If you live in or around a large city and wish to subscribe to an Internet connection, you can likely choose from several providers and among many connection speeds. If, however, you live in a rural area or around a small town, your choice for an Internet connection would almost certainly be limited. In most cases, you would only have one landline provider and must pick between either a DSL line or a satellite connection.

In general, DSL lines are likely to provide a slower connection but can be reasonably priced. With satellite, you would get a steadier connection speed, but the service can be expensive. To help you decide which technology best suits your unique needs, below is a bulleted chart comparing the two types of service on availability and price. A more detailed discussion also follows.

DSL Internet Pros and Cons

PROS

  • Available only where telephone lines exist
  • Usually less costly
  • Less specialized equipment (so likely cheaper to buy if you wish to get your own)

CONS

  • Likely slower in rural areas

Satellite Internet Pros and Cons

PROS

  • Available almost anywhere
  • Likely faster in rural areas; more consistent speed guarantee

CONS

  • Usually more costly monthly fee
  • Satellite dish lease at extra cost

DSL Technology Overview

Today’s telecommunication companies use fiber optic lines to transmit data over their main or “trunk” lines. The fiber optic cables allow for great speed and throughput. However, as the lines branch off to reach individual homes, the fiber optic lines usually stop at an exchange/node and the signal must then be transmitted by copper lines (either coaxial cable or a twisted pair line) to reach the end user’s home. This is where speed drops off.

Though telecommunications companies have made great strides replacing copper lines with fiber optic lines, they have prioritized large cities and their surrounding suburbs because that is where the majority of their customers live. If you live in a rural area, you are likely still on a copper telephone line, and there may not be plans to install fiber optic lines in your area in the foreseeable future. The type of technology that can transmit data over these copper lines is called DSL (Digital Subscriber Line).

While DSL qualifies as a type of broadband, it is much slower than fiber optic lines connected directly to a home (Fiber to the Home) or that terminate at 1,000 feet or less from a home (Fiber to the Curb). Typical consumer-grade DSL speeds can run from 0.5 Mbps to 100 Mbps, though it can also reach up to 1000 Mbps over short distances.

In rural areas where homes can be separated by miles, however, it would be safe to assume that the higher DSL speeds are simply not available. You will likely have to settle for the typical 5–15 Mbps speeds offered by companies such as AT&T and Verizon. At these speeds, you can browse the Internet and send emails, but streaming music and video on multiple devices can be problematic.

Satellite Technology Overview

Even though DSL lines cover a large portion of the rural areas of the country, some home locations (e.g. newly constructed home in the middle of nowhere) simply do not have telephone lines. In such a case, the only way to access the Internet is through satellite transmission.

From the consumer’s end, a satellite Internet connection requires a special satellite dish outside the home to send and receive signals and a modem inside the home to convert the satellite signal into computer-readable data and vice versa. Because the satellite dish must be able to transmit and receive data, the dish from a satellite TV provider cannot be used for satellite Internet.

Once the dish and the modem have been installed, you can connect to the Internet in the same way you connect anywhere else. When you request information from, for example, a website, your request passes from your computer to the modem and then is uploaded to the satellite by the satellite dish. The satellite retransmits the request to a terrestrial station called a gateway or a NOC (network operating center), and this station then accesses the Internet to obtain the information from the website. The data is then uploaded to the satellite, transmitted back to your dish, sent to your modem, and finally to your computer so you can see the information.

Because the satellite signal has to bounce off so many locations, you might see a slight lag of a fraction of a second between the time you click on the website until the information appears on your computer. This issue is called latency, and the lag merely means the data has a long way to travel. It has nothing to do with how fast the data is transmitted to you.

Satellite data transmissions run from 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps download speed. Unless severe weather interferes with the transmission, this speed can be quite consistent anywhere satellite data can be received. At this speed range, you should have no issues streaming music and video on multiple devices.

DSL vs. Satellite: Which Provides the Faster Speed

On a theoretical level, DSL speeds can be much faster than consumer-grade satellite speeds. Some DSL providers claim that they can already deliver signals of 1000 Mbps to their customers. In contrast, only one of the two satellite Internet providers will promise up to 100 Mbps of download speed. Therefore, at least on paper, DSL is faster than satellite.

However, DSL speeds depend on several factors the provider cannot control. Most of the DSL lines are older copper lines of lesser quality, and data must travel large distances before it can reach a fiber optic line at a network node. Distance reduces speed.

As well, the DSL providers are often vague about where the copper lines end and fiber optic lines begin on their networks, so it is only possible to guess at the minimum DSL speeds at a specific location. AT&T discloses in this document that the slowest AT&T DSL download speeds range from 0.77 Mbps to 6 Mbps. Verizon represents in a F.A.Q. that their DSL ranges from 0.5 Mbps to 15 Mbps. Thus, a reasonable guess of actual DSL speeds in rural areas can be anywhere from 0.5 Mbps to 15 Mbps.

