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The top satellite internet services compared: Starlink and alternatives

While most people are happy with broadband or cellular internet, there are times when only satellite internet will do. Check out the top three providers in the field for reliable remote internet access.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer
HughesNet | Best satellite internet overall
hughesnet.jpg
HughesNet
Best satellite internet overall
View now View at AllConnect
Starlink | Best for heavy data users
starlink-and-map-2
Starlink
Best for heavy data users
View now View at Starlink
Viasat | Best for high speeds
viasat-dish-gettyimages.jpg
Viasat
Best for high speeds
View now View at Viasat

For town and city dwellers, it's difficult to comprehend the struggles of rural areas when it comes to accessing the internet. Broadband and cellular internet can range from abysmal to non-existent, making satellite internet a vital resource for those who need to stay connected and even work remotely. 

Also: The best hotspots

However,  it can be challenging to determine which one is the best fit for your needs. In the US, there are three primary providers of satellite broadband: HughesNet, Starlink, and Viasat. Each company and service has its own pros and cons. 

So, how do they compare to one another? Let's take a closer look and find out.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Eligible for the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program
  • Customers report reliable service
  • No hard data caps
  • Extra GB allowance per month for off-peak use
Cons
  • Slower speed options
  • High equipment costs
More Details

Features

  • HughesNet offers no hard data limits, reducing speed to 1-3 Mbps instead
  • Customers can access the Bonus Zone, receiving an additional 50GB of data from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m
  • The Video Data Saver feature compresses streamed video to save bandwidth
  • HughesNet provides built-in Wi-Fi for easy connectivity
  • Equipment can be leased for $14.99 per month or purchased outright for $349.98
  • HughesNet requires a 24-month contract for internet services

HughesNet is an established name in the satellite internet service space, and it offers a broad range of plans to accommodate for light and moderate internet users. The company provides different data allowances, ranging from 15GB to100 GB, with corresponding monthly rates of $65, $75, $100, and $175.

HughesNet has the added advantage of offering customers an extra 50GB per month for off-peak use. It does not impose hard data limits, which means you can still access the internet even if you've reached your data allowance. However, the company may reduce the internet speed to 1-3 Mbps, which can affect the user experience.

Lastly, HughesNet is available in the contiguous US, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and wherever there is a "clear view of the Southern Sky." The company requires customers to sign a 24-month contract.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • High speeds
  • No contract
  • Generous 1 TB bandwidth
Cons
  • Hefty setup fees
More Details

Features:

  • Starlink requires a one-time equipment fee of $599 for the standard service and $2,500 for the Premium service
  • Provides two simple plans to choose from, starting at $110 per month.
  • Users who exceed the Priority Access data usage limit of 1TB will be switched to Basic Access
  • Does not require you to sign a contract, allowing them to cancel their service at any time without incurring additional charges

A new name -- but a big name. Elon Musk's Starlink cuts through the confusing raft of options offered by other companies and has just two plans: Starlink 1TB and Starlink Premium 1TB, priced at $110 per month and $135 per month, respectively. Customers who exceed the Priority Access data usage limit of 1TB will then be switched to Basic Access.

For heavy users, Starlink is a no-brainer option. However, customers should note that they have to pay for the hardware upfront, unlike other providers that offer free equipment. There is a one-time equipment fee of $599 for Starlink and $2,500 for Starlink Premium. 

There is no contract, though. 

Customers can cancel their service at any time without incurring additional charges. So, despite the upfront costs, Starlink is still an attractive option for many. It's available in select regions in the US, Canada, and abroad, and the company has nearly half a million customers and is active on all continents.

viasat-dish-gettyimages.jpg
Image: Getty Images
Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Eligible for the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program
  • Faster download speed
  • Higher data options
Cons
  • 150-300GB data options are expensive compared to Starlink
More Details

Features:

  • Viasat offers an introductory discount of $20-$50 for three months.
  • Faster download speeds and higher data options
  • Eligible for the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program
  • Data Extender automatically streams video at DVD quality when enabled
  • Equipment lease of $12.99/month, with an option to purchase equipment for $300
  • Requires a 24-month contract

Viasat offers a broad range of plans at decent prices to suit all but the heaviest of users. The plans start at $50 per month for 40GB and go up to $200 per month for 300GB. (All plans offer unlimited lower-speed "standard data" after high-speed data is exhausted.)

The company is eligible for the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program, too, further increasing its appeal. The downside of Viasat is that things do start to get pricey for heavier users, and the 24-month contract means users will be penalized if they want to switch providers.

Additional features include a $20-$50 introductory discount for three months, a Data Extender that automatically streams video at DVD quality (when enabled), and an equipment lease of $12.99 per month. You can also purchase equipment for $300.

Viasat is accessible in almost all areas of the US, including some international regions and Puerto Rico.

What is the best satellite internet service?

