The Best Satellite Internet
- Advertised speeds range from 12 to 30 Mbps
- Most plans come with 150 GB of data
- Three-year price lock guarantee
The Best Satellite Internet
There are two big players in the satellite internet market: HughesNet and Viasat. Choosing between the two means choosing between paying for speed or paying for data; we think most people will be happier with faster speeds. HughesNet, which offers a relatively fast 25 Mbps across all four of its data plans, is our top pick. With HughesNet-level speeds, your connection can handle more: downloading music, uploading photos, posting on social media. You can even stream video, if you opt for a plan with enough data. To hit these speeds on Viasat, you’ll need to jump to one of its two top tiers and pay a premium: $100 a month compared to $50 with HughesNet.
HughesNet has faster plans at lower prices than Viasat, and it also has a longer history with the FCC of delivering — and exceeding — its advertised speeds. That means you’re more likely to actually get what you pay for. (In 2016, Viasat only delivered 71 percent of its advertised 12 Mbps; HughesNet delivered 152 percent of its advertised 5–10 Mbps.)
Data allowances are Viasat’s only edge over HughesNet. Most Viasat plans offer 150GB of data per month before throttling your speeds back to single-digit Mbps; HughesNet’s highest-tiered plan maxes out at 50GB. That said, Viasat is more expensive, so it’s only worth considering if you actually use that much data.
How We Found the Best Satellite Internet
We looked at the only two nationwide providers.
According to Jameson Zimmer from BroadbandNow, a website dedicated to all things internet, “The satellite market has been consolidating lately, just like the wired broadband market. HughesNet and Viasat are really the only two options.” In the last 10 years, two of the satellite providers that were available nationwide were absorbed by bigger providers (EarthLink and Wildblue) and one was phased out entirely (dishNET).
“The satellite market has been consolidating lately, just like the wired broadband market. HughesNet and Viasat are really the only two options.”
There are a few regional providers out there, like Blackfoot available in Montana and Big Bend Telephone Company in West Texas, but we didn’t include them in this review. Instead, we zeroed-in on the two options most people have to choose from — HughesNet and Viasat — and did a deep-dive on their speeds, data limits, and costs.
Satellite Internet Reviews
HughesNet: Our Top Pick
With satellite internet, every megabit of speed matters. HughesNet is our top pick because it has a better track record of actually delivering the speeds it advertises. On top of that, we found its data plans to be competitively priced, and appreciated its unique data-saving and tracking features to help manage usage.
Satellite internet plans depend on where you live. With both HughesNet and Viasat, speeds, data allowances, and prices can change depending on where you live in relation to the satellite, as well as how many people in your area are tapping into that satellite’s beam. The examples we use throughout this review are for plans available in Seattle in December 2017. Your mileage may vary.
Satellite is inherently slower than other forms of broadband internet — information literally has to travel to space and back. While traditional cable internet providers boast speeds between 100 and 300 Mbps without breaking a sweat, HughesNet and Viasat are duking it out in another weight class entirely: double digit speeds between 12 and 30 Mbps, depending on what’s available in your area.
The key to speed: How well your satellite internet provider executes what it advertises. The magic of marketing means a provider can claim plans with speeds “up to” 25 or 30 Mbps, but doesn’t have to deliver. The FCC has been tracking actual versus advertised speeds of internet service providers since 2011, and in its most recent report from 2016, HughesNet met and exceeded its advertised speeds — Viasat did not.
The overwhelming majority of ISPs performed within 10 percent of last year’s results. The exception for this was satellite ISPs. Hughes’ actual vs. advertised speeds ratio went down from 203 percent to 152 percent while Viasat’s went down from 107 percent to 71 percent.
Yes, speed performance for both HughesNet and Viasat dropped between 2015 and 2016, “likely the result of increased subscribership and consumer usage,” according to the report. Even so, where Viasat saw a dramatic drop in performance, HughesNet exceeded expectations for the second year in a row.
There’s an obvious caveat here: the FCC’s report is always a year behind any provider’s plans and technology. HughesNet’s stat of delivering 152 percent of its advertised speeds is from 2016, before it launched its Gen 5 satellite, when it was only offering 5–10 Mbps. We won’t know how well it has delivered on its promise of a comparatively whopping 25 Mbps until the FCC’s 2017 report, due to publish any day now.
That said, if 2017 is anything like 2016, Hughesnet will have dramatically outpaced Viasat. Exceeding an advertised 25 Mbps by 52 percent means you’d actually be running at 38 Mbps — downright blistering in the world of satellite. In comparison, Viasat’s plans, which currently range between 12 and 30 Mbps, would only deliver between 8 and 21 Mbps.
When it comes to data limits, HughesNet takes a tiered approach. In most areas, you get 25 Mbps no matter what, then choose 10, 20, 30, or 50 GB per month; plans range from $50 to $130 per month. These prices are around $20–$30 cheaper per month for new customers, and jump up after 24 months. (We’ll walk you through how to know how much data you need a little later.)
Data versus speed is where comparing plans between HughesNet and Viasat gets a little tricky. Where HughesNet tiers its data allowances, most plans with Viasat come with a massive 150GB of data per month — Viasat tiers its speeds. If your data needs are demanding enough to exceed 50 GB per month, Viasat starts to become a more realistic contender: Its plans are more expensive, but making up 100 GB of data with HughesNet’s add-on “data tokens” would add $300 to your monthly bill.
HughesNet Satellite Internet Plans and Pricing
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Prices in parentheses are 24-month promotions for new customers.
