HughesNet wins the best satellite internet of 2017 because its fifth-generation (Gen5) service update improves download speeds and availability.
Hold it! Why are there only two providers for the best satellite internet of 2017? Here’s what happened. Not long ago, you could choose from five major satellite internet service providers (ISPs). However, as of 2017, there are only two left: HughesNet and Exede.
The Best Satellite Internet Providers in 2017
|Rank||Providers||Monthly Pricing||Download Speeds||Data Caps||Details|
|#1||HughesNet||$49.99–$99.99||25 Mbps||10–50 GB||View Plans|
|#2||Exede||$49.99–$149.99||12–25 Mbps||10–30 GB||View Plans|
|#3||DishNET||Out of Service||–||–||Not Available|
|#4||EarthLink||Out of Service||–||–||Not Available|
|#5||WildBlue||Out of Service||–||–||Not Available|
It may seem like an And Then There Were None of satellite internet providers, but really it’s just a matter of business: HughesNet purchased Earthlink, and Exede bought Wildblue. We’re not entirely clear on what happened to dishNet (it’s no longer available), but EchoStar owns both HughesNet and dishNet, so it never made much sense to have two services from the same company competing in the same space anyway—especially if one is way, way better (spoiler: it’s not dishNet).
So why does this all matter? Well, it means consumers have fewer options when it comes to satellite internet and that we only have two providers to review. The good thing is, one of these two services decided to seriously up its game in 2017.
Best satellite internet — HughesNet
The new HughesNet takes a major step forward.
HughesNet’s new plans for 2017 are a huge improvement in terms of speed and availability.
In 2016, HughesNet’s fourth-generation service (Gen4) download speeds topped out at 15 Mbps, and that was for premium, pricier plans. At that same time, HughesNet’s cheapest plan offered only a sloth-at-the-DMV-like 5 Mbps maximum download speed. Now, in 2017, each HughesNet fifth-generation service (Gen5) plan includes the same set of new and improved speeds—25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
It’s unusual for a satellite ISP (or any traditional ISP) to increase the speed of its cheapest plan by five times without raising prices, but HughesNet did just that. We have to give kudos to HughesNet for increasing its speeds at no additional cost.
Finally, the same set of plans everywhere.
In the past, you’d get different plans and prices for HughesNet based on where you live (which is still the case for Exede). So you couldn’t find out what plans and pricing you could get until you entered your address, and then you might find out a promotional discount wasn’t available in your area.
Needless to say, we’re not fans of such availability hijinks. Maybe HughesNet realized how big of a pain it was and made one set of plans for the entire United States. Whatever the reason, we’re happy to reap the benefits. No matter where you live in the United States, you get the same set of plans and pricing. (It’s so much easier to decide on a plan than it used to be!)
We didn’t rate HughesNet number one just because it improved its speeds and availability. It’s number one because we’ve compared HughesNet to what else is out there, and this year it’s no contest—HughesNet is the best satellite internet provider.
Check out our full review of HughesNet for a deep dive into the satellite internet service.
Satellite internet runner up — Exede
Exede needs an update to compete with HughesNet.
Exede used to sell the fastest satellite internet around, but that’s no longer the case in 2017.
Exede has the same download speed for every plan, but it’s only 12 Mbps. That 12 Mbps speed provided some serious competition to HughesNet’s Gen4 in the past, but now that HughesNet’s Gen5 offers 25 Mbps download speeds, Exede’s getting left behind.
It’s true Exede offers an upgrade to 25 Mbps download speeds, but the availability is so limited, we’re not sure we should even mention it. The same 25 Mbps upgrade will also cost an extra $10 per month, again, if you can get your hands on it—you’ll have to use the ZIP finder to find out.
We can’t help but shrug at these kind of availability antics. Exede’s plans, including the 25 Mbps upgrade, are always subject to availability.
Speeds are likely lower than advertised.
There’s more bad news than just the availability headache. Exede advertises 12 Mbps download speeds, but it’s probably not delivering on that speed. The FCC found that Exede only delivers 71% of the speeds it advertised—down from 107% in 2015.1 The lower percentage is most likely an indication that Exede serves too many customers in certain markets. Though Exede hopes to alleviate this problem by launching new satellites in the next few years, it’s not currently delivering on its advertised speeds.
