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HughesNet satellite internet review: Does dependability trump speed?

For Americans in rural areas, slower satellite service may be the only option for internet connectivity.

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Ry Crist/CNET

Hughes Network Systems was the first satellite internet service to offer broadband download speeds of 25 megabits per second in 2017. Since then, a lot has changed, and I'm not just talking about Elon Musk's efforts to disrupt the satellite internet category

More than anything, the pandemic certified our collective dependence on our internet connections -- and it made the lack of such access for so many in rural America painfully clear, too. Where internet infrastructure falls short, satellite internet service might be the only option for getting online. 

Satellite internet is faster than a phone-line-based DSL connection, but it can't compete with the speeds you get with cable or fiber connections. That said, ground-laid cable and fiber are not readily available to people outside densely populated areas. Even with speeds that fall well short of cable or fiber, established satellite providers like HughesNet that can genuinely claim to offer service everywhere are more relevant than ever.

5.7

HughesNet satellite internet

Like

  • Reliability, consistent broadband speeds in all service areas
  • HughesNet Bonus Zone is an extra 50GB of data a month during off hours
  • No hard data caps

Don't Like

  • Two-year contract, early termination fees if you cancel
  • 'Unlimited' data is misleading -- HughesNet will impose severe speed reductions once you hit your data plan's threshold
  • High equipment costs (though not for satellite internet)

With wide availability across all 50 states, HughesNet is a prime connection option for rural residents. It's not as fast as Viasat, which offers satellite internet plans with download speeds of up to 100Mbps in some areas. Still, HughesNet has a better track record with outages on DownDetector.com, and, unlike Viasat, it offers the same broadband speeds to all customers in all regions. If speed is what you need, you might want to keep looking, but if a reliable connection is paramount and you're unserviceable for cable or fiber, HughesNet could fit the bill. Let's dig in and take a look at the details. 

hughesnet-coverage-map

HughesNet's coverage map spreads across the whole US, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. No matter where you're connecting from or what plan you're going with, you can expect download speeds of 25Mbps.

FCC/Mapbox

HughesNet satellite internet plans and prices 

HughesNet keeps things pretty simple. No matter which plan you choose, you're going to get download speeds of 25Mbps and upload speeds of 3Mbps. Promotional rates may also be available based on where you live. Currently, and until Sept. 28, new customers can save $20 a month on all plans for the first six months of their two-year contract. Equipment can be leased for $15 per month with a $99 lease setup fee, or you can buy it upfront for $450 (including installation). 

What varies from plan to plan is your monthly data allowance -- the more you pay each month, the more data you get each month. Here's the current breakdown:

HughesNet satellite internet plans

Plan Max speeds Monthly cost Contract  Equipment costs Data allowance
HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $60  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 10GB
HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $70  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 20GB
HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $100  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 30GB
HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $150  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 50GB
HughesNet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $150  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 100GB

All HughesNet Gen5 plans offer the same max download speeds to all customers. That consistency of service and speed reliability is a huge plus, and it sets HughesNet apart from providers whose speeds might vary from location to location. In fact, the 2018 Federal Communications Commission report on broadband highlighted that HughesNet did the best among participating providers when it came to actual versus advertised speeds, with median speeds that were 150% or higher than the advertised speed.

As for value, HughesNet is roughly on par with its main rival, Viasat. With that competitor, you'll need to pay $70 per month to match HughesNet's 25Mbps download speed, and that monthly price will go up to $100 after just three months. However, that Viasat plan also comes with a 60GB data cap, twice as much data as the $100-per-month HughesNet plan allows. In some regions, Viasat also offers faster plans than HughesNet, including plans with download speeds of up to 100Mbps.

Your data is far from unlimited

While HughesNet touts its "unlimited data," that's a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there are no hard data limits, so you won't be cut off or charged more if you go over your monthly data allowance. That's a huge relief as you try to plot out your monthly budget. 

However, you can expect severe slowdowns once you hit that monthly data cap. Specifically, HughesNet will cut your download speeds from 25Mbps down to 1 to 3Mbps for the remainder of the month. Keep that in mind as you consider which data plan to select. 

For example, you might be tempted to go with the cheapest plan, which HughesNet recommends as "perfect for the single user or couple who is passionate about fast internet." But that plan comes with 10GB of data, which can be quite limiting. How limiting? Netflix estimates it takes approximately 1GB to stream an hour-long show in standard definition and 3GB to stream an hour in high definition. Even at Netflix's lowest data setting -- 0.3GB per hour -- it wouldn't be much of a challenge to blow through that 10GB cap in a week or two.

This is where the HughesNet Bonus Zone comes into play. During the off-peak hours of 2 to 8 a.m., customers receive an additional 50GB of data per month. Depending on the plan you choose, this could more than double your data allotment, and it might help you bridge the gap between your typical usage and your plan's ceiling. Granted, it's not the most convenient time, but with a bit of planning, you could schedule a movie download or some other activity to take advantage of the extra data.

Other fees and details to know about HughesNet 

HughesNet's satellite internet service is relatively straightforward, but you'll want to understand everything that'll show up on your bill before signing up. Here's a quick rundown.

One-time installation fee 

HughesNet charges $99 for standard installation, though this fee is waived if you decide to plunk down $450 to buy your modem instead of renting it. There is no self-installation option like you might find with other internet connection types. Standard install includes a technician visit and setup of the HughesNet satellite dish and Wi-Fi modem.

Additional monthly equipment fee 

You will not be able to use your own modem with HughesNet Gen5 plans. To lease the HughesNet Wi-Fi Modem, which doubles as a Wi-Fi router, you will need to add $15 a month to your bill. While this is the most popular option for customers, you can avoid this monthly charge by buying the equipment for a one-time fee of $450, including the standard installation charge.