In contrast, satellite Internet provider Viasat packages advertise download speeds of 12–100 Mbps, and HughesNet packages promises a download speed of 25 Mbps. These download speeds can be achieved as long as you can receive a satellite signal. Therefore, depending on your actual location, satellite Internet might be faster than DSL.

DSL vs Satellite: Availability

DSL is generally available in most areas of the country because it relies on the existing telephone lines that have been laid down over many decades. However, if you build a new house in the middle of nowhere, then you are unlikely to have a telephone line to your house, so DSL service would not be available to you.

Satellite, in contrast, can provide service anywhere where there is a clear line of sight between your satellite dish and the satellite itself. Satellites are located in geosynchronous orbits around the equator, so for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the satellites appear to us in the southern sky. Therefore, in order to receive satellite Internet service, your satellite dish must have an unobstructed view of the southern sky.

Because a DSL connection is only possible where telephone lines exist and because a satellite dish can be set up almost anywhere, satellite Internet provides better availability.

DSL vs. Satellite: the Price for Speed

Pricing information for DSL by some of the larger providers can sometimes be difficult to find because these providers will only show you a price for a specific zip code or address. On randomly selecting a few zip codes and addresses, it appears DSL service can be available for about $25-$50 a month, before equipment costs and without bundling with other services. Some providers also add a data cap to the price, so you may be charged more if you exceed your monthly data allowance.

There are only two satellite Internet providers in the U.S.: Viasat and HughesNet. Viasat charges from $70/month for a 50 Mbps service up to $200/month for a 100 Mbps service. HughesNet provides a download speed of 25 Mbps across the board, but charges by a monthly data allowance. The fee is $70.00 for 10 GB/month and can go up to $150.00 for 50 GB/month. Both providers have monthly data caps, but if you exceed your limit, your service is merely throttled to a lower speed without incurring additional charges.

Both types of service can cost less if you sign a multi-year contract and/or if you bundle different types of services together with your Internet service. However, if you elect to sign a contract, you will be subject to early termination fees if you wish to end the contract before the term ends.

Overall, a DSL service offers the most affordable price. However, on a per Mbps basis and depending on your specific service location, satellite Internet might be more economical than DSL.

DSL vs. Satellite: the Price for Speed

Pricing information for DSL by some of the larger providers can sometimes be difficult to find because these providers will only show you a price for a specific zip code or address. On randomly selecting a few zip codes and addresses, it appears DSL service can be available for about $25-$50 a month, before equipment costs and without bundling with other services. Some providers also add a data cap to the price, so you may be charged more if you exceed your monthly data allowance.

There are only two satellite Internet providers in the U.S.: Viasat and HughesNet. Viasat charges from $70/month for a 50 Mbps service up to $200/month for a 100 Mbps service. HughesNet provides a download speed of 25 Mbps across the board, but charges by a monthly data allowance. The fee is $70.00 for 10 GB/month and can go up to $150.00 for 50 GB/month. Both providers have monthly data caps, but if you exceed your limit, your service is merely throttled to a lower speed without incurring additional charges.

Both types of service can cost less if you sign a multi-year contract and/or if you bundle different types of services together with your Internet service. However, if you elect to sign a contract, you will be subject to early termination fees if you wish to end the contract before the term ends.

Overall, a DSL service offers the most affordable price. However, on a per Mbps basis and depending on your specific service location, satellite Internet might be more economical than DSL.

DSL vs Satellite: Equipment Cost of Entry

Whether you wish to subscribe to DSL or satellite Internet, each service requires specific equipment to be installed.

For DSL, the equipment is easy. You only need to plug a DSL modem into your existing home telephone line. Some companies like AT&T will include a free wireless gateway (modem plus WiFi router) along with your order. Other companies like Verizon require you to purchase your own equipment. Most will charge extra if you ask for professional installation, and there may be an activation fee for your service.

With satellite, the equipment is slightly more complicated. You must have a specialized dish capable of sending and receiving data. The satellite dish must be aimed at a specific spot in the sky, and it must be mounted in a particular way to, e.g., your roof or an outside wall. In addition, you will need a special modem to send and receive satellite signals.

Both Viasat and HughesNet provide free installation (sometimes this is only a promotional offer), but both companies require you to pay an additional fee to lease the equipment. The equipment lease fee for Viasat is $10.00/month. With HughesNet, you have the option of purchasing the equipment for $400.00 or leasing the equipment for $15.00/month. When it comes to equipment, DSL takes an advantage over satellite.

DSL and Satellite: Final Recommendations

If you live in a rural area and wish to subscribe to Internet access, you may only be able to pick between DSL and satellite. If you are price sensitive and can tolerate slower speeds, then DSL is the better choice. However, if there is no landline telephone service to your house or if you wish to have a more consistent and guaranteed access speed, then satellite Internet is the way to go.

With satellite Internet, though, you will have to pay more—sometimes considerably more. Ultimately, your pick between the two technologies will depend on your own usage preferences (and sometimes your pocketbook).