Viasat has been been around since 1986 and launched into the satellite internet market officially in 2001. They are an established playing in the satellite internet market. Viasat and Hughesnet together dominate the 95+% of the market share for satellite internet in the United States of America. Starlink is a newcomer officially founded in 2015. The first two prototype satellites were launched in late February 2018. Starlink have since launched thousands of low earth satellites into orbit. Starlink internet service is currently in a public beta phase which began in October 2020.
How They Work
The technology used by Starlink is very different than that used by Viasat. Although both use satellite technology to deliver internet services, the technology they use are very different.
Viasat uses traditional geostationary satellites located 22,000 miles above the Earth. A ground station broadcasts a signal up to the satellite located 22,000 miles above the Earth. The satellite then processes the signal before beaming it back down to earth. Equipment at the subscribers location then receives the signal from the satellite and reassembles the data. Communication back to the satellite from the subscribers location also takes place. With this technology fewer satellites are needed to cover a given area. This is the primary advantage held by Viasat.
Starlink uses a similar technology but it differs in a key way. Starlink uses special low Earth orbit satellites located just a few hundred miles above the Earth. This poses a challenge since each satellite can only cover a very small area. To mitigate this problem Starlink uses thousands of these satellites with thousands more planed to be deployed in the coming years. The other challenge is that the satellites are constantly moving. This requires specialized equipment on the subscribers end in order to track the satellites as they move.
How Fast Are They
Satellite internet has traditionally been extremely slow and a last resort option for most people. This has improved some in recent years but satellite internet still lags behind other broadband technologies both in terms of speed and latency. Starlink aims to mitigate these issues by using low earth satellites.
Viasat offers plans up to 100 Mbps in select regions with most areas having access to plans of up to 30 Mbps. This is roughly equal to some faster DSL plans. Upload speeds max out at 3 mbps which is not all that high. Uploading files to the cloud at this speed is a very lengthy process.
The number one issue with Viasat is latency. This is also an issue with other satellite internet providers that use similar technology such as Hughesnet. The 44,000 mile round trip to and from the geostationary satellite adds 600 – 800 milliseconds of latency to the connection. This makes satellite internet completely unsuitable for anything latency sensitive including VoIP and online gaming.
The other limitation of most satellite internet providers including Viasat is a lower data cap. Viasat plans range between 12 and 100 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. Note that when you exceed this they do not charge you extra but instead deprioritize (throttle) your speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle.
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 Viasat are extremely limiting.
Starlink is currently in public beta and is advertising between 80 Mbps and 150 Mbps of download speed and 30 Mbps of upload bandwidth. This is significantly higher than that of Viasat. Real world speed tests have shown speeds of about 100 Mbps being typical. Starlink says they expect speeds as high as 300 Mbps to be coming in future years. They also talk about the possibility of being able to offer gigabit speeds in coming years. Upload speeds are generally in the 20 Mbps – 30 Mbps range. This is comparable to many cable internet connections but much lower that what is available with fiber.
Latency is about 40 milliseconds at the present time. They mention that as more satellites are launched 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.
In contrast to Viasat Starlink definitely offers better performance even during the public beta program. 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 what kind of data caps will or not be imposed after the beta period ends.
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. Generally even a bottom tier cable connection will run circles around the best satellite internet connection. DSL will also win out in most cases with latency that is much lower than with satellite.
Viasat plans range from $69.99 up to $149.99 for most residential plans. They offer discounts for the first 3 months of service. Commercial plans are available at an additional cost. This is expensive compared to other non satellite options especially when you factor in the data caps.
Viasat installation costs $99 .99 and equipment rental cost about $10 per month for the lifetime of your service.
Currently the monthly cost for Starlink internet service is $99 per month during the public beta. This is still on the higher end of the pricing scale but is similar to top tier packages from Comcast and Verizon. Speeds are currently lower than what most people get with similarly priced terrestrial services.
The Starlink equipment starter kit costs $499 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.
Viasat offers service in all 50 states but depending on the location may offer different levels of service and different pricing packages. There are a few limited spots particularly in the Rocky Mountain region where it is not possible to get Viasat service. Overall the vast majority if people living in the United States have access to Viasat internet including most living in extremely remote rural areas.
Starlink is currently available to a small number of people living primarily in the northwest. Their coverage is ever expanding but for now most people do not live in a Starlink coverage area. Currently Starlink is prioritizing high latitude regions. This includes Canada and the upper region of the United States. 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 even in its beta form 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 Viasat or Hughesnet. These services are improving each year but neither in their current form are going to be able to get around the latency issues caused by using geostationary satellites. Keep an eye on Starlink because they are rapidly expanding their coverage area over the coming years.