For many parts of rural America, satellite internet is the only way to get connected. Here are the best options available.

It's not breaking news that many in rural America lack adequate internet access. There's some disagreement on the exact numbers, but a growing chorus of voices agree the US has work to do to increase and expand its internet infrastructure. 

In the meantime, satellite internet is the one internet connection type currently available to people in all 50 states. It doesn't match the speed capabilities of fiber or cable connections, but when internet access is absolutely vital (and this pandemic is shedding light on just how critical it is), satellite can play a key role. But which provider is best? 

Frankly, there aren't many choices out there. But here's what you'll find when you start to explore satellite internet access, starting with a quick look at how your top options compare.

SATELLITE INTERNET COMPANY COMPARISON

Provider Download speeds Upload speeds Lowest monthly cost* Regular monthly cost* Contract terms Equipment costs Data allowance


*Pricing per month plus taxes, as of April 16. Additional fees and terms may apply. Pricing and promotional deals vary by location and availability. All prices subject to change. May or may not be available based on service address. 

Let's dig a little deeper to see what each of these satellite providers bring to the table.

2. HughesNet

Best for speed reliability

HughesNet

HughesNet scores strong points for its consistency of service. Whereas other providers' speeds might vary from location to location, HughesNet's max download speeds -- though not as fast on the top end as others -- are available to all customers in all service areas. What's more, in 2018, a Federal Communications Commission report on broadband noted that HughesNet fared best among all participating providers for delivering actual median speeds at 150% or higher of the advertised speed.

Things to consider? While HughesNet has no hard data limits, you'll find its speeds reduced to 1-3 megabits per second once you hit your monthly data allowance. HughesNet also came up short in J.D. Power's 2020 US Residential Internet Service Provider Satisfaction Study, landing dead last in the South region for overall customer satisfaction, with 620 out of a possible 1,000 points (with the region average at 738 points). Read more about satellite internet.

 

HUGHESNET PLANS AND PRICES

Plan Max download speeds Max upload speeds Starting monthly cost* Regular monthly cost (after 6 months)* Contract terms Data allowance

HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps 3Mbps $40 $60 Two years 10GB

HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps 3Mbps $50 $70 Two years 20GB

HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps 3Mbps $80 $100 Two years 30GB

HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps 3Mbps $130 $150 Two years 50GB

*Pricing per month plus taxes, as of April 16. Additional fees and terms may apply. Pricing and promotional deals vary by location and availability. All prices subject to change. May or may not be available based on service address.

3. Viasat

Best for versatility of plans

Viasat

Viasat lets you choose a plan that best fits your needs. Those plans include some that are slower than what you'll find with HughesNet, but also several that are faster. Packages also come with more data -- up to 150GB -- though, similar to HughesNet, you may find your data "deprioritized" if you go over your monthly data allowance.

Viasat also flexes its versatility muscles with its satellite/DSL hybrid offering, Viasat Flex. This service, available at no extra cost to rural areas within AT&T's DSL network, aims to improve signal reliability and lower latency.

All of that said, Viasat doesn't give you the opportunity to buy equipment. That might seem like a bonus when you consider that HughesNet charges $450 if you want to buy your gear (which includes installation costs) and Starlink devices currently cost $499 -- but that also means you can't avoid the additional monthly equipment rental fee of $13. After three years or so, you'll have paid more in those Viasat fees than you would have by buying HughesNet or Starlink's equipment upfront. Read more about satellite internet.

 

SEE AT VIASAT

VIASAT PLANS AND PRICES

Plan Max download speeds Max upload speeds Starting monthly cost* Regular monthly cost (after 3 months)* Contract terms Data allowance

Unlimited Bronze 12 12Mbps 3Mbps $70 $100 Two years 40GB

Unlimited Silver 25 25Mbps 3Mbps $100 $150 Two years 60GB

Unlimited Gold 50 50Mbps 3Mbps $150 $200 Two years 100GB

Unlimited Platinum 100 100Mbps 3Mbps $200 $250 Two years 150GB

*Pricing per month plus taxes, as of April 16. Additional fees and terms may apply. Pricing and promotional deals vary by location and availability. All prices subject to change. May or may not be available based on service address.

4. Starlink

Best potential

When eccentric billionaire Elon Musk isn't garnering headlines with his Neuralink brain implant project or trolling social media by revamping his Twitter bio, he's been making some noteworthy progress with his Starlink satellite internet project. Granted, it is still in a beta test -- meaning, it's not available to everyone but currently only to approximately 10,000 customers -- but the early results, as shared by our own John Kim, are promising.

First, at 150Mbps, the max download speeds are higher than those offered by HughesNet and Viasat. In fact, Musk boasted in February that Starlink should be able to hit speeds closer to 300Mbps by the end of 2021.

Second, Starlink will aim to keep things as simple as possible by going with only one plan offering. Recently, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said there are "no plans" to introduce tiered pricing or packages.

Lastly, while the current equipment fee of $499 is steeper than those charged by either HughesNet or Viasat, Starlink does not require a two-year contract and also features truly unlimited data, which is pretty considerable as prospective upgrades go for anyone stuck with satellite internet. Those facts could certainly change once Starlink emerges from its beta program, but they're intriguing aspects of the pitch that could help set it apart from the competition. Read our hands-on experience with Starlink.

 

STARLINK PLANS AND PRICES

Plan Max download speeds Max upload speeds Starting monthly cost* Regular monthly cost (after 3 months)* Contract terms Data allowance

Starlink beta 150Mbps 20Mbps $99 $99 None Unlimited

*Pricing per month plus taxes, as of April 16. Additional fees and terms may apply. Beta test not available to all locations. All prices subject to change.