That's still a very hefty price, but it might be worth considering if you plan on sticking with HughesNet for the long term. Compared to paying $15 per month in perpetuity, you'll break even in just under two years by paying that one-time, upfront expense of $350 (remember, the $450 figure includes installation, which typically costs an extra $99). If you plan on keeping your HughesNet connection any longer than that, then paying upfront is actually the less expensive proposition.

Potential early termination fee

That two-year break-even rate on the modem purchase probably isn't an accident, as all HughesNet plans require a two-year contract. Cancel before the contract is up, and you'll incur an early termination fee as high as $400 if you're still within the first 90 days of service. The amount decreases by $15 a month after that, which means that you'd still need to pay a fee of $100 if you cancel during the very last month of your contract.

Emergency Broadband Benefit availability

HughesNet participates in the EBB, a Federal Communications Commissions program to assist families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible households will receive a discount of up to $50 per month (and up to $75 per month for qualifying Tribal lands) towards internet service. This program is available to both new and existing customers facing financial hardships.

The ACSI didn't include brand-specific scores for satellite internet providers like HughesNet in 2020.

American Customer Satisfaction Index

HughesNet has work to do on the customer satisfaction side 

The American Customer Satisfaction Index didn't include separate scores for satellite providers like HughesNet and Viasat in 2021. Still, those rankings factored into the overall aggregate score for internet providers -- and that score held even with the previous year, which itself was up 5% from 2019. That's good, but it's hard to read too much into that. 

Elsewhere, the 2020 J.D. Power US Residential Internet Service Provider Satisfaction Study was a lot more telling, with HughesNet earning a score of 620 on a 1,000-point scale in the South region. That's below average for the region and made for a last-place finish compared with nine other ISPs in the study.

"We've been working diligently to support the needs of our customers," Hughes Senior Vice President Mark Wymer said when we asked about that ranking. "We're constantly trying to improve, but I also think we're providing a strong service and score very well with the FCC in terms of the service levels we're providing.

"What we really focus on is the underserved areas of the US and bringing those customers a high-speed experience," Wymer said. "So for those people that choose to live in those less densely populated areas, we want to be their primary choice."

HughesNet's most recent outage report on DownDetector.com occurred in September of last year, when a peak of just over 100 users reported a service outage that seemed to last about six hours. Satellite rival Viasat has seen several outage reports since then, including two so far in 2021 and one in October 2020 that drew more than 800 reports at peak. 

DownDetector.com

Meanwhile, the website DownDetector.com tracks user service outage reports, including for internet providers like HughesNet. Disruptions during inclement weather are pretty common with satellite internet, but HughesNet's track record on DownDetector is surprisingly strong, with no major outages reported thus far in 2021. The most recent came in September of last year when a little over 100 users reported an apparent outage that lasted roughly six hours. 

The lack of outage reports may simply indicate that most satellite outages are tied to specific areas hit by bad weather and too small to show up on a site like DownDetector. Still, several consecutive months without a single outage report is a strong showing for HughesNet. For comparison, Viasat already has two apparent outages logged in 2021: a 12-hour outage reported by a peak of 150 users on May 20 and a 17-hour outage reported by a peak of 70 users on Feb. 20. DownDetector also logged a 13-hour Viasat outage reported by a peak of 60 users on Nov. 13 of last year, as well as four separate outages in October, including a seemingly significant, 8-hour-long outage on Oct. 5 that drew more than 800 reports at its peak. 

The bottom line

If you live in a highly populated urban or suburban area, you'll likely have other, faster internet connection choices, and HughesNet isn't for you. On the other hand, if you reside in rural or less densely populated areas without many options for getting online, HughesNet might be the best and most reliable connection available. It may not be the fastest satellite provider out there, but its commitment to supporting broadband speeds to all serviceability areas makes it a compelling pick under those circumstances. 

HughesNet satellite internet FAQs

What is the HughesNet Bonus Zone?

The HughesNet Bonus Zone describes the window of 2 to 8 a.m. each day when customers can access an additional 50GB of data per month. While these off-peak hours might not seem convenient, they present a great time to schedule a movie download, set up system updates for your devices or maybe even do some early-morning online shopping.

Is HughesNet internet service fast?

The HughesNet Gen5 plans all meet the FCC's definition of broadband speed -- 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload. While you can make the case that this baseline qualification as broadband speed doesn't qualify as "fast," it is undoubtedly faster than the DSL plans that might also be available to rural customers.

Can I game with HughesNet Gen5?

It's not recommended, no. One of the challenges with satellite internet service as a connection type is the high latency. Latency describes the amount of time it takes for data to travel from one point to another -- and with satellite internet, that data has to travel into space and back. That makes it tough to keep up in certain online games, especially shooters and other games where quick reflexes and real-time decision-making are critical.

To combat that high latency, HughesNet is introducing a new service called HughesNet Fusion, which is currently only available in select areas in the Northeast. It's not any faster than the Gen5 plans, but it utilizes a combination of satellite and wireless technology to make activities like online gaming and VPN usage more feasible.

How about watching my favorite movies in HD?

Yes, but it's not automatic. The HughesNet service automatically streams videos at 480p to help you save your data, but you can change this setting pretty easily via the HughesNet mobile app.

Will HughesNet speeds get faster in the future?

Up next on the horizon for Hughes is its Jupiter 3 satellite launch, currently scheduled to blast off in 2022. The company tells CNET that consumers should expect to see new offerings made available after that satellite makes it into orbit, including plans that support download speeds of up to 100Mbps. 

"This will be one of the largest satellites to be launched and will basically double the size of our network," Hughes SVP Wymer said. "The satellite industry continues to innovate and move forward, so it's an exciting time."