Satellite internet provides online access to rural customers. In the U.S., Viasat and HughesNet have been the primary satellite providers. Starlink, a division of SpaceX, became a new provider when it introduced a gradual rollout of beta service.
All three companies provide satellite internet; Viasat operates several high-capacity communications satellites in orbit thousands of miles above the earth. Starlink is creating a network of thousands of small satellites in low orbit. This difference creates opportunities and challenges for all three providers. If you’re wondering if Starlink will be a better option than Viasat, consider how these factors intersect with your needs:
If you need satellite internet access quickly, your options are limited by region. Viasat has operated for decades in satellite communications and offers internet coverage in 49 states and parts of Alaska. Usually, subscribers can schedule an installation technician within three to five days.
Access to Starlink service varies; some areas have waiting lists to reserve service when it becomes available while the company gradually increases coverage. It continues to launch batches of low-orbit satellites, with over 2,000 launched and around 1,800 active. Starlink has regular launches planned throughout 2022.
Another factor delaying Starlink availability is supply chain disruption which interrupted production of dish kits. In late 2021, Starlink delayed estimated delivery by months and even into 2023. For now, the timing of Starlink availability remains uncertain.
Interest in Starlink has grown because it offers something new in satellite internet service: speeds of 100-200 Mbps, low latency, and no data throttling.
For providers like Viasat, speed is limited by the distance between satellites high in orbit and users on earth. Satellite internet providers like Viasat using geostationary satellites typically provide maximum speeds between 25 and 100 Mbps. The primary speed difference, however, is latency; high-latency satellite internet can’t accommodate graphics-heavy, synchronous online video games. In late 2022, Viasat will launch its ultra-high-capacity ViaSat-3 satellite, which will enhance speed and data capability, though latency will remain high.
For online gamers or high data consumers, Starlink could be an appealing option but still remains inaccessible in many regions.
While the appeal of low-latency satellite internet is understandable, Starlink’s commitment to innovation may bring customer interest but a learning curve for the company.
Starlink’s network of low-orbit satellites makes high speed and low latency possible, but that network has been deployed during a low solar activity phase. The sun is entering a high-activity phase of increased solar storms. In February 2022, Starlink lost almost an entire batch of new satellites when they encountered extra atmospheric drag due to a minor solar storm. Starlink will have to adapt quickly and develop solutions to scale up its satellite network in order to increase service availability.
Viasat has a proven track record of building, launching, and operating geostationary communications satellites at an orbit less vulnerable to geomagnetic storms. Companies like Viasat and HughesNet don’t yet offer low-latency internet, but they have years of experience providing steady satellite service to residential and government clients.
With a variety of price points, Viasat service ranges from $85 to $250 a month (less if you qualify for the affordable connectivity program). Sometimes the installation fee can be waived, and Viasat equipment is leased for a monthly fee.
Starlink has two service plans, where available. Residential Starlink subscribers buy equipment for a $500 upfront fee plus shipping, buy any necessary installation hardware, and pay a flat service cost of $99 a month. The new Starlink premium service for small businesses has a $2,500 equipment cost and a service cost around $500 a month.
Every subscriber has a unique set of needs around access, speed, reliability, and cost. If Starlink is able to maintain and scale up its satellite network while increasing service availability, it may become a strong competitor to established satellite providers in the future.
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