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.
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:
- Cable – unlikely but check to make sure
- DSL – CenturyLink and other landline phone providers generally have at least slow DSL available
- Cellular – a MiFi (or hotspot) with unlimited data may be a bit pricey, but it will get you access
- Satellite – download limits and high prices, make this the last option
- 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.
- Some Widely Available Rural Internet Providers
- Satellite Rural Internet
- DSL and Cable Rural Internet
- Cellular Rural Internet
- Other Rural Internet Options
- How do I find Internet Service Near Me?
- Broadband Maps
- What if I don't have ANY Rural Internet Options?
Summary of Internet for Rural Areas
|Latency||Speed||Stability||Cost per GB|
|Cable Internet *||Good to Great||Ok to Great||Ok to Great||$|
|Phone Company DSL *||Poor to Great||Ok to Great||Ok to Great||$|
|Cellular Internet **||Poor to Good||Poor to Good||Poor to Great||$$$|
|Satellite Internet**||Poor to Good||Terrible to Good||Terrible to Good||$$$|
|StarLink Satellite internet||Good to Excellent||Good to Great||Ok to good||$$|
|Other Services||Poor to Good||Terrible to Great||Terrible to Great||$ to $$$|
* 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
- Earthlink http://www.earthlink.net provides satellite, and wireless internet in limited areas
- HughesNet https://www.hughesnet.com/get-started (satellite)
- AT&T https://www.att.com/internet/fixed-wireless.html (170gb but limited areas)
- Exede https://www.exede.com/ (satellite) – basically the same as WildBlue
- Dish https://www.dish.com/internet/ (satellite)
- Google Fi https://fi.google.com/about/ (cellular) $10/gb
- Google Fi has unlimited cellular option also https://fi.google.com/about/
- StarLink (from Elon Musk) is a good option. https://www.starlink.com/ It is a low earth orbit, high speed, low latency satellite network. $99/mo $500 up front (coverage slowly expanding)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- BroadbandNow https://broadbandnow.com/ -enter your zip to find services
- RV Mobile Unlimited mobile Internet:
- Best Internet Service Providers
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:
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:
- Dept of Commerce Economic Development http://www.eda.gov/
- Universal Service Fund http://www.usac.org/sl/about/getting-started/default.aspx
- The High-Cost program
- The Lifeline (low income) program, including initiatives for Native Americans
- The Schools and Libraries program, commonly referred to as E-rate
- The Rural Health Care program
- CAF II Rural Broadband https://www.fcc.gov/auctions/ruralbroadbandauctions (apply with or on behalf of a provider such as Bertram, Door County Wireless or similar).
Related articles may also find useful:
- Internet Security – 12 Steps to Avoid Computer Viruses and Identity Theft
- Why is my Internet Slow? 10 Troubleshooting Tips for Faster Internet
- Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) – What You Need to Know
- Is 5G Safe? Plain Talk About How 5G Works
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