Overall, HughesNet is the best satellite internet service -- especially for those who need basic internet services in rural or remote areas where other internet options are limited or not available. It offers a variety of plans and options to suit different needs and budgets. With max download speeds of 25Mbps and upload speeds of 3Mbps, HughesNet is a suitable option for basic internet use. Additionally, HughesNet has been in the satellite internet business for decades, making it one of the most experienced providers in the industry. 

Best satellite internet serviceMax speedsRegular monthly rateContractMonthly equipment costsData allowance
HughesNet25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload$65-$1752 years$15 or $350 one-time purchase15-100GB
Starlink20-250Mbps download, 5-30Mbps upload$110-$135None$599 one-time purchase (or $2,500 for Premium)1TB
Viasat12-150Mbps download, 3Mbps upload$50-$2002 years$15 or $300 one-time purchase40-300GB

Which satellite internet service is right for you?

Choosing the right satellite internet service can be a daunting task. This table might make it easier for you to decide:

Choose this satellite internet service...If you want...
HughesNetThe best option for low to medium data users. Reliable service, no hard data caps, extra GB allowance per month for off-peak use, and a broad range of plans to accommodate light and moderate internet users.
StarlinkHigh speeds, generous 1 TB bandwidth, and no contract.
ViasatLots of different plans and offerings with faster download speeds and higher data options and accessibility in almost all areas of the US, including some international regions and Puerto Rico.

How did we choose these satellite internet services?

There are three big names in the internet satellite business, and these three companies offer different plans and options covering a range of speeds and data bandwidths for different prices. 

What I've done here is break down the offerings available and examine the pros and cons for each. I also examined customer reviews to ensure that the quality of both the satellite internet service and customer service is acceptable. My goal was to present a comprehensive overview of each provider's strengths and weaknesses to help you make an informed decision

It's important to note that internet speeds -- especially satellite internet speeds -- are dependent on many factors, from the load on the infrastructure to the weather, and these can reduce the maximum rated speeds advertised.

What is satellite internet?

Satellite internet is wireless internet transmitted from satellites orbiting the Earth. Customers will need specialised equipment and a satellite dish to access these services.

How much speed do you need?

At 250Mbps for its highest plan, Starlink currently offers the fastest satellite internet on the market. But do you really need that much speed? While more speed sounds good on paper, there's no point paying for it unless you're actually making use of it.

There are also a number of misconceptions related to download speeds. A higher download speed doesn't mean a better, more reliable connection, and it doesn't mean that you get a more reliable connection.


12Mbps25Mbps250Mbps
Use amountLightModerateHeavy
Web activity*Emailing, web browsing, light SD streamingEmailing, web browsing, video-conferencing, SD and HD video streaming, music downloadingMultiple devices streaming HD or 4K video simultaneously, downloading large files, gaming, video conferencing on multiple devices.

*Activity estimates assume 4-8 connected devices

How much data bandwidth do you need?

Data is measured in gigabytes (GB), and it is important to realize that this includes both data that you are downloading and uploading. Every time you send or receive something, download a file, upload a file, or back up to the cloud, you are eating into your data allowance.

Satellite internet plans are similar to cellphone plans, but with one big difference. If you go over your satellite data limit, you will not be completely cut off from the internet. Instead, you will be restricted to slower speeds (typically around 1-3 Mbps) until your next billing cycle. This restricted service will allow for web browsing, but activities such as video streaming or file downloading will be affected.

To give you some perspective, here's what 1 GB of data translates to :

  • About an hour of Netflix at standard definition
  • About 30 minutes of YouTube at 1080p
  • About 12 hours of scrolling social media
  • About 6 hours of interacting on social media (uploading photos and video)
  • 16 hours of web browsing
  • About 5.5 hours of FaceTime/Skype

All three satellite providers offer customers a way to keep an eye on data usage within a given month, so you can be mindful of how much data you are using and whether you're close to being dropped onto the lower-speed data plans.

Why is satellite internet so expensive?

Satellite internet is expensive because of the space-based infrastructure that is used. Launching satellites into space is not cheap, and ground stations are necessary to control the satellites. Additionally, transmitting data via satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth costs much more than sending it via wires. The equipment that users need is also more specialized and requires custom installation.

All of these factors contribute to the overall cost of satellite internet.

Is satellite internet better than broadband/cellular internet?

It depends.

While Starlink has certainly shaken up the market by offering higher speeds and more data bandwidth for your money, I would still consider satellite internet as a last-ditch alternative where decent broadband or cellular service is not available. The higher equipment costs, along with the bigger monthly costs, make it a pricier choice.

On top of that, latency (the time it takes your data to go from you to the destination, or vice versa) is always going to be a concern with satellite internet because every packet of data has to be beamed up to and down from satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the Earth.

What is Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)?

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) provides a discount of up to $30 per month on internet service costs for eligible households. Those who live on qualifying Tribal lands may qualify for a discount of up to $75 per month.

More details can be found on the FCC website.

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