The Best Satellite Internet Providers
There are only two nationwide names in the satellite internet world: HughesNet and Viasat. To determine our top pick, we dug into reports from the FCC and compared what matters most — overall speed and affordability. Then we looked at extra data options, installation fees, and technology to find the best satellite internet provider for most people.
How we chose the best satellite internet
Satellite internet is best for those who live beyond city limits and don’t have access to faster speeds provided by DSL or cable. But living in a rural area shouldn’t limit you from having a solid gateway to the internet. There are two major players in this arena, As the satellite internet market has become increasingly consolidated, two major players are left: HughesNet and Viasat provide the widest satellite internet availability in the country and outshine the competition, covering all 50 states and Puerto Rico. We suggest plugging in your own addresses to see what these two providers offer in your area.
Speed and data options
While traditional cable providers boast speeds in the triple and quadruple digits without a sweat, satellite internet has only recently celebrated bringing 100 Mbps into its realm — because signals have to travel to space and back. If satellite internet is your only option, we wanted to make sure you have choices when it comes to internet speed and data caps. There are some regional providers out there — like Blackfoot in Montana and Big Bend Telephone Company in West Texas — but we didn’t include them in this review, mainly because the majority of the country can’t access them.
We prioritized affordability in our search, because satellite internet has never among the most cost-effective providers out there. So we looked at the relative cost of plans from each provider, taking into account speed tiers versus data caps. HughesNet gives you four pricing options, and Viasat gives you seven (depending on your area), which means you have some flexibility to choose the plan that works best for you.
The 2 best satellite internet providers
User-friendliness and affordability
No hard data caps
Slower speed options
Why we chose it
HughesNet has been recognized by the FCC twice for delivering what it advertises. The FCC has been tracking actual versus advertised speeds of internet service providers since 2011, and in the FCC’s most recent report from 2016, HughesNet exceeded its advertised speeds by an average of 50 percent. Additionally, more than 85 percent of HughesNet customers got advertised speeds or faster, compared to around 75 percent of Viasat’s customers experiencing speeds far slower than what the company advertised.
From the FCC:
“Chart 5: The percentage of consumers whose median download speed was (a) greater than 95%, (b) between 80% and 95%, and (c) less than 80% of the advertised download speed”
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No hard data caps
HughesNet takes a tiered approach to data limits. In most areas, you’re offered speeds of 25 Mbps and choose between 10, 20, 30 or 50GB per month, based on your needs. And with its Usage Meter app, you can calculate how much data you use on average, and the app will alert you if you’re running low. If you want more information on the data plan that’s right for you, check out this outline.
HughesNet won’t leave you stranded if you go over your monthly allowance, so there’s no need to fret over losing internet halfway through the month. Keep in mind, though, that HughesNet will slow your speeds to 1-3 Mbps if you go over your data allowance, and speeds will remain at these levels until the beginning of the next billing cycle. Customers can purchase data tokens to restore speeds to normal levels.
To offset the data throttling, HughesNet’s does offer access to 50GB of “Bonus Bytes” of free data per month when used between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. While it’s not the most convenient time for internet use, this offer helps direct traffic during less congested times — and it gives you a window of time to download those large files or software updates you were originally afraid would drain all your data.
Points to consider
Limited speed options
While traditional cable internet providers can offer much faster speeds, HughesNet and Viasat have, historically, been competing over speeds in the double digits, ranging from 12 Mbps – 30 Mbps. Viasat’s new satellite offers users the option to purchase 100 Mbps per month — a feature HughesNet has yet to offer. However, HughesNet does offer 25 Mbps with all of its plans, even the cheapest ones. The company also plans to roll out a new satellite with 100 Mbps capability by 2021.
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 in about two years — the required contract commitment for any HughesNet plan.
HughesNet isn’t known for its customer service, as many have cited unhelpful support and early termination fees. But this is pretty standard across the satellite internet market due to the nature of its slower speeds and limited capabilities. HughesNet does offer an extra customer service feature known as Express Repair, which is a plan that can help you cover some loss of service or equipment malfunctions.
