Rural communities across the United States are demanding more bandwidth and better internet options for their homes, which broadband service providers are seeking to reliably deliver. As more people, particularly in rural areas, choose to engage in remote work, distance learning, telemedicine, and other bandwidth-intensive activities, they require higher-speed internet connectivity.
Rural internet is being delivered to residential customers through DSL, satellite, cable, fixed wireless, and fiber optic broadband services. The rural internet providers offering this connectivity include Starlink, HughesNet, Viasat, Xfinity (Comcast), Spectrum (Charter), Cox, T-Mobile, and AT&T.
Dgtl Infra evaluates the best rural internet options and providers across the United States. Additionally, we review why rural internet is so slow, compared to urban markets, as well as the government funding initiatives seeking to speed up rural connectivity. Finally, Dgtl Infra answers important consumer questions such as How Can I Improve My Broadband Speed in Rural Areas?
What Types of Internet are Used in Rural Areas?
The three main types of high-speed internet used in rural areas are DSL (digital subscriber line), satellite, and cable. While newer rural internet options, such as fixed wireless and fiber optic services, are available only in a limited number of rural locations. Below is further detail on these five types of rural internet options:
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line)
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is a broadband technology that transmits voice, video, and data traffic over an existing twisted-pair copper telephone line. Overall, DSL is the slowest rural internet option, with ADSL and VDSL technology offering download speeds of only 3 megabits per second (Mbps) to 100 Mbps and upload speeds of only 512 Kbps to 10 Mbps.
Residential satellite broadband services provide internet access to consumers through geostationary orbit (GEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) systems. Satellite broadband delivers download speeds of 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps and upload speeds of only 3 Mbps.
Notably, LEO-based satellite broadband services, such as Starlink (discussed below), are able to provide higher download and upload speeds. However, even these LEO-based offerings are becoming more capacity-constrained as additional customers sign-up for the service.
READ MORE: Elon Musk’s Starlink and Satellite Broadband
Cable utilizes a hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) distribution system in which coaxial cable and fiber optic cable are used in different portions of a network to carry video, voice, and data traffic. Presently, cable networks, using DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1 standards, offer download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), but upload speeds of only 35 to 50 Mbps.
READ MORE: DOCSIS 4.0 – Next-Generation Cable Networks
Fixed wireless, also known as fixed wireless access (FWA), is a type of wireless broadband service which connects fixed locations, such as a home, through mobile networks. Internet connectivity is delivered via the transmission of radio signals from base stations, which are often mounted at high elevations on cell towers.
On average, fixed wireless internet delivers download speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to 400 Mbps and upload speeds between 10 Mbps and 50 Mbps.
READ MORE: Fixed Wireless Internet – a Broadband Alternative Emerges
Fiber optic internet is commonly referred to as fiber to the home (FTTH), which means that fiber optic cable provides an end-to-end connection between a telecommunications provider’s central office and the boundary of a customer’s home. Presently, fiber optic services deliver symmetrical download and upload speeds, meaning they are equally as fast, reaching up to 2 Gbps and higher.
READ MORE: Fiber to the Home (FTTH) vs FTTP, FTTN, FTTC, and FTTB
How Can I Get Internet if I Live in a Rural Area?
If you live in a rural area, you can get internet access through rural internet providers which offer DSL, satellite, cable, fixed wireless, and fiber optic broadband services. Examples of these rural internet providers, categorized by type of internet service, are outlined below:
- DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream
- Satellite: Starlink, HughesNet, Viasat
- Cable: Xfinity (Comcast), Spectrum (Charter), Cox, Cable One
- Fixed Wireless: T-Mobile, AT&T, Rise Broadband, Verizon (limited availability)
- Fiber Optic: AT&T Fiber, Verizon Fios, Quantum Fiber (Lumen), Kinetic (Windstream) – which all have only limited availability
Rural Internet Providers – Summary of Residential Options
Below we provide further details on rural internet providers from the most relevant types of residential internet service for rural areas, namely satellite, cable, and fixed wireless:
|Provider||Type||Price Range||Download Speeds||Website|
|Starlink||Satellite||$110/month||50 to 200 Mbps||LINK|
|HughesNet||Satellite||$65 to $160/month||25 Mbps||LINK|
|Viasat||Satellite||$65 to $170/month||12 to 100 Mbps||LINK|
|Xfinity||Cable||$50 to $80/month||100 Mbps to 1.2 Gbps||LINK|
|Spectrum||Cable||$50 to $90/month||300 Mbps to 1 Gbps||LINK|
|Cox||Cable||$50 to $80/month||100 Mbps to 1 Gbps||LINK|
|T-Mobile||Fixed||$50/month||33 to 182 Mbps||LINK|
|AT&T||Fixed||$70/month||10 to 25 Mbps||LINK|
|Rise Broadband||Fixed||$35 to $50/month||25 to 50 Mbps||LINK|
What is the Best Way to Get Internet in Rural Areas?
