The Best Internet Options for Rural Areas: Satellite vs DSL

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Last Updated: May 6, 2022 | Published: Aug 28, 2020
Satellite Internet
Satellite internet is widely available in the U.S.

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 pay higher monthly fees for slower service. Rural residents typically have the following internet options available to them: DSL, satellite, and fixed wireless.

DSL is usually the best option as it gets faster speeds but it might not be available in all areas. Satellite has 100 percent coverage in the U.S. but is the slowest option. Lastly, fixed wireless is usually the fastest option in rural areas but it has limited coverage.

Our guide primarily covers key differences between satellite internet and DSL since these connection types are the most common in rural areas. As we help you decide which one is best for your household and budget, we’re one step closer to bridging the digital divide.

Satellite Internet vs DSL

Satellite internet and DSL services are sometimes available 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. Satellite dish technology has been improving in recent years and is quickly catching up to DSL connection speeds. In some areas, the difference is negligible. DSL utilizes your phone line, but it doesn’t interrupt phone calls like dial-up. Typically, DSL speeds are faster than satellite, but they vary. Both satellite and DSL have their own strengths and weaknesses, which we delve deeper below.

Satellite Internet Pros and Cons

Although it usually isn’t the case, sometimes satellite internet is faster than DSL. Faster speeds will largely depend on your location.


Pros

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


Cons

  • Subject to speed and latency issues, data caps, and service interruptions in inclement weather
  • Higher minimum contract terms (usually around two years)
  • Need to have physical dish installed
  • Higher equipment costs
  • ETFs (Early Termination Fees) are more common


DSL Internet Pros and Cons

While rural internet providers are few and far between, a good DSL service provider can be a lifesaver.


Pros

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


Cons

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



DSL vs Satellite — Which Is Better?

Both DSL and satellite have the potential to be better for you, depending on your situation. In most cases, DSL is a better overall service for rural areas, but in areas where speeds top out at just 1–5 Mbps, satellite internet might actually be faster. A satellite connection is also the only rural internet option that is available virtually everywhere. Of course, one of the main drawbacks of satellite is that internet plans tend to come with restrictive data caps. This limits you to more basic internet functions and prohibits bandwidth-heavy activities such as regularly streaming Netflix.

Satellite data caps usually range anywhere from 40-150 GB for most providers. Once you meet the limit, you may lose internet connection altogether in extreme cases. However, most users are still able to access the internet at extremely limited, or throttled, speeds. DSL, on the other hand, sometimes offers data caps at around 1 TB. You can eat through hundreds of gigabytes very quickly by streaming HD videos, so keep that in mind when making your decision.

To break it down, here are the main points when comparing rural DSL service vs satellite:

  • Satellite dish internet speeds are usually slower than DSL unless you happen to be far from the access point.
  • Satellite internet plans limit you with data caps and long contract terms.
  • Satellite offers more readily available internet while DSL may be unavailable where you live.

DSL and Satellite Rural Internet Providers

If you’re looking for the best rural internet providers, our innovative search tool can show you exactly which providers cover your rural area. The following are some common rural ISPs:

Not only does our search tool show you every internet service provider that offers satellite internet, DSL, or fixed wireless in your area but also their speeds and prices.

Is “Unlimited” Satellite Internet Really Unlimited?

Recently, several major 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 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 caps 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. Why then, have more of these not 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 out into rural areas 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 for miles, the math simply doesn’t add up.

In spite of this, progress is being made 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. The FCC has also invested in building more infrastructure in rural areas to bridge the digital divide.

Companies like SpaceX have launched low-orbit satellites through its own satellite internet service called Starlink to compete with DSL. On the government side, as we mentioned earlier, the FCC puts millions into 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.

Fixed Wireless Internet vs Satellite Internet and DSL

Fixed wireless differs from satellite and DSL in several ways. The main difference lies in how the signal reaches your home. 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 better option.

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 internet provider search tool is broken down by service type, and can help you determine the best option available.

Rural Internet Options: Slim Pickings

DSL might be the best rural internet option when faster options like cable and fiber aren’t usually available. If you can’t get DSL, satellite internet may be the only choice. Fixed wireless is a third rural option which has improved in recent years. As it stands, rural internet options are still limited. Progress is being made on new technologies that may be able to provide better service in the near future, like 5G home internet, 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.