For many people, satellite internet service remains a reliable option. There are many ways to get internet including DSL, cable, fiber optic, and satellite. Not all services are available in all areas, though. Cable and fiber optic internet is typically limited to urban and suburban areas. DSL extends coverage further through phone lines, while satellite internet service can beam internet to almost anyone across the country. Below, you’ll find basic information on satellite internet service and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

For more information about Satellite internet service, see our comprehensive guides to satellite service internet offerings:

Satellite internet providers

In the US, there are two major satellite internet service providers—there are a few other providers, but they either only cover a small area or are only available for business communication. The two main providers are HughesNet and Viasat.

Both of these companies provide internet to all 50 states and have comparable download and upload speeds. One thing that makes these two companies different is that they build and launch their own satellites. Other smaller providers may rent functionality on satellites, but not build their own. They both have a handful of satellites in orbit and have new ones scheduled for launch in the near future.

HughesNet began as DirecPC in 1996, changed to Direcway in 2002, and became HughesNet in 2012. It was the first satellite provider to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband in 2017. HughesNet’s coverage area includes over 300 million people, while about 1.3 million people are currently subscribed. Viasat satellite internet began under the name Exede in 2012 and changed its name to Viasat Internet in 2018—though the parent company Viasat had been around since 1986. Viasat’s service area includes 98% of the US.

Most Affordable Satellite Internet Service: Viasat (Exede)

Both HughesNet and Viasat have plans that start around $50 a month. However, if you look at the data caps, Viasat is the cheapest service per GB. Let’s take a look:

Why are there so few satellite internet providers?

Launching and maintaining a satellite internet service is expensive and takes a lot of work. In addition to working out how to provide fast internet, satellite internet companies also have to comply with NASA and FCC regulations, and generally put in an extra chunk of work that land-based internet providers don’t have to worry about. It takes a long time to plan, launch, and test a satellite before it’s available for the public.

Once the satellite is created, it’s also costly to upgrade. Cable companies can just replace their hardware on the ground, but providers of satellite internet service can’t. That’s why you can see the same download speeds from a satellite internet company for years. When there’s an increase in speed, it’s likely they’ve launched a new satellite into orbit.

Satellite internet service does catch up to comparable speeds on the market, and it provides a lifeline to many people across the country. With HughesNet and Viasat both planning new launches, people in rural areas can continue to enjoy speeds that support much of what they need.

How satellite internet service works

Satellite internet service by either HughesNet or Viasat works in pretty much the same way. To understand how satellites work with the internet, let’s first mention how the internet basically works.

Say you log on to Google and you search for a certain website. It comes up and you visit the page. What you’re seeing is actually data. The data is stored on a server in another location on the ground (not in your own computer). The internet allows your own computer to reach through a network and access data on that server.

Cable internet accomplishes this through wires that let your signal travel back and forth from your computer to the data server. With satellite internet, your signal still needs to get to the server on the ground that has the data for the website you want to visit. Now there aren’t any wired cables. Instead, there’s a satellite dish. Actually, there’s three of them involved. You have a dish on your roof, and that communicates with a dish on the satellite in space, which in turn communicates with a large dish on the ground called a hub.

When you click on the website, your computer sends a request through your dish, to the satellite dish, to the hub dish, which then sends it to the server on the ground through a wired connection. Then it reverses the process to display the data on your computer.

All this happens in less than a second. With satellite internet service, you don’t have to be connected by cables to the internet. Satellites are located above the equator, so you can be in any place across the country that has a clear view of the southern sky.

Satellite internet service pros and cons

Best HughesNet Satellite Internet plans

HughesNet Gen5 offers four different internet plans:

  • Covers 98% or more of Americans—great for rural areas
  • Enough speed today for typical internet use
  • You don’t need a phone line
  • Base speeds 10–30x faster than dial-up

Best Viasat Satellite Internet plans

Viasat offers the following internet plans:

  • Weather (at home or at the hub) can affect the signal
  • You have to install a satellite
  • Slower speeds than cable or fiber optic
  • Not as many companies to choose from
  • 2-year contracts
  • Data caps

If you’re looking to get satellite internet, there are a few things to think about. The first thing you should know is satellite internet speeds have come a long way even in the last few years. Today, HughesNet offers plans supporting 25 Mbps while Viasat has plans that offer 12 to 100 Mbps. Viasat performance reviews trended up over 2018–2019, as did HughesNet. (Viasat hold the lead for now.) For comparison, Viasat’s second satellite in 2007 offered speeds of 3 Mbps, and HughesNet’s Gen4 satellite in 2012 supported 15 Mbps.