Viasat Satellite Internet Plans and Pricing
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Prices in parentheses are 3-month promotions for new customers.
Data tiers aren’t hard-and-fast cutoffs. Both HughesNet and Viasat tout “unlimited data!” with “no hard data limits!” And those claims aren’t inaccurate; you won’t be cut off from the internet if you use up your monthly data allowance. Your speeds will just throttle way back to 1–3 Mbps — enough for general web surfing and email, but not much else.
To ease stress around data limitations, HughesNet offers an extra 50 GB 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 and shows, or conduct computer updates — anything that’s a big data drain. It’s a pain to schedule heavy internet usage for the wee hours of the morning, but it’s much more cost-effective than coughing up for extra data if you go over. (Viasat offers an unmetered free zone for its one 10 GB plan; it’s three hours shorter.)
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.
You can purchase your HughesNet equipment, satellite dish, and WiFi-enabled modem for about $450 with installation, or you can lease the equipment for $15 per month. Installation has to be done professionally and could cost $99 (though HughesNet is currently advertising free installation). We recommend buying the equipment upfront if possible. It’ll pay for itself after about two years — the required contract commitment for any HughesNet plan.
How to Choose the Best Satellite Internet Plan
Step 1: Determine how much speed you need.
At 25 Mbps across all plans, HughesNet currently offers the fastest satellite internet on the market. But do you have the need for that much speed? To help you gauge what different speed thresholds feel like, we pulled data from providers’ websites and verified our findings with the team at BroadbandNow.
In short: HughesNet is faster and can do more at a higher quality for less money — but if you don’t need the speed (and are okay with paying for more than you might get) you could get seven times the data for not much more cash by opting for Viasat’s 12 Mbps/150 GB plan.
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Step 2: Figure out how much data you use.
Data is measured in gigabytes (GB), and is used whenever you send something, receive something, download from, or upload to the internet. Satellite internet plans work similarly to your phone plan; your data is 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 (typically 1–3 Mbps) until the start of your next billing cycle. This will allow some web browsing, but no video streaming or file downloading — and that web browsing will be slow enough you may resort to the local paper for news and sudoku.
If you stream video at all, you're more likely to struggle with these 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. That’s 66 GB to binge all five seasons of Orange is the New Black — more than any HughesNet plan offers in a month.
Zimmer told us that, “Satellite data plans are designed with basic activities in mind: checking email, cruising Facebook, surfing the web. Tiered 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.”
If you’re only using your internet connection to check and send email, and occasionally browse the web, 10 GB will cover your needs. If you need internet that can support multiple people, or you like to stream media or download files, definitely consider HughesNet 50 GB plan – and consider if the speed/data tradeoff with Viasat’s 150 GB plans are worth it for your home’s internet usage.
Did You Know?
Satellite internet is best for the basics.
Zimmer explained that there are two easy ways to maximize an inherently limited ISP. The first: avoid streaming video. This eats up data fast. Instead, get TV service from a dedicated TV provider. (And, pro tip: Netflix still offers DVDs by mail.) Second, use an ad blocker in-browser (we like AdBlock) to stop banner ads and unneeded videos from sucking up space.
If your 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 satellite dishes are only capable of receiving signals; internet connections need to both upload and download information.
Be prepared for “lag.”
Latency, or lag, is the bane of satellite internet. Data’s trip to space and back means there is a noticeable delay between action and result (for example, clicking on a link in a web browser and waiting for that page to load). According to Zimmer, lag is “especially painful for anything that involves real-time back-and-forth of data between you and a website server,” like online gaming and video chatting. If lag is unacceptable, Zimmer recommends exploring your options for a fixed wireless provider ike Rise Broadband.
"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."
There are some instances where satellite internet is a better option than other types of broadband internet.
If you have the option for cable or DSL, it’s typically going to be better than satellite internet: cheaper, faster, no lag. But satellite might still be the way to go if you’re on the fringes of your DSL’s range.
DSL internet service relies on a customer’s proximity to something called a digital subscriber access mulitplexer (DSLAM for short), the network device that connects you to the internet. These live in local exchange offices in your area, and the farther away from your DSLAM you are, the slower your DSL internet will be. It’s pretty rare, but Zimmer told us that service on the edge of a DSLAM’s range could be painfully slow — we’re talking 3 Mbps download and a fraction of 1 Mbps upload. If that’s the case for your home, satellite is obviously the better choice.
Unfortunately, there’s no public way to track where DSLAMs are located, but Zimmerman has this tip: “Generally your DSL speed shouldn't be less than 30 percent of what's advertised for your area. If you have network issues, most DSL service providers have a 30-day satisfaction — use it.” Then, switch to satellite.
Satellite customer service is the worst of the worst.
All internet service providers have a terrible reputation for customer service and, unfortunately, satellite providers are at the bottom of that already low ranking. Consumer Reports reader scores gave HughesNet a 52 in customer satisfaction, the lowest out of all internet providers, and Exede (now Viasat) is not any better at 53 since “differences of fewer than 5 points in the overall score are not meaningful.”
So, 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, and it was 2016 the last time Consumer Reports surveyed users — before HughesNet launched its new, speedier satellite. Overall scores could improve, but brace yourself for frustrating communication with your provider.
There’s hope: Satellite internet technology is improving.
Satellite technology makes sense for worldwide coverage and access; it’ll just be a while until speeds are competitive with other types of broadband internet. 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. Of course, we’ll be tracking them and will update this review accordingly.
The Best Satellite Internet: Summed-Up