How bad is satellite internet service?
June 25, 2014 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering buying a house in rural Vermont where cable and dsl internet are not available, and mobile phone service is spotty. It seems the only option would be satellite internet through a provider such as HughesNet. Would this be a huge mistake?

I'm pretty wary of satellite internet, especially after reading this previous question from 2011. Have things improved at all in the last few years? I see HughesNet is now advertising their "Gen4" offering, which is supposedly faster, although the speeds listed are much slower (and more expensive) than typical cable services - plus I'm not sure that they will even be able to deliver on the speeds they promise. I would love to hear from any current subscribers about the performance and customer service of HughesNet or any other similar satellite internet services. Am I right to be worried about this, or is it not as bad as I fear?

The most critical use is for work which would involve email, instant messaging, web browsing, skype, webex/ type applications, and occasional vpn (I think that last one will be the worst). Being able to stream movies would also be nice. Not much of a gamer.

Thanks, MeFi!
posted by bobafet to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The main problem with satellite internet is latency. See this Ars Technica article from 2013 for some information. I don't think the latency issue is going to be resolved any time soon.

For streaming HD movies you need a reliable 8MBps speed, I think.
posted by dfriedman at 10:04 AM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: I live in such a rural area where DSL and cable internet are not available. Had I known this beforehand, I might not have bought the house.

That said, my neighbor has HughesNet Gen 4 and does nothing but complain about what a joke it is. He says he gets frequent overage charges, the speeds are slow, and there is trouble with the connection during bad storms.

His complaints were enough to steer me away.

Mobile phone service is good, but I feel like we'd exceed the caps quickly and incur lots of overage charges, so we decided not to go that route.

I pay through the nose for a residential T1 line, after an excruciating search for companies that would even offer T1 to residential customers. The service is decent but not fantastic. We sometimes have trouble with streaming video like Netflix and YouTube, as well as on occasion with gaming.

I'm waiting to jump on any kind of broadband service that comes our way.

Unfortunately, if you buy this house, you'll likely have to bite the bullet and get T1.
posted by tckma at 10:07 AM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: We stayed at a cabin that had satellite Internet service via DirecTV/Exede, and though the experience was predictably painful, it was workable for the week we were there. Skype/WebEx calls were okayish, albeit laggy. Mind that for streaming, etc., the data caps are going to be a real downer; Netflix is ~1GB/hour for SD content and ~3 GB/hour for HD.
posted by evoque at 10:12 AM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: A friend of mine has it out in the country in central Texas. It's simply unusable for webinars she hosts as part of her work, unfortunately. She has rented an office in town (with wired Internet) for when she really needs to do that.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:14 AM on June 25, 2014

How far out of the DSL service area is it? my friends parents owned a house like this that was pretty far outside any cable or DSL service. And his dad, being a network engineer, decided to harangue the phone company until he got them to agree to something along the lines of "i'll pay for a couple months even if it doesn't work" and they hooked it up.

It didn't sync at 40mbps or anything, but it worked at maybe... 1.5-3? and it was real DSL, with decent latency and everything. I do remember it going down sometimes and the phone company being really flippant, but it was better than satellite.

Honestly, the best part of it was that it was really cheap. It's not like any other solution you come up with is going to be faster, unless it's "pay a ridiculous ton for an LTE hotspot you constantly go over on" if that's even an option.
posted by emptythought at 10:14 AM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: All my friends with satellite say it's basically only workable for, like, email and browsing. The problem is you are literally shooting your data up into freaking SPACE then shooting it back down again, so there's only so much they can do to cut down latency because it's not a question of adding more lines or upgrading to fiber optic.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:17 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Satellite is a mistake unless you only need it for small transactions. It is a Slow, Narrow pipe.

