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Hughesnet vs. Viasat: Clash of the satellite internet titans

These two major providers are often the only choices for customers in remote parts of rural America. Which one comes out on top?

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Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

For Americans living in rural or less densely populated parts of the US, satellite internet might be the only option for getting online. That's unfortunate, because satellite internet is slower, less reliable and less affordable than ground-laid cable or fiber internet. Even outdated technologies like DSL might offer better speeds at a better value.

Still, established satellite providers can offer service pretty much anywhere, and if nothing else is available, your choice boils down to Hughesnet and Viasat. (Apologies to Elon Musk's Starlink satellite internet, which is only available to a limited number of customers in select areas across the country thus far.) Picking between the two might feel like picking between Coke and Pepsi -- a matter of taste between two largely identical products -- but there are some distinct differences you'll want to be well aware of before deciding. Let's have a look.

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Both providers offer service pretty much anywhere, though Hughesnet does a better job of covering Alaska than Viasat does.

FCC/Mapbox

Availability is a wash

Both Hughesnet and Viasat are available across all 50 states, and they're the only major ISPs able to make that claim. That's because satellite internet doesn't depend on ground-laid cable or fiber deployments, or the need for a cellular tower. All that's needed is a dish at your home -- to be installed by your provider -- to allow you to connect to satellites orbiting approximately 20,000 miles above the Earth. If you've got a clear view of the southern sky, you should be eligible for either Viasat or Hughesnet internet service.

How do Viasat and Hughesnet plans and prices compare?

Both Hughesnet and Viasat offer four distinct plan tiers. At first glance, it would appear that Hughesnet's cheapest plan is cheaper than the opening offering from Viasat, and Viasat's top plan is significantly faster than the best selection from Hughesnet. But we need to dive into the details a bit more.

Hughesnet plans and pricing

Plan Max speeds Starting price per month Price after 6 months Contract terms Equipment costs Data allowance
Hughesnet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $40 $60  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 10GB
Hughesnet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $50 $70  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 20GB
Hughesnet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $80 $100  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 30GB
Hughesnet Gen5 25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $130 $150  Two years $15 a month or $450 one-time purchase 50GB


Viasat plans and pricing

Max speeds Starting price per month Price after 3 months Contract terms Equipment costs Data allowance
12Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $50  $70 Two years $13 a month or $299 one-time purchase 40GB
25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $70  $100 Two years $13 a month or $299 one-time purchase 60GB
50Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $100  $150 Two years $13 a month or $299 one-time purchase 100GB
100Mbps download, 3Mbps upload $150  $200 Two years $13 a month or $299 one-time purchase 150GB

One of the first things you'll notice is that the promo period for both these providers is significantly shorter than the 12 months you typically get with most cable and fiber providers. Hughesnet cuts that in half by bumping the price up by $20 after six months. If that weren't bad enough, Viasat only offers promo pricing for three months before kicking things into a pricier gear -- and with the two fastest plans, the price jump is a staggering $50.

Viasat gives customers more speed options

When it comes to the fastest speed available, Viasat tops Hughesnet. The Unlimited Gold plan has a max download speed of 50 megabits per second, while the Unlimited Platinum tops out at 100Mbps. Hughesnet can't match that -- all plans offer a top speed of just 25Mbps, with the more expensive tiers merely offering more data each month. 

However, Viasat's faster plans aren't available everywhere. Even though it boasts a 100Mbps plan, the top speed tier available in many areas is the 12Mbps plan. Meanwhile, the 25Mbps you get from Hughesnet is available across all serviceable areas, which allows Hughesnet to boast that it can provide broadband speeds to all customers in all its regions. 

Just keep in mind that the Federal Communications Commission's current definition of "broadband" (25Mbps download, 3Mbps upload) was formulated in 2015, making it an outdated benchmark for modern internet usage. Give Hughesnet points for consistency, perhaps, but the claims of "broadband everywhere" aren't anything to brag about.

Both Viasat and Hughesnet share a sketchy idea of unlimited data

Hughesnet touts its "unlimited data,'' and Viasat even puts "unlimited" in the plan names -- but both providers are playing fast and loose with the term.

In the case of Hughesnet, there are indeed no hard data limits. This means you won't be cut off and you won't face overage fees if you go over your monthly data allowance. That said, you will experience extreme slowdowns once you hit your monthly data cap. Specifically, customers who exceed the monthly data cap can expect their download speeds to be throttled from 25Mbps to 1-3Mbps for the remainder of the month. 
 
It's a similar story over at Viasat. The company won't charge you any additional fees for going over the data limit, but you will suffer from severely reduced download speeds for the remainder of that month. 
 
