When it comes to internet service providers, your choices come down to the old adage about real estate: location, location, and location. Your choice of ISP is limited to what’s available in your area, leaving you at the mercy of whichever service providers happen to provide connectivity in your city, town, or neighborhood. Moving to get better service probably isn’t an option, and for many rural areas, cable and fiber connections aren’t on the menu, either, leaving you stuck using either phone-line-based DSL or satellite internet.
That’s one of the major reasons that SpaceX’s Starlink internet has gotten people so excited. A relative newcomer in the satellite ISP space, Starlink promises speedy internet pretty much anywhere on the planet. And we’ve tested it, proving that it does indeed offer speeds that will let you work, stream, and even game online, all using an internet service that you can literally take with you on a road trip.
But what people want to know isn’t merely “Does Starlink work?” The real question is whether it’s better than whatever other ISP options they’re considering, especially competing satellite ISPs like HughesNet or ViaSat.
Using data from major industry surveys, we can compare Starlink speeds to other major competitors, giving you a clearer picture of how the SpaceX internet service stacks up against whichever services are available in your area. For this article, we specifically are referencing data from Ookla’s Q3 2022 survey of satellite internet(Opens in a new window) providers. (Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.) It looks broadly at North America, including Canada, Mexico, and island nations like the Dominican Republic. For our purposes, the US data is what’s pertinent.
This data set includes speeds for downloads, uploads, and latency from the thousands of unique user results that are tested and gathered by Ookla’s Speedtest.net daily. By comparing these numbers, well as our own Starlink test results, we can get a pretty good idea of how these different competing services will do for any US-based users considering the service.
First Off: What Is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite internet system developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX that makes use of a vast network of more than 4,000 low-orbit satellites and self-adjusting receiver dishes to provide high-speed internet services. The speeds range from 50Mbps to 200Mbps. The system is becoming increasingly popular among users worldwide, with an estimated one million subscribers from various regions, including North America, Europe, and Australia.
Starlink is a viable solution for users living in rural or remote areas that lack traditional broadband services, as it only requires a clear view of the sky for reception. Although some parts of the US may still be waitlisted to get access to the service, large portions of North America are eligible for Starlink service now, and Starlink is rapidly expanding here and throughout the world.
Because Starlink requires nothing more than a clear view of the sky to connect its orbiting satellites to its users’ small Starlink dishes on the ground, it can be set up virtually anywhere, even those parts of the country where buried cables and cell towers may not reach. Whether you are surrounded by farmland or mountains, living on a remote island, or road-tripping as a nomad in an RV or van, Starlink can provide speedy internet access where it simply hasn’t been available before.
Starlink requires both a one-time equipment purchase ($599) as well as a monthly service fee ($110) for the standard plan. It’s month-to-month, with no long-term contract or fees for early cancellation. You can read more about it in our Starlink review, which includes observations from my own daily use of the service, as well as hands-on testing of the speeds and performance.
Starlink Alternatives: What Other Satellite ISPs Are Out There?
While most people think of cable, fiber, or even dial-up when they talk about internet service providers (ISPs), rural users frequently find themselves without those options. Thanks to the spread-out geography of agricultural communities and the expense of running physical cables to far-flung homes and neighborhoods, satellite internet has become the ISP of last resort for people all over the country.
While Starlink is obviously a popular and growing satellite internet option, it’s not the only one. In fact, the two biggest players in the satellite space have been around for decades: HughesNet and ViaSat. Like Starlink, ViaSat and HughesNet use a home dish to communicate with satellites in space.
How Satellite Internet Works
Several key differences set the different satellite internet providers apart, both in the technology they use, and how it’s deployed. And all of those differences translate into better or worse performance. Let’s look at the major differentiators among the three services.
Number of Satellites
The first major differentiator is in the number of satellites. HughesNet uses two satellites named Jupiter 1 and Jupiter 2 (also called EchoStar XVII and EchoStar XIX, respectively). A new Jupiter 3 (EchoStar XXIV) satellite is planned to launch in the first half of this year.
ViaSat has four geosynchronous satellites covering North America, called ViaSat-1, WildBlue-1, Anik-F2, and ViaSat-2. A new constellation of ViaSat-3 satellites are planned to launch this year, including an additional satellite servicing North and South America, but it’s not up and running yet.