What does that mean? Well, Netflix recommends you have at least 5 Mbps to watch HD videos, and 25 Mbps to watch Ultra HD. So both companies give you the ability to watch UHD content today, though with HughesNet you won’t be able to do anything else at the same time.

One big advantage of satellite internet service is its coverage. Almost anyone who lives in the US can get it. It can be a great option for people living in rural areas since you don’t even need a phone line to use it.

There are a few downsides to satellite internet service. Typically, the speeds offered via satellites are much slower than the fastest available via cable connections. For example, Verizon Fios supports speeds of up to 940 Mbps, though it’s only available in nine eastern states. Also, the cost can seem expensive when compared to other options: about $100 a month would get you 940 Mbps on Fios, 250 Mbps on Xfinity, 50 Mbps on Viasat or 25 Mbps on HughesNet.

Bad weather can also affect satellite connections. Storms and snow can slow down speeds whether they happen at your satellite dish or the one at the hub. Satellite internet service from HughesNet requires you to sign a 2-year contract, while most Viasat plans do as well (Viasat has recently added a no-contract option that requires you to pay an upfront fee of $300 for installation).

Satellite internet service vs DSL for rural users

DSL providers advertise speeds of 100 Mbps and more for their users, but you’d have to be in a metro area to see those kinds of speeds. It’s more likely that rural users would get speeds of up to 15 Mbps. DSL uses your phone line to connect to the internet, and speeds are influenced by how far away you are from the telephone company’s nearest switching center.

Many DSL providers like AT&T or CenturyLink offer speed tests to show you how fast your connection would be. If it would be below 10 Mbps, satellite internet may be a better option for you. Also, DSL isn’t available in all areas. DSL service requires a landline which some people don’t have access to. If you’re in that group, satellite internet would be your only option.

Satellite internet service dishes and equipment options

Viasat and HughesNet treat equipment and installation costs a little differently. With most internet providers, you have the option of purchasing your equipment or leasing it. However, with Viasat, you can’t purchase it. You have the option of leasing it month to month or paying for a lifetime lease. Leasing it month-to-month will cost you $9.99 each month while paying for a lifetime lease costs $299.

Once you pay the lifetime lease, you don’t have to pay any more fee to lease the equipment. However, you’re still leasing it. If you cancel your contract, you’ll still have to return the equipment. This can be a good option for people who plan on living in the same place for many years and sticking with Viasat. It would take 30 months for the price of the lifetime lease to save the subscriber money, but many people renew their contracts with Viasat and could benefit from it.

HughesNet’s options are more standard. They charge $14.99 to lease their equipment with no installation fee. You also have the option to purchase the equipment for $249.99 plus an installation fee of $199.99. That brings the grand total to $449.98 if you want to purchase all the equipment. With this option, you’ll actually own everything and won’t have to give it back if you cancel your service.

Since HughesNet’s monthly lease price is higher, this deal also starts to save money after 30 months and is a good option for people who plan on remaining in one area.

Company Lease Lifetime Lease Purchase
Viasat $9.99/mo $299
HughesNet $14.99/mo $249.99 + installation fee

Satellite internet and TV: Can I bundle TV with satellite internet?

Satellite internet service can be paired with satellite TV, the question is whether you’ll save any money. DIRECTV and Dish both offer bundles, but they only apply to the first year of service. A bundle with either company will save you $10/month on your bill for the first year, but you’ll pay full price during the second. Some bundles may not be offered in all areas or for existing customers.

Satellite internet speeds: how does it compare to cable?

If you live in an area where you can get cable, chances are you have cable. That’s because it beats out satellite internet service for speed across the board. The fastest satellite internet speeds are offered by Viasat at the moment, but those speeds are on the low end of what cable internet provides. The FCC outlines minimum speed requirements for certain activities online, and you can see those here.

