How do I get high-speed internet in rural areas?
First, let’s take a step back here and point out that 2.1 million Americans still used AOL’s dial-up service in 2015. Yup, we’re talking about those internet CDs you used to get in the mail in the ’90s.
While surfing the web on a 56 Kbps dial-up connection may cost you only $20 a month or so, it’ll take you about five minutes to load a web page. Streaming videos or gaming online? Don’t even think about it.
Thankfully, the days of having only dial-up when you live out in the country are pretty much gone. Now most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cover the majority of the US. And if cable or fiber haven’t made it to your neck of the woods, there are other good options.
But which is best—satellite, DSL, fixed wireless, or mobile wireless? The answer depends on what you’re looking for in terms of price and speed—and where you live.
Here are the top high-speed internet options for rural areas.
4 Ways to Surf the Web in Your Neck of the Woods
|Provider||Connection Type||Price*||Speeds||Data Cap||Learn More|
|Viasat||Satellite||$50–$150/mo.||Up to 100 Mbps||Unlimited†||View Plans|
|CenturyLink||DSL||$45–$65/mo.||Up to 100 Mbps||1 TB||View Plans|
|Rise Broadband||Fixed Wireless||$24.95–$59.95/mo.||Up to 50 Mbps||150–250 GB||View Plans|
|Verizon||Mobile Wireless||Starts at $85/mo.||Up to 4G LTE||15–20 GB||View Plans|
*Data current as of 12/10/18. Prices and availability vary by location. †Data may be slowed after 40, 60, or 100 GB, depending on your plan.
Even with fewer options than the big-city folks, it’s still a hassle to compare rural internet options. Since we’ve already compared prices, speeds, data caps, and availability in the table above, we’ve got a few recommendations to help you decide.
Take a look at our choices for rural internet providers to see which ISP will work best for you.
Best Satellite Internet
Speeds: 12 Mbps up to 100 Mbps
Data Cap: 35–100 GB
Speeds: 25 Mbps
Data Cap: 10–50 GB
Satellite internet chugs along at a minimum of 12 Mbps—that’s 12,000 Kbps compared to AOL’s 56 Kbps dial-up speeds. And while it costs more than the $20 a month for dial-up, prices for satellite internet are well worth loading Google in seconds rather than minutes.
- Wide availability
- Speeds that rival cable
- High latency
- Performance issues with weather
Find out which satellite ISPs are available in your area.
We recommend Viasat because it has higher data caps—HughesNet limits your data usage based on the plan you pay for. After you use up all your data with HughesNet, your speeds slow to 1 to 3 Mbps. (Which is still faster than dial-up, by the way.)
Viasat also slows your speeds after you meet its data caps but only if there’s a lot of other traffic using the network. So, you could still race along at 100 Mbps, as long as it’s not during peak hours.
But look out for Viasat’s price hikes after three months. If you prefer a steady, lower price, check out HughesNet’s two-year price guarantee.
Sure, satellite internet isn’t perfect. It has high latency, which means you’ll probably experience lag if you game. And weather can affect its performance. But new satellite launches and technology continue to make satellite a more-than-viable option for anyone who prefers wide-open spaces.
Best DSL Internet
Speeds: 20–100 Mbps
Data Cap: 1 TB
Availability: 36 states
Speeds: 5–100 Mbps
Data Cap: 1 TB
Availability: 21 States
While there are only two satellite ISPs, you’ve got a handful of choices when it comes to a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection. Two standouts in this area are CenturyLink and AT&T Internet, though Frontier, Verizon, and Windstream also offer DSL.
We chose CenturyLink as your best bet, mostly due to its Price for Life plans. Once you sign up, you pay that same price for as long as you keep your CenturyLink service. Compared to other ISPs that tie you into contracts and then jack up the price, CenturyLink’s approach is a breath of fresh air.
- Faster-than-dial-up speeds
- Lower quality service if you’re far from ISP
With either CenturyLink or AT&T Internet, you will have a data cap. But it’s huge—it’ll take you some serious streaming, downloading, and uploading to hit that 1 TB limit.
If you don’t want that data cap hanging over your head, both Frontier and Windstream don’t have one. Free at last!
