The Best Internet Providers for Rural Areas

New options for rural connectivity are shaking things up, but coverage is still inconsistent in many communities.

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Last Updated: Mar 27, 2024
A rural community being connected by cellular wireless internet
Rural communities are finally getting new options for getting online, including 5G wireless, fixed wireless, and next-generation satellite internet.
  • Rural communities now have access to various internet options, including 5G wireless, fixed wireless, and advanced satellite internet, which are crucial for bridging the digital divide and facilitating modern services like education and healthcare.
  • Traditional satellite internet, once slower and with data limitations, has evolved to offer higher speeds and larger data allowances, making it a more competitive choice for rural areas, albeit with potential throttling after reaching data caps.
  • The emergence of 5G technology brings hope for rural internet access, promising high speeds and low latency, with its deployment being less intrusive and more cost-effective than traditional wired connections.

Rural areas and small towns across America often have fewer internet options than urban areas. The situation is slowly improving, but for now, rural residents tend to pay higher monthly fees for slower service. This disparity has long underscored the digital divide between urban and rural America. However, recent technological advancements and increased focus from both private and governmental sectors are beginning to close this gap.

Innovative solutions like 5G and fixed wireless are expanding coverage and introducing competitive pricing and service options previously unavailable in these areas. Now, rural communities can get more than just basic internet access. These areas can tap into the digital services critical for modern education, healthcare, and economic development.

Rural Internet Options

There are four internet connectivity types commonly available in rural communities: DSL, satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular wireless. Cable and fiber are also available, but not as widely.

  • DSL: Often the most readily available because it runs through telephone lines, DSL (digital subscriber line) can offer faster speeds where infrastructure exists, but its reach is limited in remote locations.
  • Satellite: With ubiquitous coverage across the U.S., satellite internet is a universal but traditionally slower option. Recent advancements have introduced higher speeds and larger data allowances, making it a more competitive choice for rural areas.
  • Fixed wireless: Typically the fastest option in the rural landscape, fixed wireless is delivered by WISPs (wireless internet service providers) and does not require the same infrastructure as DSL or cable, though its coverage can be variable.
  • Cellular wireless: A viable option where cellular signal strength is strong, mobile internet providers offer various plans that can include unlimited data, albeit sometimes with speed limitations.

The Best Rural Internet Providers

Many times, you will have only a few options around you if you live in a rural area. That said, we put together this quick list of some of our favorite rural internet providers to help narrow down your options:

Internet provider Connection type Starting price Max download speed (up to)
AT&T DSL $60 per month 100 Mbps
CenturyLink DSL $55 per month 100 Mbps
EarthLink DSL $49.95 per month 12 Mbps
Hughesnet Satellite $49.99 per month 50 Mbps
Rise Broadband Fixed wireless $55 per month 50 Mbps
Starlink Satellite $120 per month 50 Mbps
T-Mobile 5G Home Internet 5G $50 per month 33-245 Mbps
Windstream DSL $40 per month 50 Mbps
Verizon 5G Home Internet 5G $35 per month 300 Mbps
Viasat Satellite $69.99 per month 12 Mbps

Is ‘Unlimited’ Satellite Internet Really Unlimited?

Recently, several major providers have begun offering customers “unlimited” satellite internet internet packages. These may seem attractive at first glance, but we’ve noticed that many of these plans come with data guidelines or “soft caps” in place of hard caps.

What this means for you is that once these soft caps are exceeded, the provider will then

throttle your connection, slowing the speeds considerably (even if you’re only halfway through the month). For most satellite providers, data throttling is a common and legal practice. This can make even the most basic online tasks feel painfully slow, so it’s important to know your data cap before signing up for one of these plans.

Why Are There So Few Rural Internet Options?

In recent years, urban areas have seen a rise in affordable high-speed internet options from a variety of providers and services. So why haven’t more of these come to the countryside?

Unsurprisingly, the high cost of expansion is a significant reason that high-performance options such as cable and fiber haven’t spread across rural areas just yet. In areas of high population density, providers can justify paying for costly new lines to be run, but in areas where you may not see another house for miles, the math simply doesn’t add up.

In spite of this, progress is being made. Improvements to satellite technology, for instance, now allow for much higher speeds, as well as drastically increased data limits, eliminating two long-standing drawbacks of the service. The FCC has also invested in building more infrastructure in rural areas to bridge the digital divide.

Companies like SpaceX have launched low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites through its own satellite internet service called Starlink to compete with DSL. On the government side, as we mentioned earlier, the FCC invests millions in rural broadband development every year.

Another potential solution relies on a different type of connection entirely. Across the country, smaller, independent providers are beginning to offer consumers an alternative to both satellite and DSL. These companies are commonly referred to as WISPs, or wireless internet service providers, and they offer what is called a “fixed wireless” service that can support surprisingly fast download speeds.

Is SpaceX Starlink Good for Rural Internet?

SpaceX’s Starlink service is a rapidly growing advanced satellite internet service that offers faster speeds and lower latency (lag time) than traditional providers. This is because SpaceX has satellites in a lower orbit in space than regular satellite providers, meaning the signal doesn’t need to travel as far to reach you.

It is available in many rural areas around the U.S., and its service footprint is expanding quickly. If it is available near you, it’s well worth considering; the speeds can make it an obvious choice for those looking for performance. The company has also recently launched Starlink Roam, letting you take the connection with you on the road for an additional fee.

Because the service uses a network of satellites in low Earth orbit, it does not require the infrastructure of ground-based towers or cables, making it more practical to deploy in remote areas. Additionally, Starlink’s low-latency and high-bandwidth capabilities make it well suited for activities such as online gaming and video streaming.

The Emerging Role of 5G in Rural Internet Access

A rural landscape with a 5G cell tower in view
Rural communities are finally getting new options for getting online, including 5G wireless, fixed wireless, and next-generation satellite internet.

The advent of 5G technology presents a promising solution for rural internet challenges. Known for its high speeds and low latency, 5G has the potential to provide rural areas with internet speeds comparable to those of urban broadband.

Unlike traditional wired connections, 5G operates on a spectrum of radio frequencies, enabling it to transmit data at incredibly high speeds. Its deployment typically involves installing small cell sites that can be placed on existing infrastructure, like buildings and streetlights, making it less cumbersome and more cost-effective to expand into rural areas compared to laying down miles of cable or fiber.

While 5G holds great promise, its rollout in rural areas faces challenges, primarily due to the higher density of cell sites required for optimal coverage. However, ongoing investments and technological improvements are likely to accelerate its expansion. As the 5G infrastructure grows, it is quickly becoming a viable primary internet option for many rural communities, supplementing or even surpassing traditional connectivity methods.