Starlink, on the other hand, has 3,194 satellites in operation as of this writing. And, because Starlink is a part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, it is able to launch more satellites more frequently than competitors. The FCC has approved plans for Starlink to launch as many as 7,500 new next-generation satellites, hugely increasing the capabilities of the satellite constellation.
Position and Distance
When you put a satellite into space, you have to take a few things into account. First, how far from the planet’s surface will your satellite orbit? Second, will it orbit around the Earth or with the Earth, maintaining a static position above the ground? These two decisions account for much of the difference between Starlink and competitors HughesNet and ViaSat.
HughesNet and ViaSat use satellites in high Earth orbit (HEO) roughly 22,000 miles overhead. They are also in geosynchronous orbit, meaning that they rotate in the same direction and speed as the Earth’s orbit, allowing the satellites to stay in one position.
Starlink uses a low Earth orbit (LEO) that is much closer to Earth, but the satellites pass overhead regularly. With the satellites orbiting roughly 342 miles above the Earth, the shorter distance allows for much lower latency and higher throughput. The tradeoff is that it requires many more satellites, plus dish technology that can continually adjust to send and receive signal from different satellites, and even move to reacquire signal when one satellite passes and another comes overhead.
The distance is crucial when you consider that every bit of data (whether it’s text from an email, images in a news story, or videos on YouTube) has to travel twice the distance—once from your home to the satellite, and again from the satellite to the provider, and then back again. For HughesNet and ViaSat, that combined distance is 44,000 miles. For Starlink, it’s 684 miles. And all of that distance has to be traversed just to connect to the rest of the internet here on Earth.
That extra distance dramatically increases the latency on ViaSat and HughesNet, allowing Starlink to offer a better experience for tasks like video chats and online gaming, which require faster, lower-latency connections for real-time interaction.
Dish and Transmission Technology
Finally, there’s the equipment itself. While the satellite companies don’t make a lot of information public about the tech used in those satellites, we do know a fair bit about the dishes here on Earth.
HughesNet and ViaSat both rely on a traditional dish design, similar to what you’d see with satellite TV and other satellite-based services. There’s the dish itself, called an antenna reflector. But there’s also a smaller device mounted on an arm in front of the dish, called a low-noise block downconverter (LNB), which does the actual receiving and transmitting of radio signal. All of this is used to convert the radio signal into usable internet, which is then fed to your home router to connect your home network to the internet.
Because HughesNet and ViaSat satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, they remain in the same position in the sky, and your dish has to be properly positioned once to align with that satellite to send and receive signals. This makes the initial setup more complicated, requiring professional installation, but it also means that once it’s set, it should just work.
Starlink dishes have to track moving objects, since the satellites passing overhead aren’t in a geosynchronous orbit. Moving more than 16,000mph out in space, each satellite is a fast-moving target, and the beam of two-way communication between them has to move with it. Plus, satellites pass in and out of view within minutes, so the dish has to constantly track and communicate with each satellite, switching from one satellite to another as they pass overhead.
Some of this is done by physically adjusting the dish position—Starlink dishes are motorized for just this sort of automatic adjustment. That said, the motor is primarily used to let the dish set its optimal position, and then stay there. That self-adjustment means that you can install the dish yourself. No appointment with an installer is needed. So long as the dish isn’t moved, it won’t be swiveling back and forth throughout the day. Those fine adjustments are actually done inside the dish.
(Credit: Brian Westover)
Actually, calling it a dish is a bit of a misnomer, since the design doesn’t use a reflector, but instead uses a phased antenna array—a giant circuit board with hundreds of chips and hundreds of tiny antennas on the surface. Instead of a long aerial, each antenna is a sandwiched stack of components, grouped together in a large, flat plane. This makes up the phased array, which combines these antennas together for a powerful single beam of transmission. That beam can then be swept back and forth across the sky, angling as needed. This process, called beam steering, is done automatically, letting the array stay in contact with a satellite anywhere within a 100-degree field of view. If the phased array is pointed at the sky with an unobstructed view, it can stay in contact with all of the Starlink satellites that pass overhead.