Heads Up: Some DSL providers offer up to 1,000 Mbps speeds.
If you’re browsing CenturyLink’s site and stumble upon its 1,000 Mbps plan, don’t be shocked. By augmenting the DSL line with a fiber connection, many ISPs—CenturyLink included—can offer gigabit speeds. Don’t get your hopes up just yet though. If you live in a rural area, it’s quite likely you won’t get these speeds. Bummer, we know. Still, it’s always worth checking.
Best Fixed Wireless
Speeds: Up to 50 Mbps
Data Cap: 150–500 GB
Availability: 19 states
Speeds: 10 Mbps or faster
Data Cap: 170 GB
Availability: 18 States
Fixed wireless is slowly replacing DSL in rural America, and we can’t wait to see its coverage expand more. If this is the first time you’re hearing about fixed wireless, you should know right now that it’s not Wi-Fi nor is it satellite or mobile internet.
In a nutshell, fixed wireless providers beam your internet connection from a fixed location to an antenna installed on your roof, which then goes to your router. That’s why weather and even trees, hills, or mountains can have such an impact on your fixed-wireless connection.
- Moderate availability
- Lower latency
- Performance issues related to weather and terrain
- Low data caps
But if you’ve got a clear view from your roof, fixed wireless can be a huge step up from DSL. Rise Broadband, our top fixed wireless internet pick, offers speeds up to 50 Mbps. That’s not bad, considering we’ve seen DSL speeds of about 2 Mbps while visiting family in rural Wisconsin.
One downside to fixed wireless is that some providers seem to offer low data caps. Currently, Rise Broadband gives you a pretty hefty max of 500 GB of data each month, but AT&T Fixed Wireless gives you only 170 GB each month. If you’ve got kids who love to stream every single Disney movie, they’ll eat that AT&T data up fast.
But keep an eye on AT&T’s fixed wireless, because the company has big plans to reach 1.1 million locations in 18 different states by 2020. And as it develops its 5G technology, the future of its fixed wireless plans can only get brighter.
Best Mobile Wireless
Plans: Beyond Unlimited, Above Unlimited
Prices: Starts at $85/mo.
Hotspot Speeds: 4G LTE, then 600 Kbps
Hotspot 4G LTE Data: 15–20 GB
Coverage: Ranked 1st in two tests
Plans: ONE Plus
Prices: Starts at $85/mo.
Hotspot Speeds: 4G LTE, then 256 Kbps
Hotspot 4G LTE Data: 20 GB
Coverage: Ranked 1st and 4th in two tests
You’re likely already familiar with the four big contenders for mobile wireless: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Along with providing you cellphone service, these companies often let you turn your smartphone into a mobile hotspot.
That means your laptop, tablet, or any other Wi-Fi enabled device can hop onto the internet thanks to your cellphone. But be wary—your wireless data will be used by each of those devices, so you could hit your cellphone data limit much more quickly.
- Wi-Fi almost anywhere
- 4G LTE speeds that can reach 15+ Mbps
- Very low data caps
- Patchy coverage
We chose Verizon as our top pick for mobile wireless, mainly due to its high marks for coverage from OpenSignal and RootMetrics. In fact, you won’t find better coverage from any other wireless provider. It also ranks well for speed, though that could dip in rural areas, according to Speedtest’s data.
The Verizon Beyond Unlimited plan gives you 15 GB of 4G LTE data, while its Above Unlimited plan boosts that to 20 GB of 4G LTE data. Both Verizon plans slow your mobile hotspot speeds to 600 Kbps once you’ve hit that data cap—but we found Verizon’s slowed hotspot speeds were faster than most competitors’ slowed speeds.
Pro Tip: Save money by signing up for paperless billing and Autopay.
All four wireless providers offer you monthly discounts if you sign up for paperless billing and Autopay. Usually it’s to the tune of $5 per month per line, which adds up fast.
But if Verizon’s not your jam, T-Mobile may be a better fit. Its ONE Plus plan gets you 20 GB of 4G LTE data, and you’ll meander along at 256 Kbps after that.