Top 3 plans Viasat HughesNet CenturyLink Xfinity
3rd place 30 Mbps 25 Mbps 80 Mbps 400 Mbps
Runner up 50 Mbps 25 Mbps 140 Mbps 1000 Mbps*
Fastest 100 Mbps 25 Mbps 940 Mbps* 2000 Mbps*

*Cable may be fiber optic

HughesNet and Viasat know they don’t provide the fastest internet out there. Since satellites aren’t as easy to work on as cable ground stations, there’s going to be an imbalance between speeds that cable and satellite companies offer. However, satellite companies are moving in the right direction. HughesNet is planning to launch a new satellite in 2021, and Viasat plans on launching one in 2022. We can expect to see an increase in speed once the new satellites are up and running. By that point, satellite internet may provide enough speed for multiple people to stream UHD video in one house.

Satellite internet latency

Latency is a term that describes the time it takes for a request to be fulfilled on your computer. For example, clicking on an email is a type of request. The data for the email is stored on a server in another location, so your computer requests to view it through the internet. The time it takes between your click and the email beginning to download is latency. It’s not the time for the whole download to happen, but the time for it to get going.

Latency is measured in milliseconds, with 1000 milliseconds being equal to 1 second. Of all major consumer internet types, satellite internet service has the highest latency. That’s because there are thousands of miles to travel for your request to be completed. The latest HughesNet satellite reduced latency to about half of a second, and Viasat is about the same. Users may experience shorter or longer latency in certain situations. What this means is that satellite internet service isn’t the best for applications that require split-second reaction times. For example, it’s not recommended to do competitive gaming or real-time equity trading on satellite internet.

How much data do I normally use?

Data is another important thing to understand when talking about the internet. Your internet can be fast or slow, but it can also have a data cap. Since satellites have fixed hardware to transfer signals with, satellite companies have caps on how much data you can use in a month.

The data caps are expressed in gigabytes (GB), and we’ve included a summary in the table below:

Viasat plan tier Viasat data cap HughesNet plan tier HughesNet data cap
Bronze 40 GB 1 10 GB
Silver 60 GB 2 20 GB
Gold 100 GB 3 30 GB
Platinum 150 GB 4 50 GB

Both companies enforce “soft caps.” This means you’ll still be able to use the internet, the speed will just greatly decrease. Viasat says they “prioritize your data behind others during network congestion,” while HughesNet says they’ll slow your speeds to 1–3 Mbps.

With one GB, you’re able to:

  • Use social media for 1 hour
  • Stream audio for 14 hours
  • Stream 20 minutes of HD video
  • Browse 500 web pages
  • Stream about 8 minutes of UHD video

The lowest data cap is with HughesNet for 10 GB. If you live alone and only use your computer to check your email or light social media, that plan may work for you. However, if you start adding Netflix and YouTube into the mix, you’ll want to get a plan with a higher data cap.

Viasat vs HughesNet: which is the best satellite internet provider?

Out of these two options, Viasat may be a better choice for those interested in faster speeds and higher data caps. Their top-of-the-line plan (Platinum 100) gives you 100 Mbps of speed and a 150 GB data cap. That would be enough for four people to watch Netflix at once or enough for a little over 10 hours of UHD streaming. Viasat’s data caps also start at about twice as high as data caps on HughesNet.

If you’re looking for the best price-to-speed option, HughesNet may be a better choice. Their first plan gives you speeds of 25 Mbps for $49.99/mo the first year. For that same price, you only get 12 Mbps with Viasat, and that goes up to $70 after three months.

Viasat plans

Plan Monthly Price Speed Data cap
Unlimited Bronze 12 $50/70 12 Mbps 40 GB
Unlimited Silver 25 $70/100 25 Mbps 60 GB
Unlimited Gold 50 $100/150 50 Mbps 100 GB
Unlimited Platinum 100 $150/200 100 Mbps 150 GB

Note: the first price is for an introductory period of three months, and the second price is for the remainder of the 2-year contract. Discount may not be available in all areas or at all times.

HughesNet Plans

Plan Monthly Price Speed Data cap
1 $49.99/59.99 25 Mbps 10 GB
2 $59.99/69.99 25 Mbps 20 GB
3 $89.99/99.99 25 Mbps 30 GB
4 $129.99/149.99 25 Mbps 50 GB

Note: the first price is for an introductory 12 month period, and the second is for the remainder of the 2-year contract. Discount may not be available in all areas or at all times.

