The top performers in our review are Exede, the Gold Award winner; HughesNet, the Silver Award winner; and dishNET, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 4 services.
Today, cable and fiber optic services offer the fastest high-speed internet access available and can be found virtually everywhere in metropolitan and urban areas. Unfortunately, access to these technologies is limited or nonexistent in rural areas, meaning you used to be stuck with slow internet if you lived outside highly populated areas. However, over the past few years, satellite internet providers have developed the capability of offering speeds that are comparable to some cable services and far superior to dial-up services.
Satellite internet is ideal for people living in rural areas who don't have access to other internet providers, such as cable or fiber optic services. Essentially, satellite internet providers offer coverage over virtually the entire lower 48 states, with some coverage in Alaska, Hawaii and even Puerto Rico, meaning you don't have to rely on slow dial-up connections, which can tie up your phone line, and you get access to fast internet regardless of where you live.
Integral to how satellite internet works are the satellites themselves, which are positioned over 22,000 miles above the equator. These satellites are geostationary, which means they are always above a specific point on the earth as it rotates. The first internet satellites successfully brought the internet to a larger audience, but the rates were incredibly slow. Modern satellites, however, use more advanced technology to transmit information, which allows for much faster internet access.
These satellites communicate with the gateway, also known as a ground station, in order to send information to and from your computer. The gateway essentially relays the internet data you request to and from the satellites, which then send the data to your home.
When you sign up for satellite internet, the company installs household equipment, which consists of an antenna dish and a modem. The antenna is located outside of your house and is generally 2 or 3 feet in diameter. The antenna must have an unobstructed view of the sky, called the line of sight, in order to communicate clearly with the satellite. Because internet satellites are located over the equator, you'll need a clear line of sight to the south in order to get a good signal.
Finally, the antenna is connected to a modem, which you connect to your computer with an Ethernet cable to start using the internet. You can think of this whole process as a delivery system of sorts. You request data, such as simply going to a website, and the gateway transmits the data to the satellite, which then relays the data toward your house, and your antenna catches the information for you to use.
Satellite internet is a vast improvement over conventional dial-up because it delivers a high-speed internet connection without tying up a telephone line. The best satellite internet providers, which we found to be Exede, HughesNet and dishNET, provide high-speed internet in the most rural parts of the country. To learn more about this type of internet service, browse our in-depth satellite internet reviews and articles.
The first thing we looked for out of all the internet service providers we reviewed is the connection speeds each company offers. These speeds are different depending on whether you are downloading information, which is the downstream data, or uploading information, known as upstream data.
Downstream speeds are always faster than upload speeds and can range from about 0.5 MBps to over 10 MBps. The download speed can affect how long it takes to buffer a movie or download music or photos. Upload speeds can range from 100 KBps to 3 MBps, and this affects how long it takes to share videos, pictures or music on social media sites.
Each company we reviewed offers multiple internet speed plans, ranging from cheaper, low-data plans to more expensive, high-data plans. Most companies offer a tool to help you assess how much data you use to determine which service plan is right for you.
Due to how satellite internet works, each plan comes with a cap on the data you can use per month. What this essentially means is that you are given X amount of data to use per month depending on your service plan. The amount of data you are allotted depends on your plan, but plans typically range from 5GB to 25GB of data per month. Regardless of your internet service provider, if you go over your allotted data amount, your internet speeds will be throttled, limiting you to slow internet connections until the next month. However, some companies allow you to pay for more data once you go over to give you fast connections again.
Another thing to look at in satellite internet providers is whether or not the company offers unlimited, unmetered or extra internet access during off-peak or early-bird hours. This time period ranges from around midnight to 8 a.m., depending on the service provider, and it allows you to download any large files without it counting against your allotted data for the month.
Another thing to consider before you make a decision about your satellite internet provider is the company's customer support. Look for a company that offers 24/7 technical support in case you run into any issues while you browse the internet on the weekend or early in the morning. Also look for companies that utilize multiple means of contact, such as telephone, email and live chat support.
After examining satellite internet companies, we determined Exede, our Gold Award winner; HughesNet, our Silver Award winner; and dishNET, the Bronze Award winner, are the best satellite internet providers available today. Each of these companies offers superior performance in regards to connection speeds and data plans, which are factors that weighed heavily in our rankings.
Satellite internet is a significant investment, so you should thoroughly evaluate your options before signing up with one of these services and be sure that you understand all terms and conditions. Nonetheless, if you live or work in a rural area, satellite broadband with a high-speed connection can be worth the investment.