It's tempting to give Viasat the nod here because the data caps for each plan are higher than those you'll get with Hughesnet. For example, Viasat's Platinum package comes with 150 or 300 gigabytes of data, while Hughesnet's top package features 100GB -- but let me throw out a couple of caveats, as well. 

First, just like the speeds, Viasat's data allowances can vary from region to region. Meanwhile, Hughesnet's data caps are consistent across the entire coverage map. Hughesnet also offers a "Bonus Zone" -- a window between 2 and 8 a.m. when customers can use an additional 50GB per month of data. It's not exactly convenient, but it could potentially double your data allotment if you're an early riser, or if you're able to schedule large downloads in advance. Viasat doesn't offer anything like that. Lastly, Hughesnet customers also can buy "Data Tokens," each of which will add additional gigabytes to your monthly cap. Again, Viasat doesn't match that.
 
It's a close call, but I'm inclined to give a slight edge to Hughesnet, even though the totals are lower when it comes down to data comparison. Both providers have data limits that can be tough to live with, but Hughesnet presents consistency across its plans as well as opportunities to purchase more data if needed.

Additional fees are steep, but Viasat's are slightly cheaper

One of the necessary evils with satellite internet service is a higher equipment fee than you'll see with cable, DSL or fiber. For example, most cable providers will allow you to skirt the monthly modem/router fee by using your own equipment, but neither Hughesnet nor Viasat gives you that option. Let's take a closer look at what you can expect. 

One-time installation fee 

Self-installation isn't an option with either of the major satellite internet providers. With both Viasat and Hughesnet, it's professional install only, including a technician visit and setup of the satellite dish and equipment. With both providers, the installation will cost you $100. 

viasat-satellite-dish

Unless you want to buy it for a steep upfront fee, you'll need to pay $13 per month to rent your equipment from Viasat -- and installation costs $100, too.

Viasat

Additional monthly equipment fee 

As I mentioned above, you won't be able to use your own modem with either Hughesnet or Viasat. Instead, you'll need to rent your equipment, or pay for it upfront. With Hughesnet, that means another $15 per month to lease the Hughesnet Wi-Fi Modem, though you can also buy the equipment for a one-time fee of $450, which includes the installation fee.

Viasat takes a similar approach but charges customers $13 a month to rent its Wi-Fi equipment. If you want to go the route of buying the equipment upfront, you'll be charged a one-time fee of $300. That definitely isn't chump change, but it's significantly less than the $350 you'd pay with Hughesnet (minus the installation cost).

Contracts and early termination fees

Both Hughesnet and Viasat require a two-year contract. With Viasat, if you cancel before the contract is up, you'll need to pay an early termination fee of approximately $15 for every month remaining on your contract. In the case of Hughesnet, the amount could be as steep as $400 if you cancel within the first 90 days of service. 

Viasat does offer the option of foregoing the two-year contract by paying a $300 upfront fee at the start of the service. This will save you $45 if you decide to cancel after the first 30 days of your service. Gee, thanks.

Though Viasat wasn't scored at all, Hughesnet finished dead last in JD Power's most recent ISP customer satisfaction survey for the US South region.

JD Power

Customer satisfaction is a mixed bag

The 2021 American Customer Satisfaction Index for ISPs didn't include separate scores for satellite providers like Viasat and Hughesnet. While the ACSI confirmed with CNET that scores for both providers were included in the overall rankings, it's impossible to pull out their individual numbers. As an industry, the numbers held steady from the previous year, but it isn't easy to know exactly what that means for either of our satellite providers.  

Unfortunately for Hughesnet, the 2020 J.D. Power US Residential Internet Service Provider Satisfaction Study did highlight it in the study's South region. The company earned a disappointing score of 620 on a 1,000-point scale, which was dead last among all other ISPs listed in that same region. This isn't necessarily surprising given satellite internet's reputation for spotty service. The technology is known to be finicky in bad weather, sluggish in performance and expensive compared to other modes of internet.

It's one of the main reasons billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are investing in low-earth orbit satellites, which are approximately 60 times closer than those in use by Viasat and Hughesnet. With satellites closer to the ground, the signal from your dish won't need to travel as far, which can potentially reduce latency and boost speeds. But while Musk's Starlink has made a lot of progress in 2021, neither service is widely available just yet.

The bottom line

So, did you choose Coke or Pepsi? If you reside in a remote stretch of rural America, it's possible your only choices for internet service are Hughesnet and Viasat. While Hughesnet's consistency across all corners of the coverage map makes for a decent pitch, the chance for higher download speeds and greater data allowances tilts the scales towards Viasat. Be sure to check with both to see which one is the best fit at your address -- and if anything else is available, be sure and consider that as well.