Both companies have their drawbacks related to satellite internet service. It’s not a perfect service, and people have complained about outages or slower-than-normal speeds, but Viasat looks like the better option for speed and data.

Satellite internet facts

Creating and running a satellite internet service requires a lot of time and work. Most satellites used for internet services orbit at about 20,000 miles above Earth’s equator. They are in a geosynchronous orbit with the planet, which means they would stay in the same spot in the sky if you could see them. Satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars to launch and maintain.

To businesses that choose this path, satellites are an important investment. HughesNet and Viasat are competing to win customers and provide the best internet services they can. Part of how they recuperate the huge cost is by providing a service that people want and need. They do continual research and make improvements to stay relevant in the communications market. There are even companies looking to use lasers for satellite internet communication instead of radio waves.

Satellite internet service contracts and fees

Many internet service providers have ditched the two-year contract model, but not satellite internet providers. HughesNet and Viasat both require you to sign a two-year contract to obtain service. Viasat does have a no-contract option, but it’s not clear who is eligible for this or what plans it applies to.

In lieu of signing a contract, this option makes you pay a $300 fee. How does this work with Viasat’s early termination fee? Viasat charges $15 per month you have left on your contract. If you plan on canceling your service quickly or want the option to do so, the no-contract deal may save you money. However, if you keep your service longer than four months, a cancellation fee would be cheaper than the no-contract fee. That’s because, at $15 per month, your fee for canceling 20 months before the end would be $300.

HughesNet also has early termination fees. If you cancel before your two-year contract is up, you’ll pay between $85 to $400. The fee would be $400 to cancel during the first 90 days of service. After that, the amount decreases by $15 per month but doesn’t go lower than $85. HughesNet also has an installation fee of $199 if you purchase the equipment (Viasat doesn’t have an installation fee). If you don’t purchase your equipment, there is a $99 equipment activation fee. There isn’t much difference in total cost for two years whether you purchase or lease HughesNet equipment. After the two years are up, people who purchased their equipment will start saving money if they stay with HughesNet.

Satellite internet service for gaming

If you plan on using a satellite internet service for gaming, you’ll want to take a look at what kinds of games are playable. Satellite internet has a half-second latency on average, and that can matter depending on the type of game played.

If a game only needs the internet to download and install files, but it doesn’t use the internet during gameplay, there should be no issue. You can even set downloads to occur during times that see less satellite activity to speed them up. Arcade or card games played online should be fine as well. Games that are single-player and adventure-style are also playable.

The issue comes when someone wants to play competitively in multiplayer games online. It’s noticeably hard to compete in these games when you have latency. Many competitors will have connections with under 5 ms latency. A player with a 5 ms latency connection will be able to react or do an action one half-second before a player with satellite internet. It’s possible to use satellite internet for many games, but real-time multiplayer games aren’t recommended.

Satellite internet service for streaming Netflix

You can watch Netflix with a satellite internet service, but you might have to be careful about how you do it. There are two things to think about here: speed and data. Netflix recommends having speeds of at least 5 Mbps to stream in HD, or 3 Mbps to stream standard definition. You should be alright with either HughesNet or Viasat on this aspect, as the lowest plan of either gives you 12 Mbps.

So what about data? Streaming HD content on Netflix uses about three gigs per hour while streaming standard content uses about 1 GB per hour. If you had HughesNet’s lowest plan with a data cap of 10 GB, you’d only be able to watch a little over three hours of HD or 10 hours of standard definition video per month.

Once you hit the data cap, your speed will be decreased heavily. It may still be possible to watch standard definition video, but it’s likely you’ll have to spend more time watching the loading screen than the actual content.

Your first option is to choose a plan that gives you a high enough data cap. Think about how many people in your household want to watch shows, and remember to leave some room for other activities on the internet. Viasat’s 150 GB cap will allow you to watch about 50 hours of HD video. That sounds like a lot, but it still could get eaten up by a family of 5 who all enjoy their own programs.

Another option is to go into Netflix and tell it to only play videos in standard definition. Netflix usually chooses whether to play SD, HD, or UHD based on your connection, but if you don’t mind the difference in video, setting Netflix to only play in SD can triple the amount you can watch.

While satellite internet service isn’t the fastest type of internet out there, it makes up for that with its nationwide availability. It is best for people in rural areas who don’t have access to another type of internet provider, and it provides enough speed and data for average use.