Best Satellite Internet Providers
Choosing the best satellite internet provider can feel a bit intimidating. It can be difficult to know what sort of fees, limitations, and equipment costs you may run into before signing a contract, so the purpose of this guide is to help you make a more informed decision when debating between the two major US providers, Viasat and HughesNet.
Are there really only two major satellite providers in the US?
If you’ve ever lived in a place with few options for internet, your satellite service options will look awfully familiar. Much like a city or town often have only has two wired providers competing with one another, the satellite internet industry has thinned out over the past decade or so.
At one point, there were five or more options for those looking into satellite internet providers. WildBlue was acquired by a company called Exede Internet in 2009, and Exede later rebranded itself as Viasat. DISH stopped offering its own service, instead opting to work with third-party providers. And EarthLink also discontinued its satellite internet plans. What’s left are two industry stalwarts: the aforementioned Viasat, and HughesNet. The space hasn’t seen much competition outside of those two companies in years.
Is Low-Earth orbit satellite available in 2020?
Despite the relative lack of new satellite broadband options, several companies like OneWeb and Starlink who are planning to offer a new type of high-speed service called low-Earth orbit broadband. This satellite internet would be a major improvement on what's currently available, and SpaceX (the company behind Starlink) has indicated it may even begin servicing customers as early as this year. For the moment, however, it’s either Viasat, HughesNet, or bust.
The best satellite internet providers of 2020
What are your options for satellite internet access in 2020? There aren’t many companies vying for your money in the space, but here’s a quick look at how two major options -- Viasat and HughesNet -- stack up.
We examined many factors to determine which satellite provider offers the best value overall. These include speeds, data caps, and pricing.
Internet Speeds: The speed at which you can download is crucial, and can mean the difference between getting a file in minutes rather than hours. It can also affect the quality of any videos you choose to stream, or the number of people who can feasibly use your connection at once without a noticeable hit to usability. There are few things you’ll notice more in everyday use than speed.
Data Caps: There are also data caps and thresholds to consider. Both major companies will throttle or "deprioritize" your traffic in some way if you exceed a certain amount of data, much like cellular providers have been doing for years. If you’re a heavy downloader, these caps are definitely something to keep an eye on. If you’re a light user, they might not be as important.
Pricing: In terms of what you’re getting for your money, satellite internet access is almost always more expensive than terrestrial internet. The trick is to find the plan that most closely does what you need while still managing to stay within your budget.
Best overall value: Viasat
|Provider||Speed||Cost||Data Caps |
|Viasat||12-100 Mbps||$50 - $100||40 - 150 GB|
|HughesNet||25 Mbps||$59.99 - $149.99||10 - 50 GB|
For most consumers, the best value in satellite internet currently comes from Viasat. The company offers a wide range of speed options, from 12 Mbps all the way to 100 Mbps, which is faster than many wired connections. Viasat also uses data thresholds versus data caps, which essentially act the same way, but are quite a bit more generous. As price is concerned, Viasat’s service is slightly more expensive than what you’ll find with HughesNet, but is ultimately less restrictive. It may be worth paying a bit extra to enjoy the service provided by Viasat.
Highest speeds: Viasat
HughesNet, to its credit, is consistent. The company has just one tier of speed -- 25 Mbps -- so you can remain confident that, regardless of the package you purchase, you’ll be getting that same download speed. And honestly, 25 Mbps is plenty fast for a lot of the things most single users will do. If you’re the only person using your connection, what HughesNet offers could be enough.
But there’s no question that Viasat offers the highest speeds in the satellite internet industry right now. Should you go the Viasat route, you can order up a package with speeds as low as 12 Mbps, or as high as 100 Mbps. On the higher end, Viasat’s service is actually faster in terms of download speed than some cable and fiber optic internet plans, and that’s pretty impressive.
If you’re a multitasker -- running Netflix in the background while you download huge files and the like -- or if you have a house full of other people trying to use your connection all at once, Viasat’s higher speed tiers are something you’ll definitely want to consider. You’d be surprised at how quickly your bandwidth can be used up if you have someone watching YouTube in one room while someone else is downloading a game in another. So if you envision that scenario routinely playing out in your home, it would be a good idea to pay for something in the higher download speed range. HughesNet simply doesn’t offer something substantial enough, while Viasat has a few higher speeds to choose from. Viasat takes it here, too, though that could change should HughesNet make some changes to its lineup.
Least restrictive data caps: Viasat
Data caps are one of the most inconvenient aspects of satellite internet service as a whole. Files are only getting bigger, and videos are only increasing in their quality. Essentially, a data cap is a ceiling on your service that, once hit, will slow your connection to an absolute crawl. Even basic tasks like browsing the web and checking email can become a pain once this threshold is exceeded.
|Viasat Data Packages
Viasat has made strides to improve the number of options they have available across multiple price points. The provider does not employ the use of traditional data caps, but instead, has thresholds that deprioritize your internet traffic once they are met. When that happens, the end result is functionally similar to a hard data cap – your speeds will be reduced significantly. The biggest upside is that Viasat offers a much wider range of data allotments than HughesNet currently does, giving them an edge in this category.
|HughesNet Data Packages
HughesNet is sticking to its guns as far as its data caps are concerned. Regardless of the internet access tier you choose from the company, you’ll hit some kind of data cap depending on what you pay. The most expensive HughesNet package caps you at 50 GB, which isn’t all that much data in the grand scheme. After that, you’re bumped all the way down to a download speed of 3 Mbps, which is right around where even simple tasks like checking email can become a chore. That’s not great.
Best for gaming: Viasat
And then there’s gaming -- an activity that can either be just fine on a satellite internet connection or can be a total nightmare, depending on the game you’re playing. Due to the latency introduced by satellite internet, you’re going to have a higher-than-usual ping speed right out of the gate. For first-person shooters like Apex Legends, or for other games that require split-second reactions, that’s not a situation you want to be in. On the flip side, though, turn-based games like Hearthstone don’t suffer as badly from satellite internet latency.
Because both Viasat and HughesNet have this problem, we can’t really knock either for it.
But download caps are a major concern in the world of gaming, because in the past few years, game download sizes have grown significantly. Games that are between 50 GB and 100 GB in size are not unusual these days, and that means you could potentially blow through your entire HughesNet data allotment by downloading a single game. For gamers, Viasat’s data threshold system is far more friendly, and gives you the peace of mind in knowing that you don’t have to sweat it out if a game patch comes along with a huge download size.
If HughesNet adopts a threshold system, the company might be worth a second look in this category. Until then, Viasat is the better option.
When you put it all together -- bang for your buck, speeds, and data caps -- it’s tough not to recommend Viasat over HughesNet at this point. Viasat is a tad more expensive but gives you the better value for your money. The company has speed tiers for whatever you have in mind, and delivers those speeds regardless of how much data you use. Companies change their offerings all the time, and it’s entirely possible that HughesNet could storm back at some point with some more competitive packages. That said, for most consumers, Viasat represents the best option at current.