• Mike Roberts

Rural Satellite Internet Service: Limited, But Growing


Your home and business Internet service choices are limited if you live in a rural area. Speeds are slower than in the city, plans are pricey, and there are few providers. Fortunately, Elon Musk and Amazon are launching new technology in satellite delivery that should revolutionize rural Internet service.

Country folks have limited internet choices

Many cities have fiber optic cables as part of their communications infrastructure. City and county governments and communication companies have invested in these light-based transmission cables for the last 30 years, providing the Internet “superhighways” that providers like AT&T, Comcast, and others use.

Fiber optic cable is not available for rural Internet service. Instead, most rural homes and businesses rely on standard copper telephone lines for DSL service or use satellite Internet service. The latter beams signals by high earth orbit satellites very much like satellite TV. Unfortunately, both are slower than the fiber optic services in cities.

Comparing speed by transmission type

To illustrate, here is a comparison of speeds by transmission type.

  • Fiber optic cable can transfer up to 10 gigabytes of data — that’s 10 billion bits of information — per second.

  • Digital subscriber lines (DSL) send as much as 75 megabytes of data — that’s thousands of bits — per second using copper cable.

  • Satellite Internet can transfer no more than 25 megabytes per second.

  • Broadband Internet is not a description of transmission type. Instead, it refers to using a separate, dedicated line specifically for Internet usage, apart from telephone and TV usage. Because the line can be copper cable, coaxial, or fiber optic, speeds can vary by up to a gigabyte for downloads.

What are the satellite internet choices?

The primary choices for satellite Internet service across rural America have been HughesNet and Viasat for several years. HughesNet offers plans with a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. Viasat provides download speeds up to 100 Mbps, but only in limited areas. In some areas, Viasat download speed is as low as 12 Mbps.

Starlink and Project Kuiper

The billionaire entrepreneurs behind Amazon and SpaceX each saw a market being underserved. So Amazon launched Project Kuiper, and Elon Musk began Starlink. Both will compete to provide better, faster rural Internet service.

One of the challenges to effective satellite Internet service is data transmission latency. Latency is the time it takes for a command you send, such as clicking a link, to begin executing. Slow latency times have been a problem for service providers using high earth orbit satellites. Starlink and Project Kuiper solve the latency problem by launching thousands of satellites in low earth orbit. This cuts the distance your signal must travel and slashes latency time. They also improve on data download and upload time.

Starlink is already in beta testing and is growing its customer base. Latency is a fraction of what existing satellite companies provide. Download speeds are available in the 50 to 60 Mbps range, and uploads as much as 20 Mbps. These speeds are still far behind fiber optic cable but are much better than legacy rural satellite Internet service and DSL. Starlink is priced at $599 for equipment and $110 per month for service. That is high compared to broadband and fiber in most cities, but it is a vast improvement over the limited choices otherwise available to rural users.

Project Kuiper is still working on getting its satellites into space. It is expected to launch by 2026 and be complete by 2029.

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