As a general rule, the best way to get internet in rural areas is through satellite or fixed wireless internet service.
With that said, several different factors determine an individual customer’s best way to get internet in rural areas, because each person’s criteria and location are unique. For example, availability of service, affordability, download speeds, upload speeds, and contract length are all examples of factors that impact which internet provider is the best option for a particular home.
If fiber optic or cable internet is available in your rural area, then these wired broadband options will provide the fastest, most reliable broadband service. In contrast, DSL is usually the slowest rural internet option and is often considered only as a last resort.
READ MORE: Broadband Internet – Everything You Need to Know
In most instances, fiber optic or cable internet service is not available in rural areas. Therefore, the best way to get internet in rural areas would be satellite or fixed wireless internet service.
Satellite broadband provides reliable and ubiquitous internet coverage across the United States, and is particularly important in serving hard to reach rural areas. To this end, satellite internet does not face the same physical constraints of a wireline network (e.g., challenging terrain), meaning satellites can provide connectivity in areas without coverage from fiber optic or cable networks.
However, satellite internet service is often the most expensive rural broadband alternative, while it suffers from lower capacity per subscriber – which translates into lower speeds as more subscribers join a network – and higher latency, given a satellite’s distance from earth. Additionally, extreme weather conditions, such as heavy cloud cover, can cause satellites to experience difficulties communicating with ground stations and ultimately providing services to customers.
Below we review the key characteristics of satellite broadband options for rural areas from providers Starlink, HughesNet, and Viasat.
Starlink provides satellite broadband service for homes, businesses, RVs (recreational vehicles), and maritime vessels across the globe, relying on low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. For residential purposes, Starlink offers broadband internet service in rural locations for $110 per month with a one-time hardware cost of $599.
In the United States, a recent study by Ookla showed that Starlink delivered median download speeds of 62.53 Mbps and median upload speeds of 7.24 Mbps. Also, Starlink’s median latency (ping) was 48 milliseconds (ms). Notably, Starlink’s speeds have been decreasing over the past year as more users sign-up for the service, because they are all utilizing the system’s finite capacity.
Additionally, Starlink is not always available to new subscribers in rural areas. For example, when attempting to pre-order Starlink, prospective customers sometimes receive a message that reads: “Starlink is currently at capacity in your area, so your order may not be fulfilled until 2023 or later”.
HughesNet and Viasat
HughesNet and Viasat provide residential satellite broadband services, relying primarily on geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites. Given that GEO satellites orbit earth at a significantly further distance than LEO satellites, their latency is meaningfully higher at around 700 milliseconds (ms).
HughesNet’s service plans are designed to deliver download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. While Viasat offers a greater range of internet plans, covering download speeds of 12 Mbps to 150 Mbps, but similar upload speeds to HughesNet.
At these capacity offerings, HughesNet and Viasat’s pricing is generally $75 per month or higher, depending on the data plan chosen.
Fixed wireless offerings from T-Mobile, AT&T, and Rise Broadband are the most applicable to providing rural internet, as these companies extend their services deeper into rural areas.
In contrast, Verizon’s fixed wireless internet plans (5G Home, 5G Home Plus, 4G LTE) mainly target denser urban and suburban areas. While Starry’s fixed wireless network only serves customers in parts of six large U.S. metropolitan areas.
T-Mobile Home Internet
T-Mobile offers its fixed wireless internet service under the T-Mobile Home Internet branding and charges $50 per month, including taxes and fees. This service delivers typical download speeds ranging from 33 Mbps to 182 Mbps and typical upload speeds between 6 Mbps and 23 Mbps. Also, T-Mobile’s Home Internet provides typical latency (ping) between 20 ms and 40 ms, depending on the frequency band being used.
T-Mobile charges no equipment fees, meaning that a gateway device, which combines the capabilities of a router and a modem, is included as part of a customer’s plan. Additionally, there are no data caps or data overage fees for T-Mobile’s Home Internet product.