I know someone who has 2 of them running on a load balancer and the latency still stinks but the bandwidth isn't as awful.
posted by Megafly at 10:42 AM on June 25, 2014

One other option that might be available in your area is a WISP. This would be a (typically small) company that maintains a network of wireless repeaters that allows them to serve rural customers from a big wired connection at a location in town. These services can vary in quality quite a bit depending on a number of factors, so you should talk to existing customers if you do find one nearby. Here's a short list of WISPs in Vermont. I don't know how current or inclusive it is, you might be able to find something better by including your specific county or neighborhood in your search terms. If you find one that serves nearby areas but not your neighborhood precisely it may still be worth giving them a call. They might be willing to expand their coverage a bit, and if nothing else it will let them know there's interest.
posted by contraption at 10:49 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might try a Verizon MiFi. In similar rural situations it has worked surprisingly well for me. You might have to experiment with placement a little bit to get a strong signal, but it is doable.
posted by spilon at 11:05 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would prefer dial up to satellite internet, honestly. Between the latency and the overage charges and its complete unsuitability for doing any modern internet things, you'd be just as well off, but for cheaper.

The day we finally convinced the phone company to bring dsl the extra hundred yards to our house was a good day indeed.
posted by mgar at 11:24 AM on June 25, 2014

Before rural (7Mb) DSL was available here (I live in Oregon), we used a Microwave based service provider. The service was quick, but not fast. It was a synchronous 1.5 Mb upstream and downstream connection. They mounted a small book sized box to the house and ran one wire into the house. Try to see if Microwave Broadband or WiMAX service is available to you.
posted by Leenie at 11:25 AM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: My folks have HughesNet. Fortunately my father never uses the internet and my mother only looks at websites and checks her email. I once, foolishly, tried to stream something when I was visiting. I would have been better off walking to the internet somewhere in China and watching the video.

One problem that they've faced is that they are too far out for cable or dsl AND there's little to no cell phone coverage. As a result, my mom's fancy new iphone is practically useless in her home as is her fancy computer.
posted by teleri025 at 11:56 AM on June 25, 2014

Here's a weird thought. Most cable companies get the license to be the sole provider of content (monopoly) in an area based upon the promise of wiring up a certain number of homes within the approved area.

Here is the information for the Vermont Public Service Board. You can call them and find out what they're doing to have services provided to you.

If there's a town near you, with cable, and you're about 5 miles further out in the boonies, the cable company may be OBLIGATED to provide you with cable, they just don't want to.

Anecdata: When cable came to Phoenix, we lived up against a mountain and had not received television signals for about 8 years. My mom went to the city council and pitched some sort of hissy fit that resulted in the cable company reluctantly bringing cable, across the desert and down the dirt road to our house. Then we watched the SHIT out of that mess.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:06 PM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: it. sucks. balls.

even rural dsl/cable sucks balls. because they don't want to run the high speed lines out to you. i just moved rural and while we have internet it maxes at 3 download and POINT 5 upload which sucks for working.

we have called every service provider in the area and they either don't serve us or they cap at 25GB a month (laughable).

so if you do work from home and work with massively huge files like i do, satellite is not for you. and if you luck out and get cable or dsl you're still going to be sitting there cursing for hours waiting for your fucking file to upload to your client.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:05 PM on June 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I live in Randolph VT and the speeds I can get max out at 7MB for DSL and I have no idea what my cable options are. I live on a main highway but in a small county.

The main problem with satellite internet is latency.

Not really, latency sucks but you don't notice it unless you're doing something like online gaming. The main problem is bandwidth caps and upload speeds. This makes it almost impossible to stream anything or fpt anything and even, sometimes, upgrade software without dealing with steep overage charges. I live somewhere in Vermont where there is DSL. I have friends who live nearby in one of the most lovely places on earth but there are two of them and they have satellite (via WildBlue who maybe just resells Hughes? I am never sure how it happens) and this is a major quality of life issue for them. This is true even though they live someplace where they have decent cell coverage. If you have a lifestyle that is used to having an always-on connection, I'd be more concerned about the no-cell issue combined with the satellite issue and not just the satellite on its own.

If there's a town near you, with cable, and you're about 5 miles further out in the boonies, the cable company may be OBLIGATED to provide you with cable, they just don't want to.

It's not that simple, at all. Most companies have eventual plans for service but getting your specific area connected may be low on the priority list. A lot of places that have passable satellite and/or 3G are not as high on the list as places that don't. And it's a known problem that's being actively worked on and it's still very difficult with the main DSL provider in the state on the verge of going bankrupt which puts off some of their deliverable dates. I live in a town which runs an article in the newspaper when a street gets wired. It's happening, but slowly and you should be prepared for this to be a thing.