It might just be a tough year for Exede, but we’re optimistic that HughesNet’s improvements will cause Exede to take a long look in the mirror. Exede still has a lower lease fee ($10 per month), but it doesn’t include a Wi-Fi router (HughesNet does, but its lease fee is $15 per month). For now, Exede needs a rework, and until then, Exede can’t compete with HughesNet.
You can find even more details in our full review of Exede.
What to know before you buy satellite internet service
The options — who even offers satellite internet?
There are too few options when it comes to satellite internet, and the biggest reason is the lack of competition. WildBlue, EarthLink, and dishNet satellite internet bit the dust—Exede purchased WildBlue, HughesNet bought EarthLink, and dishNet is no longer in business.
We’re left with just HughesNet and Exede for nationwide satellite internet.
The price — how much does satellite internet cost?
HughesNet and Exede have the exact same pricing for basic plans: $49.99 per month. Once you get past basic plans though, pricing varies, and HughesNet and Exede have different ways of selling you plans. Exede offers a specific set of plans based on where you live, and HughesNet just barely made a single set of plans available nationwide.
...make sure you’re okay committing to the length of the contract, which is almost always two years.
Besides the monthly service price, you’ll also want to review the early termination fee (ETF) for each satellite provider and check what you need to do if you have to return the equipment. We’ve received comments from people who were not aware they had to return the actual satellite dish before they moved. (Ouch! That will cost you.)
Also, if you cancel early, you’re looking at an ETF of $10–$20 for each month you have remaining on the contract. That can add up to hundreds of dollars, so make sure you’re okay committing to the length of the contract, which is almost always two years.
The speed — how fast is satellite internet?
We’ve heard from plenty of consumers that satellite internet doesn’t deliver on speed. The reality is much more complicated. For example, HughesNet has an actual vs. advertised speed ratio of 152%2 (read: you get better speed than what you pay for). So if your satellite internet seems slow, speed might not really be the issue.
The biggest challenge of using satellite internet is latency, or the time it takes for data to travel. Latency may sound like the same thing as internet speed (bandwidth), but it’s not. Imagine it like this: the internet is the freeway, bandwidth is the number of lanes, and latency is the speed limit. You can have a high speed limit (low latency), but only one lane for traffic (low bandwidth). Traffic might move just as fast on a four-lane freeway (high bandwidth) with a low speed limit (high latency).
...remember, data is going to space and back to earth (about 44,000 miles round trip). Give it a second.
This is the speed problem that’s particular to satellite internet: it has high latency. To be exact, latency is measured in milliseconds, and both HughesNet’s and Exede’s average latency is close to 600 milliseconds. That may still not seem like much, but compare it to Comcast (cable internet), which has an average latency closer to 20 milliseconds. Essentially it takes satellite internet data 30 times as long to travel, but remember, that data is going to space and back to earth (about 44,000 miles round trip). Give it a second.
If you’re doing something online that requires constant information being sent back and forth (online gaming), you’ll have a terrible experience, but speed most likely isn’t the issue—it’s just latency.
The data caps — how much data do you need?
Data caps can be a challenge when using satellite internet, especially if you don’t understand the particulars. Other types of internet have data caps (cable, DSL, etc.), but satellite internet data caps are especially limiting. It’s most important to pay attention to a plan’s “anytime data,” which, like it sounds, is data you can use any time. For example, HughesNet’s cheapest plan has a total of 60 GB data, which doesn’t sound too bad, but only 10 GB of that is actual anytime data. That means the other 50 GB, dubbed “bonus bytes,” is only available between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m.
Tip: Use your bonus data during the night
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Despite the timing, you can use a.m. bonus data to your advantage. You can set system updates for your computers to only occur during the twilight hours, or you can try services that let you download Netflix shows during those hours (yes, such services are out there).
Bonus data can be frustrating for users, but having it makes sense because satellite bandwidth is a finite source, and primetime hours, typically between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., are when bandwidth is in high demand.
