Internet access is available everywhere in the US, but not all connections are created equal. Ookla has used data from its popular Speedtest app to highlight the areas where consumers are stuck with Satellite internet. These satellite-heavy ZIP codes cover a surprising amount of the country, but there are fewer people living there than you’d think.
Satellite internet has been available to consumers since the early 90s. In those days, the experience wasn’t vastly different than sluggish wired dial-up internet. Today, Satellite internet is at a severe disadvantage when it comes to speed and reliability. Even the newer generation of Ku band signals capable of delivering multi-megabit speeds are far behind even modest wireline broadband connections.
The Ookla data is organized by ZIP codes — those colored blue have at least 20 percent satellite internet usage among Speedtest users. That indicates an area has very poor broadband infrastructure. Of course, people only put up with satellite internet when they have no other option. It’s slower than wired connections, and the data caps are vastly more oppressive. HughesNet offers 25Mbps downloads, but the data cap could be as low as 20GB, depending on your plan. Cross the limit, and your speeds drop to sub-broadband. These people risk being left behind as the internet evolves to rely on faster connections.
The blue blobs cover a lot of the country, but Ookla says there are only 2.22 million people living in those ZIP codes. For example, the large blue patch in west Texas has only 118 residents. Rolling out fiber or cable is expensive, and companies don’t have any incentive to do it in sparsely populated areas. Some rural communities do have DSL connections, but these are slower than cable internet. In many places, DSL tops out at 10Mbps, which can be alright for basic tasks on a single device. You have to feel bad for anyone trying to share that connection among multiple devices, though.
Mobile carriers have paid lip-service to using 4G LTE as a home internet option, but the data caps and speeds are still too low. 5G might provide an alternative in the future, but there’s still a lot of infrastructure waiting to be deployed. Perhaps a new generation of satellite internet could solve the problem. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is deploying the Starlink satellite system, hoping to provide fast, low-latency internet to wide swaths of the globe. As with 5G, it’s too early to know if Starlink will appreciably boost rural internet speeds.
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