If you want to email me and tell me where you're thinking of moving I can give you some inside baseball intel on it if I have any.
posted by jessamyn at 1:07 PM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Totally agree with misanthropicsarah.

I can't speak to Vermont, but the satellite connection we had in Wisconsin was worse than any dial-up I've ever been on. Maybe it was the carrier/provider, but here are the problems I had with it:
•Super slow both up and downstream. Painfully slow.
•Because of the speed everything that wasn't a basic text document would time out and need to be reloaded 40-50% of the time. Forget about youtube videos or streaming anything. Skype? hahahahahahahahahaha...
•For some reason I had to adjust both of my email in/out servers to the satellite company's servers. This, in fairness, may be the fault of the company and not the connection, but wow did it suck not to be able to send and receive things without going into preferences and setting up the servers while I was using it.

I got an iPad to use as a hotspot specifically because the 3/4G coverage was better and faster than the satellite. Just terrible.
posted by Tchad at 3:30 PM on June 25, 2014

Best answer: In my experience, satellite Internet really, really sucks. I would never consider buying a house at which I would have to rely on satellite Internet service. I have a married pair of senior citizen friends who are fairly light users of the Internet to begin with, and even they think it's terrible.

Everything is slow/delayed, even things like sending an email. If the slowdown isn't due to one cause (latency), it's due to another (congestion [which occurs 24/7], other traffic on your link, being throttled for using too much data recently, service impairments, etc).

Everything that is bad about satellite Internet gets worse when you use a VPN over it. Satellite networks perform protocol spoofing to try to work around some of their inherent latency/BDP challenges, and they are not able to do that for most (if any) VPN protocols. So, everything going over the VPN will be even slower than normal.

Another thing I would strongly caution against is buying a house or moving somewhere with the idea that *any* company "has plans" to provide broadband service there. My above-mentioned friends were told by AT&T that AT&T has no plans to provide broadband service in their area and cannot be induced to do so at any cost. They were told by Charter (the incumbent cable company in the area) that there are no plans to provide service in their area, but that if they paid Charter somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 and were willing to wait two years, that they "should" be able to install service. (And no, they would not get a discount on the monthly service charges were they to do this. They asked.)

The T1 used to be the last-resort reliable option; the line might be outrageously expensive (depending mostly upon your wire distance from the telephone company's serving equipment) but they were usually obligated to provide one eventually. Now, this may be changing as well. Incumbent telcos have been floating plans to stop accepting orders for new T1 lines, and with the way other related decisions have been going lately, even this may well be approved.

WISPs can be a good solution, but they are by no means universally available. Even if one or more WISPs are available in your area, I would recommend having them do a site survey to ensure service is actually available before making a purchase. Like cellular signals, WISP signals are affected by many factors and can be pretty hit-or-miss.

Finally, there is 4G/LTE cellular Internet; AT&T and Verizon sell "discounted" data services for this purpose. Verizon's prices start at $60/mo with a 10 GB monthly cap. The highest plan you can get is $120/mo for 30 GB; it's an extra ten bucks a gig after that. These LTE-based services, where available and when properly installed, are usually fairly speedy, but you'll have to watch your data usage closely to avoid overage charges.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 3:35 PM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding contraption's suggestion you look into a WISP, aka Fixed Wireless. They tend to be small local companies. It's nowhere near as good as wired DSL or cable modem, but it's a lot better than satellite. Requires a clear line of site to another house with the service or else a tower. Can sort of work through tree canopies at low speeds. I've got fixed wireless at my rural house and it's 1 megabit for $99/month. Which is terrible but better than nothing. The latency is very low and the link is reliable.

I'm not sure satellite Internet is better than nothing. I'd consider it unacceptable.
posted by Nelson at 6:07 AM on June 26, 2014

Best answer: Hi. jessamyn alerted me to this thread as I live in rural Vermont, have no other option for highspeed (satellite is not considered broadband), and have used satellite from Wildblue (now ViaSat or Exced or something) since we moved here in 2006. Friends who have had Hughes have reported hating it, and I can't recommend it based on that. From what I have seen, Excede is the best of the providers.

For most purposes you describe satellite is fine, but most -- if not all -- providers have data caps, and they are low. Mine is 17GB per month, but the problem is the month is floating, meaning that unlike a cellular provider I can't watch my use and get a fresh batch of data on X day of the month.