If you’re someone who wants to stream video on a regular basis, satellite internet may be a challenge. Streaming video uses a lot of data, and though you can take steps to watch videos at lower resolution (lower resolution uses less data), it may be cumbersome.
Because of the many limitations of satellite (high latency and small data caps for a higher price), we recommend satellite internet only to those with no other option for internet service but dial-up.
The customer support — how helpful are satellite ISP’s?
There’s no way around it—customer support for satellite internet service is bad. If you have an issue and need help, a third party will likely handle your request. We’ve heard from many satellite customers who feel frustrated by inadequate customer service, and we don’t think things are going to change any time soon. However, there are things you can do to avoid a customer service catastrophe.
First, make sure you understand what’s in the actual contract. If reading through several pages of legalese is too much to handle, check the FAQ section on a satellite ISP’s website (or ask us!). For example, we’ve heard from customers who were told they would have no problem playing online games, streaming videos, or using a virtual private network (VPN) with satellite internet. This is incorrect. If you spend a few minutes on any satellite ISP’s website, you’ll notice explicit warnings that satellite internet does not work with VPNs.
...the biggest issue with satellite internet customer service is not communicating expectations clearly.
In fact, we heard from a recent HughesNet customer who complained about how using a VPN throttled his internet speeds, but if you check HughesNet’s FAQs, you’ll find a list of activities NOT recommended with a satellite connection. The first in that list is using a VPN, which HughesNet states will reduce speeds by 50–70% because of data encryption. Other activities NOT recommended include heavy downloading, video chat, and online gaming.
We think the biggest issue with satellite internet customer service is not communicating expectations clearly. But hey, that’s why we do what we do. If you know what you’re getting into, you’re less likely to have an issue. Still, don’t expect much from customer service, and if you do have a technical issue, a great place to look for help is from other satellite internet users—both HughesNet and Exede have active community forums.
Satellite internet FAQs
Q: How does it work?
Data from a user’s satellite dish is sent to an orbiting satellite, which relays that data to a stationary satellite dish connected to a larger network (i.e., the internet).
To get technical, the orbiting satellite is about 22,000 miles away from earth. At that distance, the satellite will orbit at the same pace as the earth rotates, enabling your home satellite dish to remain in constant contact with the orbiting satellite. This is also why (if you live in the northern hemisphere) you must have an unobstructed southward view of the sky from where you place your home satellite dish.
The complete satellite internet system includes the following:
- Satellite dish
- Orbiting satellite that receives and transmits data
Q: How much can I download?
This depends on the plan you select from a satellite internet provider. Say your plan lets you download 10 GB per month. Now, the next question is “How much content is 10 GB?” It’s equivalent to streaming four two-hour movies in HD or listening to 180 hours of streaming music. If you only use the internet for browsing web pages and email (no downloading or streaming), don’t worry—you’ll likely never reach 10 GB in a month.
Q: What speeds do I get?
First, what speed you get depends on which provider you choose. Second, there are many factors—like the setup of your computer or how many users you have on the same network—that can affect the speed of your internet connection. Third, satellite internet has high latency, which is commonly mistaken for slow speed (bandwidth).
Speeds don’t vary as much as they used to—every HughesNet plan has a 25 Mbps download speed, and every Exede plan has a 12 Mbps download speed. Exede does have an option to upgrade to 25 Mbps download speed, but it’s only available in select areas.
Q: What’s the installation process?
Professional installation services and fees vary, so you’ll have to check with each satellite internet provider. Many satellite internet providers offer free installation and activation as an enticement to purchase their service. The satellite internet providers we recommend usually offer the option to either lease the equipment (normally $10–15 per month) or purchase the equipment at a cost of a few hundred dollars (but there is no rental fee associated with this option). Don’t forget you’ll have to return the equipment at the end of service if you lease.
If you live in a condo or a townhome and have to deal with a homeowners association (HOA), check with it first before installing a satellite internet dish. It’s typically not an issue, but every association has different bylaws.
Q: Can I get satellite internet for a car, RV, or boat?
The short answer is no (most satellite internet services are designed to be stationary). However, DISH has an option called the TailGater for satellite TV, and because it’s mobile you can take it anywhere. So if you’re traveling cross-country and want to take TV with you, check out the TailGater® and see our article on how to get TV on the road.
