Starlink and Other Satellite Internet Connectivity Options
With the rise of Starlink, you’ve now got three serious satellite internet contenders to choose from. Use this guide to think through satellite options.
With the unstoppable rise of Starlink, you’ve now got three serious satellite internet contenders to choose from. HughesNet pretty much wrote the book back in 1996, and Viasat has been making waves since 2011. But right now, in 2022, what do you need to know to choose a satellite internet provider?
It all comes down to latency, speed, coverage, and plans. Let’s see how the three main providers measure up. For some further reading, we recommend checking out this guide we wrote in the past on some non-speed ISP performance metrics that matter.
You could write a book about latency. Heck, you could write an epic series of books (and here at Lightyear we’d read them all, cover to cover).
Latency is the measure of how long it takes a signal to travel from one place to another. In network-speak, when we talk about the “signal,” we’re referring to a data packet. Latency is a hot topic in many other industries and technologies – low latency is valuable in sectors as diverse as healthcare (for diagnostic imaging equipment) and pro audio and visual (to ensure the proper synchronization of sound with the action on-screen or onstage).
The aim is always to reduce latency (measured in milliseconds) to as close to zero as possible. However, the greater the distance traveled by the signal, the higher the latency. There are other contributing factors, too – every time a signal is transferred from one piece of equipment to another, or converted in some way, the latency increases.
But distance is the primary contributor to network latency issues. And it’s an obvious barrier if your signal needs to travel off-planet and back.
There’s a big difference between the way Starlink and their competitors approach latency.
How big a difference? About 21,000 miles, give or take.
Traditional satellite internet providers use satellites in geostationary orbit. These need to be positioned 22,000 miles from the planet’s surface. Long distance = high latency.
In contrast, Starlink’s satellites have used what’s called low earth orbit ever since they were launched in 2019. As you might imagine, these are positioned much closer to us, at distances between 125 and 1,000 miles from Earth’s surface. Shorter distance = lower latency.
When it comes to internet performance metrics, Ookla is the unquestionable authority, the “gold standard” people stake their decisions on. And according to an Ookla report in August 2021, Starlink’s unconventional approach to making big metal things whizz around the planet was paying off nicely. Here’s how the three main providers stack up for latency (with earthbound fixed fiber/broadband numbers included for perspective).
Starlink = 45 ms
HughesNet = 724 ms
Viasat = 630 ms
All Fixed = 14 ms
So, as you can see, Starlink’s latency game is strong, compared to their satellite internet competitors.
It’s not all skittles and beer, though. What low earth orbit satellites gain in latency, they lose on coverage. The further back you position your satellites, the wider the surface area they can cover, so there’s distinct operational disadvantages when you work in low earth orbit. However, Starlink seems determined to make up for it by going all out – according to this report, Starlink satellites account for more than a third of all satellites currently in orbit.
Internet speed is a measure of how quickly a connection can upload and download data. To keep this separate from latency in your mind, here’s an analogy.
If you were loading shopping from your cart onto the conveyor belt at the store, latency would measure the length of the conveyor belt. Speed would be how quickly you could keep adding your groceries to the belt (also, upload/download measurements would require the cashier to also be loading up another conveyor belt coming in the opposite direction, but let’s not get too hung up on the analogy).
Internet speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps), which shouldn’t be confused with megabytes, which are 8 x greater than megabits. It is determined under the following categories.
the capacity of the internet service provider
their backbone network bandwidth
their network architecture (including peering and transit points)
equipment performance at every stage
Here’s the stats for satellite internet speed. Again, we’ve included the data for fixed connections, too, as a benchmark.
Starlink: Download = 97.23 Mbps /// Upload = 13.89 Mbps
HughesNet: Download = 19.73 Mbps /// Upload = 2.43 Mbps
Viasat: Download = 18.13 Mbps /// Upload = 3.38 Mbps
All Fixed: Download = 115.2 Mbps /// Upload = 17.18 Mbps
Coverage is (one of) the big selling points for satellite internet – freed from the constraints of infrastructure, satellite broadband provides connectivity solutions in locations where you’d otherwise struggle (think Alaskan research stations or mining operations).
All three providers provide details of their coverage on their websites (linked below), with some notable differences.
Starlink is aiming to become a fully global satellite broadband service. Starlink's map shows both current and planned coverage, with variations according to what they can reliably provide in each use case, be it residential, business, maritime, IoT, and so on.
Viasat also harbors global ambition – its planned expansion is based around the new ViaSat-3 satellite, which is reaching the final stages of testing and development as we speak.
HughesNet remains focused on providing coast-to-coast US coverage, along with a few other selected regions.
When procuring satellite internet, it pays to be patient – it’s often a matter for skilled negotiation. All three providers post their rates on their websites, but it’s useful to view these as a starting point, in the same way that you’d use the displayed price on a car as the beginning of a discussion.
Just one plan at $500 / month + $2,500 one-time setup fee
Plans ranging from $70 / month - $135 / month depending on bandwidth needs
Plans ranging from $50 / month - $400 / month based on bandwidth needs and utilization
Of course, who you should use depends on your specific location, bandwidth needs, network utilization, and more. Also, don’t forget to at least check if non-satellite alternatives may work, such as Dedicated Internet Access, or a wireless connectivity alternative.
Not sure what option is best for your need? We can help with this. If you visit our website, you can get to configuring your connectivity need in seconds. We’re also happy to get our industry professionals on a call with you, to talk it through and help you navigate the process.
Want to learn more about how Lightyear can help you?
Let us show you the product and discuss specifics on how it might be helpful.
Not ready to buy?
Stay up to date on our product, straight to your inbox every month.