We don't stream movies, not even YouTube videos, the latency (and bandwidth) means no Skype, Google hangouts, Netflix, online gaming, etc. Ever.

For web browsing, it is fine, but I use all sorts of ad/flash, etc blockers to make sure no unauthorised bandwidth is used. We make sure our AppleTV, and PS3, etc are set to NEVER automatically update software. My iMac hasn't had an upgrade since I purchased it, and we take our phones, iPads, laptops etc to town when they need updating.

That said I don't have many of the problems described above. We get about 3Mbps down but less than 1 up. I rarely/never have to refresh a page for it to load. Only in the worst of weather do I lose connection, and often a power cycle fixes the connection.

When we are home we turn our phones on to cellular so as not to use the wifi unnecessarily. We switched from AT&T recently to Aio (subsidiary of AT&T so uses their towers) which recently bought Cricket. Pretty damn reasonable rates too. $40/month for 2.5GB data but they don't charge if you go over, they just throttle you down until the month is up.

Depending on where in Vermont you will be there may be other options opening up for you. I have been in touch with VTel wireless and they expect their WoW service -- a state-wide 4G wireless broadband network -- to be available to me by this autumn. I am told that my proximity to the tower, and reports from other areas already being served, may mean initial speeds of 45Mbps, and possibly more later. They too have bandwidth limits, but they are higher, and cheaper than satellite. For what I am paying for the 17GB/mon, VTel gives 50GB/mon. Still not enough for entertainment services, but I don't really mind that. YMMV.

Anyway, living in Vermont is its own reward, and I wouldn't trade it for unlimited fiber ever. Seriously. But if your livelihood depends on it, then you may need to consider other options, including living in a city or a town. Rural to me is on my hillside 20 mins from the nearest town (less than 2k people), which has broadband in the form of DSL (Fairpoint is rapidly expanding their servicers), and many of the towns inmy area are slowly getting fiber from a group called ECFiber. The latter has great promise, but they have had problems getting funding, and so they are selling shares, and winding their way to the more affluent towns in an effort to raise money to expand their network.

Hope this was helpful. If you want to discuss this more, MeMail me and I will be happy to pass on my phone number. As much as I hate phones, I hate typing more :)

P.S. Many of the services being quoted above just don't exist here.
posted by terrapin at 7:37 AM on June 26, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, everyone! This has been really helpful in the decision making process.
posted by bobafet at 8:02 AM on June 26, 2014

Best answer: If Verizon is available there, there is a reseller of their service that offers a MiFi with 20GB of data for "only" $90/mo. If you can receive even a marginal signal outside, at all, you can probably install an antenna on the roof and amplifier and get reasonably good service in your house.

That said, LTE data isn't really all that great. Better than an overloaded 3Mbps DSL line, but not by a lot, IMO. With any capped option, you aren't going to want to stream video. Sorry.

FWIW, I have had reasonable luck with early HughesNet installs for basic web browsing and email, but sucks for just about everything else. Hell, it probably sucks for web browsing (without adblock anyway) now that nearly every website has flash ads taking up half the page, but it did at one time work reasonably OK. I haven't used one in over 5 years now. Supposedly the newer satellites have more bandwidth, so maybe it sucks a little less.

Point being, it's usable if your expectations are extremely low. If you expect to be able to download updates while streaming Netflix and browsing the Internet on your tablet, you will be very disappointed with anything that doesn't involve a wire, including most WISPs.
posted by wierdo at 1:37 PM on June 26, 2014

Best answer: I'm in a rural part of SoCal, so YMMV, but--
WildBlue's newer, faster service (Excede, IIRC) is more expensive, but you get from 12pm-5am in your time zone "free"--as in no bandwidth limits and the speed can be faster. Plus the bandwidth limit resets every month instead of a rolling 30 day average. I used my connection to use Google Voice on my cell the other day and it worked well.

Hughes seems to be hit-or-miss. We hated it when we had it, but my neighbors have it and love it. Though they're not as heavy internet users as we are. :)
posted by luckynerd at 8:01 PM on June 26, 2014

« Older What is a good dry cat food for a senior (13 years...   |   Spinach and wolves Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.