People run into trouble when they try to use a satellite connection like a wired connection: HD streaming, video conferencing, gaming, etc.”
- 2 hours of SD video streaming
- 300 photos uploaded
- 200 streamed songs
- 1,024 web pages loaded
- 2,000 emails sent or received
HughesNet and Exede offer data tiers between 10 and 50GB. If you’re only using your internet connection to check and send email, and occasionally browse the web, 10GB will cover your needs. If you need internet that can support multiple people, or you like to stream media, download files, consider a 50GB plan.
Our Picks for Best Satellite Internet
HughesNet has been around for over 40 years, and with the launch of its Gen 5 satellite in early 2017, it now offers a connection twice as fast as Exede Internet. HughesNet, aware of the frustrations that data limitations bring, offers unique data-saving and tracking features for consumers.
Data is available in tiers from 10GB to 50GB, ranging in price from $50 to $130 per month. These prices are around $20-$30 cheaper for new customers, and jump to the higher levels after 24 months. If you only use the internet to check email or browse the web for less than an hour a day, 10GB should be enough. If you and other members of your household are sharing a connection, spring for more.
To ease stress around data limitations, HughesNet offers an extra 50GB of data per month to use during a Bonus Zone — off-peak hours between 2AM and 8AM. This would be the optimal time to download movies, play games, or conduct computer updates. It’s a pain to schedule heavy internet usage for the wee hours of the night, but it’s much more cost-effective than coughing up for extra data if you go over. Exede offers a Free Zone too, but it’s three hours shorter.
“Data Tokens” are available for purchase if you’ve used up your monthly data allowance, and you don’t want your speed to drop. You can purchase however much data you need, in increments of 3 to 25GB ranging in price from $9 to $75. Extra data can be purchased with Exede too, but for an exorbitantly higher price — 10GB extra from HughesNet will cost $30. Meanwhile, the same amount of extra data from Exede will cost you $95.
We also liked that HughesNet offers a mobile app where you can pay your bill, track your data usage, and buy more data. HughesNet also offers a Video Data Saver feature that automatically sets a lower, less data-demanding resolution on any HD video. So, if you still want to stream, you can get higher-quality picture while using less data. If you do want to occasionally stream HD video, you can switch this feature off in the app.
HughesNet offers the option to purchase your equipment, satellite dish, and WiFi-enabled modem for about $350 with installation, or you can lease the equipment for $15 per month. When it comes time to install, it has to be done professionally and could cost $99, though its website is currently advertising free installation. If you’re setting up internet for the long term, we recommending buying the equipment upfront. It will pay for itself after about two years.
*Prices in parentheses are promotional prices that last for the first 24 months.
Exede Internet offers slightly cheaper data plans over the long term. Its equipment leasing and data plans have lower rates than HughesNet’s post-promotion prices, but there is a trade-off. Exede offers a slow connection and a shorter bonus window, and extra data will cost much more.
Plans start at $50 for 12GB, and reach $100 for 50GB. That’s $30 cheaper than HughesNet’s post-promotion price for the 50GB plan (at 13 Mbps slower, however). And those prices come with a three-year price-lock guarantee. The late-night Free Zone offers completely unmetered data usage between 3AM and 6AM. We liked that there’s no limit on how much you can download, but compared to HughesNet, Exede’s free zone is half as long, at half the speed. We call that a draw.
Exede’s equipment fees are about the same as HughesNet’s. With Exede, you’re required to lease your equipment for $10 per month, or $15 per month if you want a WiFi-enabled modem. Its website mentions a potential installation fee, but that depends on the current promotions and where you live.
In our research, we found that Exede offers a speed-boosting modem to customers in “select locations,”, but it doesn’t explicitly state what those select locations are. You’ll have to enter your zip code on the website to check. In the handful we tried, the max speed was still just 12 Mbps. But, if you’re one of the lucky ones, this option can bump your speed up to 25 Mbps.
For those who aren’t nocturnal, Exede does have a Buy More option where you can purchase more data if you’re close to running out toward the end of the month. It’s absurdly expensive though, starting at $10 for just 1GB of data — that’s around double the price per GB you’d pay with its monthly plan. Need an extra 10GB at the end of the month? You’ll have to pay a whopping $95. At that point, it’s worth making the drive to a Starbucks, no matter how remote your home is, for free WiFi.
Exede Internet Pricing
Did You Know?
Use your satellite internet for basic internet purposes.
Zimmer explained that there are two easy ways to maximize your connection. The first: avoid streaming video. This eats up data fast. Instead, get TV service from a dedicated TV provider. Pro-tip: Netflix still offers DVDs by mail. Second, use an ad blocker in-browser to stop banner ads and unneeded videos from sucking up space.
If you’re options are already limited to satellite internet, your TV provider is probably satellite-based too — DirecTV or Dish Network. But no, you can’t use the same satellite dish for both. TV dishes are only capable of receiving signals; internet connections need to both upload and download information.
Satellite customer service is the worst of the worst.
Internet service providers already have a terrible reputation for customer service and satellite providers are at the bottom of that already low ranking. Consumer Reports reader scores gave HughesNet a 52, the lowest out of all internet providers, and Exede at 53 is not much better. That means barely half of satellite internet customers are satisfied with their service. Granted, some of those ratings could be a result of the nature of satellite internet. The value of price for speed is pretty terrible in comparison to cable and fiber-optic providers, but that’s a necessary evil with the limited technology. If satellite is your only option, brace yourself for poor communication and potential billing discrepancies.
But the technology is improving.
Satellite technology makes sense for worldwide coverage and access; it’ll just be a while until speeds are competitive with DSL. OneWeb is working with SpaceX to manufacture satellites for the first time. According to its website, “This initial production of 900 satellites is planned for launch into low-Earth orbit beginning in 2018, to deliver affordable internet access globally.” These new satellites could reach market-competitive internet speeds of 100 Mbps. So, don’t count satellite internet out yet; the service will inevitably improve.