Q: Is there unlimited satellite internet?
Technically speaking, satellite internet from HughesNet and Exede is unlimited because there’s no hard cap on data. After you’ve used your allotted anytime data for the month, your internet speeds are throttled. You don’t lose your connection—your internet service just becomes extremely slow (anywhere from 0.5–3 Mbps).
If you’re curious to know if there is unlimited, unthrottled satellite internet for a set price, it does not yet exist.
Q: Should I lease or purchase satellite internet equipment?
For most satellite internet providers, equipment leases for $10–15 a month for the two-year contract period. Currently, only HughesNet offers an option to purchase your satellite equipment up front for a cost of $249.99 ($199.99 standard installation fee not included).
If you go with Exede, the decision is made for you—you have to lease ($10 per month), but there’s no lease setup fee. If you go with HughesNet, we think purchasing might not be so bad. After all, you have to agree to a two-year contract either way, so the math works out to be about the same. At least if you purchase, you won’t have to figure out how to return a satellite dish through the mail.
HughesNet Equipment — Purchase or Lease?
|Satellite antenna and modem||$249.99||$14.99/mo|
|Lease set-up fee||n/a||$99.00|
Exede Equipment — Purchase or Lease?
|Satellite antenna and modem||n/a||$9.99/mo|
|Lease set-up fee||n/a||n/a|
Satellite internet myths and facts
#1 — Satellite internet is too slow.
At the advent of satellite internet, download speeds approximated 750 Kbps with upload speeds of about 256 Kbps. With advancements in technology and the launch of new, more powerful satellites, speeds have increased dramatically. Presently, download speeds up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 12 Mbps are possible—speeds comparable to DSL and cable.
#2 — It takes a long time to receive a signal.
Do you have a second? Latency, or the time it takes for data to be sent and received, has long been a criticism of satellite internet technology.
It’s true that satellite internet latency is higher than cable, DSL, and fiber internet, which are in the 20–50 ms range, while satellite internet ranges can be close to 600 ms.
Satellites are positioned about 22,000 miles above the earth, and that’s a long way to travel. Most satellite internet customers are located in areas where DSL or cable are not available, so the alternative is satellite internet.
The most obvious effect of latency is on gaming, where ultra-quick responses are necessary. Satellite internet is not suitable for heavy gaming applications; however, normal email, browsing, photo sharing, etc., are not affected that much by latency.
#3 — Satellite internet doesn’t work when it’s cloudy, rainy, or stormy.
While it’s true a severe thunderstorm, heavy snow, or blizzard can interrupt satellite transmission temporarily, the problem isn’t as significant as popular opinion assumes. Storm-related interruptions are commonly called “rain fade,” and the signal is restored as soon as the storm passes. You can also remove heavy accumulations of snow from around the satellite dish to restore communications.
In contrast, a heavy thunderstorm with fallen trees, etc. could disable cable or DSL for days. Again, most satellite internet customers live in rural areas without access to DSL or cable, so the problems associated with rain fade are minimal when compared to alternative, slower means of internet service (dial-up).
#4 — Satellite internet is too expensive.
The monthly costs of satellite internet have decreased substantially over the past few years in light of the advancements in speed and data capacity. An entry-level service that provides broadband internet costs $49 per month, which is comparable to DSL and cable internet plans.
What’s the next step?
We’ve recommended HughesNet for 2017, but there’s still some more things you should know before ordering satellite internet. For example, be sure to read through the contract, even if it’s just a quick readthrough.
If you’re informed and prepared, you’ll likely be satisfied with your satellite internet.
We’ve heard from too many customers who didn’t read the paperwork and were shocked, for example, when they had to return the equipment (you have to return equipment if you lease it). Also, be aware that whoever comes to install the satellite will likely be a third-party contractor. That means you’ll get third-party service, so it’s best to ask plenty of questions and get answers you can confirm with paperwork—the contractor may promise something that isn’t in the contract, and that would be a major red flag.
If you’re informed and prepared, you’ll likely be satisfied with your satellite internet. If you have a question you can’t find an answer to, feel free to ask us.
Best Satellite Internet Providers Summary
Want to know more?
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