In terms of commitment, T-Mobile Home Internet has no annual contract and no early termination fees.
Finally, the T-Mobile Home Internet service is self-setup, involving the placement of T-Mobile’s gateway device in a customer’s home and a step-by-step guide through the T-Mobile Internet app.
AT&T offers its fixed wireless internet service to customers living in select rural areas who cannot get a traditional wired broadband AT&T Internet service.
For its fixed wireless internet service, AT&T charges $70 per month, plus taxes and fees. This service delivers download speeds ranging from 10 Mbps to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps.
Rise Broadband is one of the United States’ largest fixed wireless broadband service providers, delivering high-speed Internet services to homes and businesses across 16 states. Particularly, Rise Broadband operates in rural and suburban areas of the Midwest, Rocky Mountain, and Southwest regions.
As shown below, the company provides services in parts of Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Rise Broadband has two primary service tiers for its fixed wireless internet offering:
- Standard: delivers download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 4 Mbps, at pricing of $35 per month
- High Speed: delivers download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 Mbps, at pricing of $50 per month
Why is Rural Internet so Slow?
Population density is a key factor as to why rural internet is so slow in the United States. Wireline networks like fiber optic or cable deliver significantly faster speeds, however, their construction costs are meaningfully higher in sparsely populated rural areas, as compared to densely populated urban environments.
READ MORE: Fiber Optic Network Construction – Process and Build Costs
As a result of higher construction costs, historical investment into building high-speed internet services in rural areas has lagged, due to economic decisions from the large telecommunications providers.
As a reference point, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines high-speed broadband as providing minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps, which many lower-density rural communities lack access to.
Nevertheless, high-speed network deployments are increasing in rural America with the support of federal, state, and municipal programs for the construction of communications infrastructure. These programs are helping to bridge the digital divide, with commitments to deploy broadband networks and provide internet access for all people, even in rural and remote locations.
Investing to Speed Up Rural Internet
The United States government is committed to investing in rural internet connectivity with broadband funding programs established through a variety of agencies including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as through individual states and municipalities. Examples of these programs are:
- Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD): $42.45 billion of funding set aside as grants in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which will be administered by the NTIA
- Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF): $20.4 billion total for Phase 1 and 2, of which $9.2 billion was allocated by the FCC in Phase 1. RDOF provides capital expenditure subsidies in support of high-speed broadband, at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, to unserved and underserved areas of the United States
- ReConnect Loan and Grant Program: $1.15 billion of support from the USDA to fund the costs of construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities & equipment needed to provide broadband service in rural areas
READ MORE: Broadband Investment Accelerates with Government Funding
How Can I Improve My Broadband Speed in Rural Areas?
To improve your broadband speed in rural areas, try using external antennas, which can be mounted on the outside of your house, to more optimally receive radio signals. By pointing these external antennas at your nearest cell tower and connecting the antennas back to your modem/router (also known as a gateway) with coaxial cable, your download and upload speeds can significantly improve.
READ MORE: How to Find Your Nearest Cell Tower Location
In rural locations, signal strength is a common issue because cell towers often broadcast radio signals at over a mile away from a customer’s home. If you rely on fixed wireless service for internet access in a rural area, your modem/router (gateway) contains only a small antenna to receive a radio signal from the nearest cell tower. This small antenna is limited in its ability to receive radio signals, leading to sub-optimal performance in terms of your download and upload speeds.
Solution – External Antennas
To resolve the issue of signal strength, users often purchase multiple external antennas, which enable the reception of significantly more radio signals into each antenna. For example, companies such as Proxicast and Waveform, produce high-gain directional antennas which can improve signal strength and speed for wireless services provided by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
Below are links to where MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antennas from Proxicast and Waveform can be purchased:
Additionally, below is a video illustrating how an external antenna can be combined with T-Mobile’s Home Internet gateway and mounted onto a home, to enhance fixed wireless download and upload speeds:
Finally, external antennas can also be added to improve the performance of mobile hotspot routers such as the NETGEAR Nighthawk M1 4G LTE WiFi Mobile Hotspot, which is a popular rural internet option. These devices requires a Nano SIM card from a wireless carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile and activation of a BYOD (bring your own device) data plan.
Below is a link to where the NETGEAR Nighthawk M1 4G LTE WiFi Mobile Hotspot can be purchased: