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Rural Internet Options – A Comparison of Rural Internet Services

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Living in the country has its benefits, lower cost per acre, fewer regulations and more freedom. But with those benefits comes a distinct disadvantage, slow or no rural internet options.

Whether you are trying to find internet for a vacation home, rural business, primary home, homestead, or farm finding stable, fast rural internet can be like looking for a unicorn. We have some ideas and possible internet access solutions.

What options are available for rural internet, plus 3 main factors that you need to ask about when you're contacting internet service providers.

Summary

Research internet providers before you commit. Choose cable if you can get it. Select DSL second, then cellphone MiFi or a cellular hotspot. Satellite and local point to point services are your 4th option – pick whichever is the better price, speed and value. Remember to check with local power utilities and local government to see if there are unique options.

5 Rural Internet Options

There are five rural internet options when you live far out in the country:

  1. Cable – unlikely but check to make sure
  2. DSL – CenturyLink and other landline phone providers generally have at least slow DSL available
  3. Cellular – a MiFi (or hotspot) with unlimited data may be a bit pricey, but it will get you access
  4. Satellite – download limits and high prices, make this the last option
  5. Check for Regional/Local Services; even your electric power company might have a service (ask around)

It is possible you may have other rural high speed internet options. Some communities created co-ops that provide DSL, regional WiFi or even municipal fiber networks. Some people drive to a local library, fast food restaurant or other public internet access location for temporary high speed access.

Avoid satellite if you can, they know they are a provider of last choice – so their service and support is poor even compared to cable and phone DSL services. An exception is StarLink which so far provides excellent service (if it is available in your region)

When looking for high speed internet for rural areas, try negotiating a test period for a link. Ask for ALL associated costs, fees, support costs and charges IN WRITING. Try to find someone who is using the service and ask how they like it.

If you live in a rural area, you may have trouble streaming YouTube, NetFlix or other video services. Avoid any devices or services that use data (bandwidth) indiscriminately, such as “helpers” like the Amazon Echo or Google Assistant or internet connected appliances. These devices can use up data quickly and even if you have unlimited data they can result in slower performance for more important things.

Summary of Internet for Rural Areas

LatencySpeedStabilityCost per GB
Cable Internet *Good to GreatOk to GreatOk to Great$
Phone Company DSL *Poor to GreatOk to GreatOk to Great$
Cellular Internet **Poor to GoodPoor to GoodPoor to Great$$$
Satellite Internet**Poor to GoodTerrible to GoodTerrible to Good$$$
StarLink Satellite internetGood to ExcellentGood to GreatOk to good$$
Other Services Poor to GoodTerrible to GreatTerrible to Great$ to $$$

* Generally Unlimited Data per month
** 20gb to 150gb “metered” internet (max download data per month)
***satisfaction for services vary by location and provider – research locally before investing
**** some of the services include unlimited streaming video

Some Widely Available Rural Internet Providers

Other internet service options could include internet provided by local municipalities, local power companies or even co-ops. Internet options for rural areas can vary widely, so do your research before jumping to satellite.

Lamb Wireless

Lamb Wireless is an AT&T cellular mifi internet service. It is popular in the recreational vehicle (RV) community. We installed Lab Wireless https://lambwireless.com/ in early 2019 for our rural home. The service has been good. The speed varies from 2mbit to 20mbit with around 5mbit consistent throughput. The service has throttled periodically, but recovered. We have not been “data capped”. Lamb Wireless is good enough for VPN work.

Another option is Nomad Internet https://nomadinternet.com/

3 Main Factors that Affect Internet Performance

Internet performance for each of the four sources is based on three factors: Speed (Bandwidth), Latency (Lag) and Stability (packet loss). Each factor impacts performance in a different way.

Compared to a car driving on a road, speed is the same, latency is the delay between when you press on the gas or turn the steering wheel and the car responds, and stability is if the car consistently responds when you turn the wheel or press on the gas.

Speed

Higher numbers are better. Speed affects the amount of time to transfer large files. The technical term is bandwidth, because it is technically a combination of speed and amount of data transferred per second. Speed or bandwidth is measured in Mbps (or mega bits per second). Upload and Download speeds will be different. Upload is normally 5x to 20x slower than download speeds.

A rough analogy is that Mbps is comparable to miles per hour (mph). Most service providers will list internet speed as “up to ##Mbps” – they will generally not guarantee the highest speed.  We and other friends on rural internet rarely see anywhere close to the maximum possible speed theoretically available for our link.

If possible, have your rural internet service provider do a speed test before you commit to a long term contract, so you know what you're getting.

Latency

Lower numbers are better. Latency affects response time. High latency can make a Skype or Google hangout call intermittent or choppy or fail altogether. If latency is low you generally get better quality realtime voice/video. Latency also is a big factor in online gaming. Latency or lag is a measure of the delay for a communications link.

A simple analogy would be a highway that permits up to 100 miles per hour, but with 1000 second delay on the on and off ramps to the highway (fast on the highway and slow on/off). So every time you start to use your link, you start accessing, but there's a delay getting on (getting your data).

A different link might be 100Mbps and 1ms latency, which would be like a 100 miles per hour and on/off ramps would be only 1 second (fast on the highway and fast on/off). When you use this link, you won't have a significant wait time to get going.

Latency applies to both data uploads and downloads, it affects all information flowing to and from the internet.

Stability

You want a very stable consistent connection. Zero or low packet loss or jitter is preferred. Stability affects overall connectivity. A very busy service may have inconsistent service, like a road with bumper to bumper or stop and go traffic, or random potholes. A technical term that describes poor stability is “packet loss”.

Inconsistent service means the link stops working for periods of time causing slowness, disconnects in voice/video calls, disconnects in games or lost sessions in online editing tools. So consistency of speed and latency both matter.

Stability is a problem generally when a link is overloaded or “saturated”. This can occur due to the internet service provider oversubscribing – i.e. selling more bandwidth to each individual than they have in total. We see this regularly on our old DSL connection.

During the day, when many people are at work, the connection is more stable. In the evening, when more people are home and using the service, it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to do things like stream a movie or YouTube video. Since Covid started, there never seems to be a good time, due to the increased remote work and school at home.

What options are available for rural internet, plus 3 main factors that you need to ask about when you're contacting internet service providers.

Using Two Internet Connections at Once

We have a local provider that provides a dish that points to a nearby tower that gives us internet. The service is a point to point wireless internet connection, which is marketed as “wireless DSL”.

Because we run an online business, we also have a phone company DSL connection, which is slower but more stable with lower latency. Sometimes one connection drops completely (sometimes both), but this gives us better odds of connecting.

We manually switch between connections. There are options for a router to connect to two different connections but we didn't do that.

Piggybacking Off a Better Connection

If you are techie and have line of sight to someone else who has good internet, you can get a point to point wireless connection and make a deal with them to share their internet or even get a 2nd internet connection at the address that can get the good internet.

Some people get together and set up a micro cell or neighborhood internet. If you can get a provider to agree, and have a high point in the neighborhood you can create point to point internet and share the cost with your neighbors.

Satellite Rural Internet

Solution: Compare the current rates and speeds, select the one that meets your needs. Call them and get the service installed. This solution requires a satellite dish on your home.

Pros: It's available nearly everywhere, as it completely removes ground-based “line of sight” from the equation. But you need a clear view of the sky where the satellite is. If you have heavy tree cover you may need to cut trees to get satellite data or satellite TV.

Cons: Moderate to very expensive. Higher latency (delays in data delivery). Upload speeds rarely meet the maximums listed. Satellite service can vary dramatically depending on your tree-cover, weather, and latitude and longitude. Satellite regularly has a fixed upload and download speed, and a maximum upload/download amount. Weather can interfere with satellite signal. If you exceed the download cap or limit, the link performance is reduced (or there are additional expenses). Satellite is not good for video conferencing and may not have low enough latency and stability to support VPN. Equipment costs are also higher and many services have early termination fees. Some people don't like the looks of the dish.

Low Earth Orbit Satellite: Currently StarLink is available in some areas and the service area continues to grow. Amazon is also planning on building a low earth orbit satellite network. Starlink speeds are 60 to over 100 and may exceed 300 by the end of 2021. Latency is good and may beat local wired networks.

DSL and Cable Rural Internet

Solution: Call the cable or cellular provider and get the line installed.

Pros: Faster, more reliable, generally lower latency and generally less expensive. Fairly simple install and minimal equipment needed. Generally they have shorter contract term agreements than satellite and cellular. In most cases there are no download or upload caps.

Cons: DSL and Cable are very dependent on distance to the nearest service point. If you are far from the office or access point, the performance can be terrible (comparable to dial-up). The closer you are the more speed options you will have and the better your service will be. The farther the worse.

Note: As of Oct 1, 2020 AT&T stopped selling new DSL

Cellular Rural Internet

Solution 1: Get an unlimited data plan for your family. Then buy a MiFi unit on the same plan (not all carriers allow this). The MiFi unit converts the smartphone data feed to a WiFi signal for your apartment or home. This gives you portable WiFi. It won't be as good as a landline.

Solution 2: Get an unlimited data plan for your family. Then buy an extra backup cellphone on the same unlimited plan and leave it plugged in all the time, and acting as a hotspot. This gives you portable WiFi. It probably won't be as good as a MiFi. Note: Our experience is that android phones act as hot-spots for extended periods better than iPhones.

Solution 3: Dedicated unlimited cellular data plans (read more here). As noted, Nomad Internet is another option

Cellular Internet Pros and Cons

Pros: Portable. Data speeds can be decent even when everything else is slow. Widely available. If you move, it can move with you.

Cons: Price can be moderate to high. Nearly all cellular internet services have data caps usually around 22gb. This means that if you exceed data limit, your cellular link performance is reduced until the next billing period; alternately you can end up being charged per gigabyte.

Cellular Signal Note: Cellular is dependent on how close the cell towers are and your effective “line of sight” to those towers. If you have a metal roof, concrete home or metal siding it can reduce or block the signal from cellular internet services. You can get external cellular boosters that relay the cellular signal from inside your house to the nearest cellular tower. Or you can place the extra cellphone in a high location or location with good signal and boost it throughout your home with a repeater.

Other Rural Internet Options

There are also other services such as point to point microwave, Microsoft “whitespace” or “airband” and point to point RF solutions. These generally require a dish or antenna and cabling to a router inside your home. In Wisconsin and Upper Michigan we have Astrea (Packerland Broadband), Bertram Wireless, Mecurynet, Bugtussel wireless and others.

A community north of our home has fiber to the home and has gigabit access for $99 per month, so don't give up. As we mentioned some power companies also provide fiber based WiFi. Finding these alternate providers requires a bit searching, but the payoff can be fantastic. See below for tips on finding these alternate internet providers.

How do I find Internet Service Near Me?

Below is a list of resources that will help you find internet service options in your area.

Broadband Maps

Note: Maps are not 100% accurate. We've found several services that should be available at our home according to the map, but when we called the internet service providers it turned out that the service stopped on the other side of a nearby highway. In other cases, trees are between us and the nearest towers. The connection should work according to the map, but the reality is there is no service.

Many states also have a broadband or high speed internet service provider maps. Also consider asking your local chamber of commerce, electric power provider and/or local government about high speed internet options. Here is a link to the Wisconsin map:

https://maps.psc.wi.gov/apps/WisconsinBroadbandMap/

What if I don't have ANY Rural Internet Options?

Talk with your local town, County, or parish officials about improving access to broadband or working to get faster speeds. Rural communities are creating public internet services, public/private partnerships, co-ops and partnering with power companies.

Grass roots groups are working together all across the United States, to improve their internet access. Through the government entities and/or schools your region may qualify for: eRate (school related grants), FCC or other state or federal grants to get high speed internet into your area. Don't give up on high speed broadband access. Rural Americans need broadband service, it is a necessity.

Read more here:

Related articles may also find useful:

August Neverman

This post was written by August Neverman IV. August is the Chief Information Officer and Information Security Officer of Brown County. He's served on several emergency preparedness teams during his tenure at a local hospital, as well as undergoing emergency response training during his time with the Air National Guard. He and his wife, Laurie, live with their two sons in a Green Built, Energy Star certified home with a permaculture twist. Last updated 2/24/2021

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20 Comments

  1. I really need this information! We have no internet and spotty cellphone connection in our rural area. DSL and cable are not the cheap options for us as the nearest service points are half to one mile away and average $30K to extend to us!

    1. Sometimes there is no good option and that’s the price we pay for privacy. There have been some initiatives to improve rural internet, but from what we’ve seen in our state, the money was not well spent.

    2. We added a bit more information from couple more sources. 4g community is interesting but i am not sure you would be able to be helped by it (you would need some sort of cellular signal probably with a booster). Such as a http://amzn.to/2xP608E

      RVInternet https://www.rvmobileinternet.com/featured/ -information on various mobile internet options
      4gcommunity https://www.4gcommunity.org/ decent Sprint based not-for-profit HotSpot wireless service

      1. 4GCommunity is discontinuing there service as of November 30, 2017, or sooner. In fact, my service is not working since last night. It was great while it lasted and now looking for alternatives. Sucks running an internet business in a rural area.

  2. We live virtually out in the middle of nowhere. Our option, we thought, was Hughesnet. NOT….. We had Hughesnet for several years and it would refresh our data usage at midnight every night. THEN, they figured out that was not profitable enough for them, so our data was “refreshed” every thirty days. However, they lowered our data package w/out telling us and charged us more. This went on for a few months and finally, it was costing an arm and a leg, could do virtually NOTHING but read email and that was it. So, our electric company teamed w/a company that shoots internet off the tops of grain elevators around to our home. BINGO. They came out and checked. We had to put up a tower to get the line of sight over trees and topography from 5 miles away, but we now have UNLIMITED data usage for only 45 dollars a month. We can live stream, I can download pictures from my grandkids and I can actually read my FB, hubby watches how to DIY project videos on YouTube all with no problem. Hughesnet is a huge rip off. If you are thinking that is your only option, try to find another source.

    1. Glad you ended up with good service. We have heard of others having problems with Satellite also, but for many satellite is their only option. The power company is a good example of a regional non-traditional option.

  3. Hello,
    I have only been with 4gcommunity for less than 6 months utilizing their Sprint cellular wifi. Unfortunately I just receive this email text that I have pasted below:

    Dear 4GCommunity.org Members,

    We are saddened to inform you that due to circumstances beyond the organization’s control the Internet connectivity benefit of membership will be ceasing no later than November 30, 2017. It may be sooner, so please begin looking for other Internet connectivity options right away.

    The member online support center will remain a resource through this time next year. Member and support team volunteers will be providing their general assistance through the online support center to assist with questions about basic home computing, networking, and related technologies. It can be accessed through the Support Center page of the website, or directly at: https://4gcommunityorg.happyfox.com/

    Respectfully yours,
    Support Team

  4. Many of the less expensive options for cellular providers actually do not slow down your Internet when you hit your cap. The just cut it off. (FreedomPop, PureTalkUSA, etc.) I have heard Satellite is similar. So the data caps make a BIG difference.

    Where we live the telcos have agreements that restrict who can operate where. So, we could literally go 3 miles South and get cheaper, faster, more reliable Internet, but not in town because the one telco has a monopoly.

    1. We all need to start a giant class action lawsuit. Surely the millions of taxpayers deserve something for the tax breaks that have been given to these huge corporations with their promise to provide coverage. Liars and sociopaths, all of them And that includes the complicit political machine that enables them to take advantage of the public

  5. I’m glad you mentioned that zero or low packet loss for stability is preferred when choosing an internet service. We recently moved to Montana and have been looking for a new internet provider. Thank you for the information on finding a good provider in a rural area.

  6. Now the government is planned to 5 lakh wifi hotspots in villages or rural area that is good decision to discover the rural areas.

  7. Hey there! I was going nuts with satellite, but I found a 4g provider that uses real modems and is really unlimited. Works great for us! Kids game while we stream with no bickering. =-) http://www.ladybugwireless.net. They are pretty new, but really nice and price is good. We get 15-20 down consistently, but my friend that told me about it gets 40-50 at her house on the other side of town. Still beats the pants off satellite, though! lol

    1. Ty Carrie! We went with Ladybug based on your comment and we LOVE it!!!! Super nice customer service, full support (we had to have an antenna and they helped us find a good one).
      Been 5 months and not a single issue! We work from home, works great with our VPN and VoIP service.

  8. I don’t have cable or land base phone can you provide unlimited internet at the following rural address.
    (address removed by moderator)

    1. William, I think you misunderstood the post. We don’t sell rural internet services. This post is meant to explain what options may be available to those in rural locations. If you don’t have cable or land based phone, you most likely options would be satellite or cellphone based internet. Ask neighbors what they use, or research local cellphone providers or satellite internet providers.

  9. Could you add “Fixed Wireless” as a Rural High-Speed Internet Option? Is that what you meant in the diagram when you said, Regional Wifi? I work for “wavedirect” and we service Southwestern Ontario, the way we set up our infrastructure is to run high-end fiber to a tower to service a new location. Then we set up “line of sight” to the tower to each home that would need rural internet with a small dish. So mainly Fixed Wireless or Point to Point Ethernet. Whatever you wish to call it, but it’s very reliable and it works!

    1. Yes. Regional Wireless includes: point to point microwave, point to multi-point and WiFi mesh or WiMax frequency fixed cellular on the provider side.

      You might want to look into Cisco Meraki mesh and similar vendors. Some are open source and have BitCoin billing built in. I believe the node costs are lower and bandwidth is higher. We are looking at WiFi 1gb+ mesh to serve our rural community from silo to silo, other tall buildings or even 60ft+ telephone poles. All you need is a 1gb+ feed and then power at the relays.

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