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Rural Internet Options: Satellite Internet vs DSL

The bottom line: DSL is the best choice for most rural areas and small towns, where faster options like cable and fiber are usually not available. If you can’t get DSL, satellite Internet may be the only option.

Rural areas and small towns across America often have fewer Internet options than urban areas. [1] The situation is slowly improving, but for now, rural residents pay higher monthly fees for slower service. (It’s the price of all that clean air.)

The two main types of Internet service available out in the country are DSL and satellite. Occasionally, fixed wireless will also be an option.

Which is best for you and your household?

Satellite Internet vs DSL

Satellite floating above US
Satellite Internet sounds futuristic, but DSL usually has stronger speeds and reliability in the country.

Satellite and DSL services may often be found in the same general area, but the two technologies work quite differently from one another.

Satellite Internet relies on a physical dish mounted to your roof to receive signals from space, while DSL delivers Internet using your landline phone wire.

Both satellite and DSL have their own strengths and weaknesses:

Satellite Internet Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Available almost anywhere you can see the sky
  • Depending upon location, may offer faster speeds than DSL

Cons

  • Subject to intermittent service interruptions in inclement weather
  • Higher minimum contract terms (usually around 2 years)
  • Need to have unsightly physical dish installed
  • Higher equipment costs
  • ETFs (Early Termination Fees) are more common

DSL Internet Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Minimal equipment installation needed
  • Usually doesn’t come with lengthy minimum term agreements
  • No need for heavy equipment installation

Cons

  • Can be prohibitively slow if you are far from the local office or access point

So Which Is Better, DSL or Satellite?

As a rule of thumb, go with DSL — especially if you use Netflix, since satellite Internet limits streaming. However, both DSL and Satellite have potential to be “better” for you, depending on your situation.

For instance, in most cases, DSL is a better overall service. But in areas where speeds top out at just 1–5 Mbps (megabits per second), satellite Internet may actually be faster. Also, a satellite connection is the only type of connection that is available practically anywhere.

Of course, one of the main drawbacks of satellite service is that plans tend to come with restrictive data caps. This limits you to more basic internet functions and virtually prohibits bandwidth-heavy activities such as streaming Netflix. These limits usually range anywhere from 40GB up to 150GB or so for most providers.

…Compare that to DSL, where limits are typically much higher, often around 1,000GB. You can eat through hundreds of gigabytes very quickly by streaming HD videos, so keep that in mind when making your decision.

Is “Unlimited” Satellite Service Really Unlimited?

Recently, several large providers have begun offering customers “unlimited” satellite internet internet packages. These may sound like an attractive option at first glance, but we’ve noticed that many of these plans tend to come with data “guidelines” in place of hard caps.

What this means for you is that once these “guidelines” are exceeded, the provider will then throttle your connection, slowing the speeds considerably (even if you’re only halfway through the month).

This can make even the most basic of tasks online feel painfully slow, so it’s important to understand what this number is before signing up for one of these plans.

Satellite Internet vs Satellite TV

One common misconception is that satellite TV and satellite Internet are the same things. In fact, these services are provided by separate companies. As of 2018, none of the big satellite Internet providers have their own TV service.

DirecTV and Dish TV are two of the most popular satellite Internet options available. Although they don’t offer the same level of flexibility as cable, they are usually going to provide more bang for buck than whatever “digital TV” service DSL has on offer.

You can expect a variety of channel package offerings from both DirecTV and Dish, including things like NFL Sunday Ticket, STARZ movie channels, and premium options such as HBO. In addition, both providers include the option for DVR functionality, allowing you to record, rewind, and pause live TV across all of your channels.

Why Are There So Few Options in the Country?

In recent years, urban areas have seen a rise in affordable, high-speed Internet options from a variety of providers and services. Why then, have more of these not come to the country?

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

In spite of this, progress is being made on advancements that may be able to bring high-speed Internet access to even the most remote regions of the country. Improvements to satellite technology, for instance, may soon allow for much higher speeds, as well as drastically increased data limits, eliminating two of the main drawbacks of the service as it stands. Elon Musk of SpaceX has been promising that his company might launch low-orbit satellites to compete with DSL as soon as 2020. [2] On the government side, the FCC puts millions into rural broadband development every year. [3]

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.

Is Fixed Wireless Good For Rural Internet?

Fixed wireless is a type of Internet service that differs from satellite and DSL in several meaningful ways. The main difference lies in how the signal reaches your home in the first place. Instead of relying on a satellite or physical wiring, fixed wireless technology works by way of a direct, point-to-point connection with an access point. This usually means faster speeds than both satellite and DSL, so if it’s available in your area, it’s probably the way to go.

Unfortunately, one of the main practical limitations of fixed wireless is that it isn’t a very widespread service. This is due to many factors, but one issue is that you need to have a line-of-sight connection to the access point, which could be up to several miles away from your home. In areas with uneven terrain, this can be tricky, if not impossible.

Of course, it’s always worth checking to see if this type of service is available in your area. Our comprehensive provider search tool is broken down by service type, and can help you determine the best option available.

Rural Internet Options: Slim Pickings

Rural Internet options are still pretty limited today. Progress is being made on new technologies that may be able to provide better service in the near future, but for now, fixed wireless and DSL are likely to be best for most users.

That said, satellite service is still the only technology that’ll work just about anywhere.

  • Author: BroadbandNow Team
  • Last updated: 10/16/2018

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