T-Mobile is ranked first and fourth for coverage by OpenSignal and RootMetric, respectively, and Speedtest ranks it first for speed. We picked T-Mobile over AT&T since you get more gigs of hotspot data (20 GB versus 15 GB), but if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly pick, AT&T fits that bill.
Sprint, on the other hand, can seem like a perfect budget pick. But we don’t recommend it since it lags quite a ways behind the others for coverage in OpenSignal’s and RootMetrics’ tests. The idea is to get you a stable internet connection, not one that drops every few minutes!
What to Look For When Buying Rural Internet
Now that you know more options are out there than just dial-up and satellite, it’s time to start shopping.
Along with your personal needs, what should you keep in mind when shopping for rural internet? Here’s our take.
Price is a huge factor for most of us, and sadly, many of your rural internet options don’t come cheap. But there are a few ways you can keep the cost under control:
- Don’t buy more data than you need. Those unlimited data plans are super tempting, but if you use only 5 GB of data each month, you’ll pay more than you should. Monitor your data usage for a month with your current plan and look for a plan with a data cap to match.
- Watch out for price hikes. Read the fine print. Companies like Viasat start with competitive rates, but you’ll end up paying more each month after the first few months. For a price that won’t change, try HughesNet—or grab a CenturyLink Price for Life plan.
- Compare equipment costs. How much does it cost to rent or buy the equipment you’ll need? And what about installation? Keep these fees in mind when you compare options, and don’t be afraid to ask for a discount or waiver.
Speed can be another tempting reason to throw all your money at your internet connection, But you may need less than you think. Here’s what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommends:
- Social media, email, and browsing the internet: 1 Mbps
- Streaming video in standard definition (480p): 3–4 Mbps
- Streaming video in high definition (720p): 5–8 Mbps
- Streaming video in 4K: 25 Mbps
- Gaming: 3–4 Mbps
Keep in mind that you’ll want more speed if you have multiple people or devices using your internet connection at the same time.
Data caps can be a real killjoy. But if you’re mainly using the internet to check stock prices, email your mom, and chat with friends on Facebook, you probably won’t hit a data cap.
For those of us who love to stream shows on Netflix, game, or upload lots of files, data usage is something we should keep an eye on. Or you can play it safe by grabbing a plan with a high or unlimited data cap, like HughesNet’s 50 GB plan or Rise Broadband’s 500 GB plans.
The lack of internet provider choices in rural areas is a sad reality in our country. In 2016, the FCC reported that 36% of rural Americans had no access to broadband internet.
Chances are if you live in a rural area, you know all too well about the lack of affordable internet options. That’s why availability is such a key factor in deciding which ISP to use.
Satellite and DSL are perhaps some of your best options in terms of availability. Satellites can beam down an internet connection to pretty much anywhere, and DSL hooks up to your existing phone lines.
But with the expansion of fixed wireless and mobile wireless networks, you may not have to give up a zippy internet connection just to enjoy some peace and quiet out in the country.
Looking for rural internet? Now you’ve got choices behind doors one, two, three, and four.
Between satellite internet, DSL, fixed wireless, and mobile wireless, you should be able to hop on Reddit, swipe on Tinder, or log into Battle.net from the comfort of your farmhouse, cabin, or ranch home—whatever you’re into.
And hopefully we’ll see even more internet options make their way to the country in the future. But for now, we’re just thankful the days of dial-up are (mostly) over.
What is the best internet service for rural areas?
We’d have to say the best internet service for rural areas is satellite internet, based on price, availability, speeds, and data.
You just can’t beat that availability and variety of options. And as Viasat and HughesNet continue to upgrade and launch new satellites, it’s only going to get better.
Of course, you shouldn’t overlook your other options.
Best Internet Service for Rural Areas:
Should I get fixed wireless internet service?
If you can get fixed wireless, go for it. Often the prices are quite affordable, and as long as you don’t need more than 50 Mbps, you’re good to go on speed too.
Of course, that data cap could be a huge downer. If you need to use more data than 150 to 500 GB, check out DSL or satellite internet instead.
Is there any unlimited satellite internet?
Technically there are no unlimited satellite internet plans, but Viasat comes the closest. It slows your speed once you’ve met your data cap (up to 100 GB), but only if there are a lot of other people using the network.