HughesNet is a provider of high-speed satellite internet service that entered the satellite internet market in 2012. They were also the first to reach the FCC’s definition of broadband speeds back in 2017 with max download speeds of 25 Mbps. HughesNet, is the largest satellite internet provider with about a million subscribers in North America. They have about a 50% market share as of 2021.
Starlink is a relative newcomer officially founded in 2015. Their initial prototype satellites were launched in late February 2018. As of 2022 Starlink has launched thousands of low earth satellites into orbit. Starlink internet service has exited its beta program and is now officially available to the general public. Of course there are still some geographic areas that Starlink is not yet available and there is currently a waitlist of over a year to get your Starlink equipment.
TL;DR Answer: Starlink is better than HughesNet due to its faster speeds, lower latency, and unlimited data without throttling. HughesNet requires a 24 month contract, whereas Starlink is month to month with no contracts. Starlink is the better option when compared to HughesNet.
How They Operate
The technology used by Starlink works differently than the technology used by HughesNet. They both use satellites and that is about where the similarities end.
HughesNet uses geostationary satellites located about 22,000 miles above the Earth. Their latest satellite Jupiter 2, is able to provide coast to coast coverage across the United states. The technology works as follows.
A ground station transmits signals from Earth up to the satellite located about 22,000 miles in altitude. The satellite then processes the signal. After the processing is complete the signal gets beamed back down to earth. Equipment at the subscribers location is then able to receive the signal beamed back to earth by the satellite. Uploads work very similar only in reverse.
Starlink uses similar technology including ground stations, satellites, and satellite dish transceivers. However Starlink differs in a key way. Starlink uses special low Earth orbit satellites located just a few hundred miles above the Earth. This limits each satellite to covering a relatively small geographical area. To mitigate this challenge, Starlink uses thousands of these low earth orbit satellites with thousands more planed to be deployed in the coming years. The other major challenge is that the satellites are not geostationary. They are constantly in motion, this requires the customers equipment to be able to track the satellites as they move.
Newer Starlink satellites also feature laser links between satellites. This will help to reduce the need to have as many ground stations and will also offer some redundancy. Laser links will also be essential to providing truly global coverage. As of May 2022 Starlink only recently started incorporating the laser technology into their satellite constellation.
How Fast Are They
Satellite internet has historically been slower than most other options and generally a last resort option for most people. This has improved somewhat in recent years but not that much. High latency is always going to be an issue when using a satellite located 22,000 miles above the earth. It is simple physics, the speed of light is a known constant. Starlink aims to mitigate these issues by using low earth satellites.
HughesNet offers plans up to 25 Mbps across North America. This is roughly the same as many DSL plans. Upload speeds max out at 3 mbps which is similar to DSL but not really that high. Uploading files to the cloud is time consuming at these speeds.
The bigger issue with HughesNet is latency. Latency is an issue with all satellite internet providers that use similar technology. The 44,000 mile round trip to and from the geostationary satellite adds 600 – 800 milliseconds of latency to each and every data request. This makes satellite internet unusable for online gaming and for VoIP applications.
The other limitation of most satellite internet providers including HughesNet is a lower data cap. HughesNet plans range between 10 and 50 gigabytes per month in high speed bandwidth. This is not enough if you plan to use streaming video services including Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and YouTube for more than a few hours per month. When you reach your data cap your speed gets throttled down to between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps.
Most wire based terrestrial internet service plans have data caps ranging from about 1000 gigabytes per month to unlimited. The data caps put in place by HughesNet are extremely limiting.
Starlink is currently advertising between 80 Mbps and 150 Mbps of download speed and 30 Mbps of upload speed. This is a lot higher than that of HughesNet. Real world testing shows average speeds of about 100 Mbps. Starlink says they plan to offer speeds as high as 300 Mbps in future years. Upload speeds are generally in the 20 Mbps – 30 Mbps range. This is similar to many cable based internet connnections, but much lower that what is available with fiber. It is also 10 times as fast as DSL for uploads.
Latency is about 40 – 50 milliseconds at the present time. They say that as more satellites are deployed latency will decline somewhat. The low earth orbit satellites require data to take a round trip of only a few hundred miles vs 44,000 miles with geostationary satellites. This is largely the reason that latency is so much lower with Startlink. The lower latency makes Starlink suitable for both VPN connections and for online multiplayer gaming.
In contrast to HughesNet, Starlink definitely offers better performance. As Starlink continues to mature, the differences will likely grow even greater.
Starlink at the present time does not have any data caps. This is a huge benefit for anyone who does a lot of streaming. It remains to be seen if data caps will eventually get added.
How Much Do They Cost
Satellite internet tends to be more expense than most other options both in terms of speed and data caps. In most cases if you are using satellite internet, you are using it because you do not have any other option available to you at your service address. Satellite internet is generally expensive for what you get.
HughesNet plans range from $59.99 up to $149.99 for most residential plans. They offer discounts for the first 6 months of service. This is expensive compared to other non satellite options especially when you factor in the data caps.
HughesNet installation costs $99 .99 and equipment rental cost about $14.99 per month for the lifetime of your service. You also have the option to buy the equipment outright for $249.99.
Currently the monthly cost for Starlink internet service is $110 per month. This is still on the pricey side, but it is similar to top tier packages from Comcast and Verizon. Speeds are currently lower than what most people get with similarly priced terrestrial services. It is a much better value than HughesNet for most people.
The Starlink equipment starter kit costs $599 and includes everything you need to get started using Starlink internet service.
Where Are They Available
One of the primary benefits of satellite internet is the fact that it can reach even the most remote of areas including those with no other options for connecting to the internet. That said, the coverage area is still limited by the geographical footprint covered by the satellites used for each service.
HughesNet offers service nationwide across the United States and much of North America. Virtually anywhere in North America that has a clear unobstructed view of the sky can get HughesNet. This is the main benefit of satellite based internet.
Starlink is currently available to a large portion of the population of North America. Currently Starlink is prioritizing high latitude regions. This includes Canada and the upper region of the United States. Starlink recently added coverage in he state of Texas. Eventually Starlink aims to cover the entire Earth.
What Is The Best Choice
At the present time the choice is simple. If you are not able to get cable or fiber based internet service and you live in a Starlink coverage area sign up now. The technology is vastly superior to that of any legacy satellite provider. The low earth orbit satellites are a complete game changer.
If you do not live in a Starlink coverage area and have no access to terrestrial internet services, your options are going to be limited to services such as Hughesnet or Viasat. These services are improving each year but the latency issues caused by using geostationary satellites will persist. Keep an eye on Starlink because they are rapidly expanding their coverage area over the coming years.