More satellites, with better technology, in a closer orbit, with superior receiver dishes in customer’s hands: Theoretically, it all adds up to a substantial lead for Starlink, despite being the newcomer of the group. Indeed, when you look at the actual performance numbers to see if elements combine for a better user experience, the results are clear.
Let’s now take a closer look at how each service works, and how it performs. In the process, we’ll answer some of the most common questions that prospective subscribers have when considering a satellite internet service.
Starlink’s Advantage, Explained
In the recent Ookla Speedtest report on North American satellite internet providers, the analysis included test data from more than 2,399 counties in the United States, with more than 1,359 of those counties in non-metro areas. Comparing Starlink performance against satellite rivals HughesNet and ViaSat in those same counties, we get a clear picture of how the different services differ.
The top performer in Ookla’s survey of North American satellite ISPs was Starlink, by a large margin, and we’ve already covered the main reasons why: LEO satellites provide strong signals with less latency, and the sophisticated antenna array inside Starlink dishes allows for faster connectivity while automatically managing the constant switching between different satellites in the sky.
The sheer number of satellites Starlink has available to use allows more throughput per satellite, and thus more bandwidth per user, but limits to this performance still exist. Starlink’s satellites can handle only a certain number of users at a time, and your overall speed will drop as more people in your area use the service. For some parts of the country, Starlink has actually put interested customers on a waiting list rather than allowing immediate activation, because their areas are at capacity until new satellites are in the air.
That said, in our testing of Starlink, which included both daily use and extensive performance analysis, we saw that the speeds were generally faster than even those shown in Ookla’s Speedtest data averages. The biggest issue we had during testing was the stability of the connection, as the constant switching from one satellite to the next can occasionally lead to moments where the otherwise-speedy connection will hang and buffer as it re-establishes connectivity with a different satellite.
(Credit: Brian Westover)
Whether you’re looking for a residential internet plan or something for your RV, Starlink does charge a lot up front for its equipment (the dish, the Wi-Fi router, the stand, and mounting hardware costs $599) and a monthly fee of $110, without a contract. But that up-front expense may be hard to swallow compared with the smaller monthly equipment-rental fees that HughesNet and ViaSat incorporate into their plans.
Starlink’s DIY installation is another possible hurdle. The time required to set it up may be a 10-minute process using the included hardware, or it may require buying one or more Starlink accessories, like a special mount or a longer cable, and calling in a professional contractor. Even a simple installation may be more than some users can or should be doing themselves.
Availability is also a concern. Since Starlink’s satellite constellation is more prone to congestion—the smaller satellites can serve only so many users at a time in a geographical area—entire parts of the country aren’t open to immediate signups for new customers. Those congestion issues will likely improve as more satellites are launched and the technology matures to accommodate more users, but for now, you’ll need to keep an eye on Starlink’s service maps to see what’s offered for your area.
Does Starlink Have Data Limits?
So far in Starlink’s short history, the service hasn’t imposed data limits on users. However, the company has recently announced that residential users will be limited to 1TB of data as a way to reduce network congestion. (Read more about data caps for Starlink.) This plan was originally announced last November, but the implementation of that change has been delayed several times.
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Can Starlink Stream Video?
Yes, even at 4K. Netflix requires speeds of 15Mbps for 4K streaming, which Starlink easily surpasses. In practice, it’s great for everything from short clips on TikTok and YouTube to full 4K films on streaming services like Netflix and Disney+.
Is Starlink Good for Gaming?
In a word: Yes! Not only does the speed and latency meet the threshold needed for gaming (see the data above; it’s a drastic difference), we were able to use it for both high end gaming on a powerful desktop as well as cloud-based gaming using Nvidia GeForce Now. Check out our guide to gaming on Starlink to learn more.
Starlink vs. HughesNet, Compared
HughesNet differs a great deal from Starlink in that it uses HEO geosynchronous satellites. The entire global constellation HughesNet offers is based on a pair of satellites, and the user hardware requires professional installation.
(Credit: Maxar Technologies)
Service packages range from $45.99 to $149.99 per month, but they do include an equipment leasing fee for the dish and router. Professional installation takes care of the first-time setup, but speeds are typically limited to 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps uploads, regardless of which plan you choose.
Does HughesNet Have Data Limits?
HughesNet doesn’t impose a firm data limit, though it does track overall data usage, giving you an allotment of data tokens to use as part of your monthly plan. More expensive plans offer more tokens, which you will want, since additional data costs more per token after you’ve exceeded your monthly limit, and speeds will drop to the 1Mbps-to-3Mbps range. To get back the promised 25Mbps speeds your plan normally offers, you’ll need to either buy additional data tokens, or upgrade your plan.
Can HughesNet Stream Video?
HughesNet can be used to stream video at resolutions up to 4K, but will default to stream at “DVD quality” (480p) unless you specifically turn off the throttling in the HughesNet app. The video data limits can be turned off temporarily or permanently, but frequent high-resolution streaming will chew through the allotted data in your plan.
Is HughesNet Good for Gaming?
If you’re talking about online gaming, like team shooters and combat games: No. In Ookla’s survey, the service exhibited an average latency of 936 milliseconds (ms), making it a poor fit for fast-paced games. In fact, HughesNet suggests(Opens in a new window) limiting your play to “games where you take turns, such as casino or chess, turned-based role-playing games, and Facebook games.”
Starlink vs. ViaSat, Compared
Like HughesNet, ViaSat relies on HEO geosynchronous satellites to provide users with internet. It’s available almost anywhere, but it does require professional installation. Unlike HughesNet, ViaSat does offer higher-speed plans (the top plan can allow for up to 50Mbps), but it also offers various amounts of monthly data, with plans priced from $49.99 to $199.99 per month.
Equipment is rented from the ISP for $15 per month, so be sure to factor in that cost when you estimate your monthly bill.
Does ViaSat Have Data Limits?
Most plans offered by ViaSat include data caps, though some include unlimited data—sort of. The more expensive high-speed plans offer faster download speeds, but only for a monthly allotment of data. After that, speeds drop to standard rates (25Mbps), for the rest of the month, but with no limit on how much data you can use.
Most plans—even the high-speed ones—have data caps, however. Additional data can be purchased from ViaSat, with one-time purchases applying only to the month you purchase them in. Extra data does not roll over to the next month.
Can ViaSat Stream Video?
Yes. With speed options ranging from 25Mbps to 50Mbps, ViaSat’s speeds are well-suited to streaming, even in HD and 4K, though streaming at higher resolution will use up data faster. Streaming on multiple devices is also an option, but ViaSat warns(Opens in a new window) that even the higher-speed 50Mbps plan can only “accommodate streaming on up to three small screens.”
Is ViaSat Good for Gaming?
In terms of fast-paced online games: No. Though nominally faster than HughesNet, ViaSat’s 682ms average will leave you at a standstill in most online games, making ViaSat’s service makes it best suited to slower-paced games. ViaSat’s recommendation(Opens in a new window)? “Mobile games like Candy Crush Soda Saga generally work best.”
Which Satellite Internet Provider Is Best?
In the big picture, Starlink has a pretty solid lead for most users, offering superior download and upload speeds, connectivity that supports modern gaming, and little complexity—the service imposes no data caps at present, and the plans are refreshingly simple and straightforward.
However, in many parts of the country, Starlink is already at capacity, making HughesNet and ViaSat excellent alternatives in higher-population areas. Additionally, though their plans come with more limitations (like data caps and slower speeds), HughesNet and ViaSat do offer a more affordable option than Starlink’s residential and RV service plans, especially when considering the hefty upfront cost of buying Starlink’s install package, which may be too expensive for people who only want to use the service for a matter of months.
Ultimately, this is just a snapshot of where the various services are today, and the reality will evolve. Both HughesNet and ViaSat are launching new satellites this year, with new capabilities made to provide more competition for Starlink. Starlink is readying its own next-gen hardware and launching more satellites, but it’s also going to have its own data caps soon. The caps could improve service generally, but also add a new twist for Starlink users to navigate.
The bottom line is that all three satellite ISPs are worthwhile, and while we recommend Starlink today, the increased competition could bring big changes in the near future.
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