High speed and data availability
No option to purchase equipment
Why we chose it
High speed and data availability
If your household is constantly streaming, gaming from several devices and downloading large files, Viasat might be for you. Where HughesNet tiers its data allowances, most plans with Viasat come with a massive 150GB of data per month. Instead, 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.
Viasat offers unlimited data on all of its plans, which sounds exciting in theory – the catch is that it’s not really unlimited. In reality, every plan comes with a certain, relatively undisclosed, data threshold that could be implemented in times of heavy traffic.
(before they could start prioritizing others over you)
Like HughesNet, Viasat will start slowing your speeds if you “go over” your monthly data allowance, but it won’t cut you off or charge you more. Viasat lists the types of usage that might cause you to go over your data allowance, including extensive use of downloading, backup services, gaming and viruses or malware.
Points to consider
Overall, Viasat is more expensive than HughesNet for the quality and types of services available, although it’s your only option if you want satellite internet with speeds of more than 25 Mbps. Viasat also ups the monthly cost of its plans after three months, which can be a surprise to customers who didn’t read the fine print.
No option to purchase equipment
With Viasat, you can’t buy your equipment like you can with HughesNet. You can either lease it for around $10 a month or pay $300 upfront for the life of the equipment, which we recommend doing if possible (it’ll be cheaper in the end). However, all equipment must be returned after cancelling the service; any unreturned equipment will lead to extra fees.
How to choose the best satellite internet plan
Answer the essential questions
It’s best to start your search by asking yourself what you need most out of satellite internet. If you have several people in your home with several devices, you’ll need more speed to accommodate everybody. If you’re more concerned with price and reaching the limit of certain data allowances, that might lead to a different set of priorities. Once you answer these questions, it’ll be easier to narrow your search.
Determine how much speed you need
At 100 Mbps for its highest plan, Viasat currently offers the fastest satellite internet on the market. But do you really need that much speed? Although 100 Mbps for $200 per month is cheaper per Mbps than 25 Mbps at $49.99, that particular price and speed might not be feasible or necessary for everyone – Viasat’s 100 Mbps speeds aren’t available everywhere, either. Nick Reese, co-founder and writer at Broadband Now, said one of the biggest misconceptions in buying satellite internet is that having more Mbps leads to more usability: “Don’t pay for a lot of Mbps if you come home and online shop. Agents will upsell you.” To help you gauge what you can do with different speed thresholds, we pulled data from providers’ websites and verified our findings with the team at BroadbandNow.
|12 Mbps||25 Mbps||100 Mbps|
|Web activity*||Emailing, web browsing, light SD streaming||Emailing, web browsing, SD and some HD streaming, music downloading||Multiple devices streaming HD or 4K video simultaneously, large file downloading, real-time gaming, video conferencing.|
*Activity estimates assume 4-8 connected devices
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 speeds (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.
To give you some perspective, here is what HughesNet says you can do with 1 GB of data:
- 2 hours of video streaming
- Upload 300
- Stream 200 songs
- Load 1,024 web pages
- Send or receive 2000 emails
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.
We suggest being mindful of your internet habits and see what activities you lean more toward – if you’re a heavy video streamer, you might want to invest in a heavier data allowance per month. HughesNet and Viasat provide you with ways to check how you’re doing on data within a given month.
Satellite Internet FAQ
What is satellite internet?
Satellite internet is a type of wireless internet connection in which data is transmitted between three points: a satellite in space; a ground unit called the network operations center (or NOC) at the provider’s hub; and a satellite dish located at the customer’s home.
How can you work around the limitations of satellite internet?
Jameson Zimmer from Broadband Now explained that there are two easy ways to maximize a 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.
In what case is satellite internet preferable over other options?
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.
How is satellite internet customer service?
All internet service providers have a reputation for poor 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. However, 2016 was 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.
The best satellite internet: Summed up
10 GB – $49.99/month
20 GB – $69.99/month
30 GB – $99.99/month
50 GB – $129.99/month
12 Mbps – $70/month
25 Mbps – $100/month
50 Mbps – $150/month
100 Mbps – $200/month
Our Other Internet Reviews
Satellite internet companies not meeting your needs? Check our other reviews of internet types: