Cable and fiber optic services have spoiled most of the nation with high-speed internet, but if you are in a rural area without cable, you don't need to cruise in the slow lane of the information highway. Satellite internet services have come a long way, providing speeds comparable to some cable services and far better than dial-up.
Satellite internet depends on geostationary satellites, which orbit at the same speed as the Earth's rotation and thus remain stationary relative to a location on the Earth's surface. The satellites send and receive internet signals. To receive satellite internet at home, you need a special satellite dish or receiver and a service contract with an internet satellite provider.
Satellite internet is ideal for homes and businesses in rural areas where cable, fiber or even DSL internet is not available. Satellite 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, including 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 through our in-depth satellite internet reviews and articles on satellite internet.
Most people have a limited number of choices for satellite internet service, even among the four services we reviewed here. The providers will ask you for your ZIP code to determine if their satellite covers your area. All of them cover most of the continental U.S., however. Satellite broadband services vary in terms of speed, bandwidth thresholds and service features.
Speeds & Threshold
Connection speed refers to how quickly you can download and upload data. Internet speed is normally measured in either kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits per second (Mbps); 1024 Kbps equals 1 Mbps. With the improvements in satellite technology, most speeds are measured in Mbps. The satellite internet services we reviewed do not guarantee their network speeds because several things affect speeds, including weather, how many people are using the service at a given time and even your computer's configuration. The maximum speeds listed by the services are baselines. Look for a provider with average connection speeds that aren't drastically lower than its advertised speeds.
Whereas connection speed refers to how fast the connection transmits data, bandwidth measures the actual amount of data you can download and upload. Most service providers have a monthly bandwidth cap, known as a Fair Access Policy. If you exceed the threshold, your provider will throttle your bandwidth to reduce your speed and usage for the remainder of the 30-day period to ensure that a few select users don't monopolize network bandwidth at the expense of other users.
Many services have bandwidth guides to help you determine which plan best matches your usage, but as a rule of thumb, if you're a heavy internet user, meaning you frequently stream music, download media or watch high-definition videos, look for a provider with a high data allowance. If you use the internet primarily to browse the web and use email, you won't need as much bandwidth. And if you are concerned about exceeding your data allowance, opt for a company that lets you purchase additional data and offers tracking tools to manage your bandwidth usage.
If you are a heavy user but also use the internet during off-hours, such as late at night or early in the morning, look for services that grant unmetered or unlimited bandwidth during off-peak hours.
Connection speeds and bandwidth thresholds are crucial, but they aren't the only factors to examine when choosing a satellite internet company; service features can also be an important determinant. Consider how many email accounts are included in each plan and how much storage the service allots per account. Look for flexible purchasing options, such as a 30-day return policy and discounts for bundling with other services. Additionally, make sure any satellite internet provider you consider provides a download manager, which enables you to schedule downloads and computer updates during low-traffic hours or when you use the least amount of bandwidth, such as nighttime.
Check into where a satellite internet provider offers service; the satellite signals don't reach everywhere with equal intensity. Most provide service throughout the contiguous United States and parts of Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but results can vary. Most providers furnish service based on your ZIP code rather than your state.
Finally, if you are a "snowbird," meaning you live in different parts of the country in summer and winter, or if you take extended vacations, look for services with vacation plans, which give you a reduced rate for the months you are away from home, allowing you to keep your service without having to pay for service you don't use. Finally, if you’re an RV user, camp a lot or have a boat, you'll be interested in the mobile satellite internet options some providers offer.
Help & Support
Your use of the internet is most likely not restricted to weekday business hours, so your provider's customer service shouldn't be either. The best satellite internet services provide 24/7 technical support via telephone and live chat. They also have a customer service web portal where you can manage your account and an online knowledgebase to help you troubleshoot common issues.
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.
At TopTenREVIEWS We Do the Research So You Don't Have To.™