The First Great Rural Internet Shootout: DSL vs. Satellite vs. Wireless

HughesNet satellite dish in the foreground, Com-Pair Services in the back.

HughesNet satellite dish in the foreground, Com-Pair Services in the back.

Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, my family is now on the receiving end of not just one, not just two but three internet service providers. Originally, we only had internet access via a digital subscriber line, or DSL, from Frontier, our landline telephone provider. DSL doesn’t provide enough bandwidth to reliably stream video, so we added satellite internet service from HughesNet several years ago. After I began this series on rural internet access—or the lack thereof—in northern California, I discovered Com-Pair Services, an Anderson-based company that specializes in providing high-speed internet service to rural areas, and we were impressed enough to sign up for the service last month.

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Now, I’m in the unique position to put all three services, Frontier, HughesNet and Com-Pair, to a head-to-head test. For this first great rural internet shootout, I’ll be examining three criteria. First, using the Speakeasy Speed Test website, I’ll measure the download and upload speed of each service. Second, I’ll compare the price per month of each service, with the caveat that the customer pay close attention to conditions before signing any contract. Third, and perhaps most important for rural users, is the service available where you live?

Before we begin, a few notes on speed. It helps to think of your internet connection as a pipe running from your computer to the server of the website to which you’re connecting. Data flows up and down this pipe and the volume of this flow (bandwidth) is measured in megabytes per second, Mbps.

Speakeasy is a popular, free website that measures this capacity. When you start the test, your computer sends a “ping” to the Speakeasy server via your internet connection. The server returns the ping to establish the connection. Once the data begins flowing between the website and your machine, Speakeasy measures the download and upload speed in Mbps.

When you watch a YouTube video, you’re downloading. When you send an email with file attachments, you’re uploading. Knowing these measurements can help you determine if an internet service provider has enough bandwidth to meet your needs. For reference, the Federal Communications Commission defines “broadband” internet as services that provide a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps. Prior to 2015, the minimum download and upload speeds for broadband were set at 4Mbps and 1Mbps.

Our dusty, crusty but trusty Frontier DSL modem.

Our dusty, crusty but trusty Frontier DSL modem.

Frontier DSL: Something Is Better Than Nothing

Frontier Communications has been around for decades and made its name providing telephone service to small and mid-sized town America. One of the disadvantages of being around so long is that familiarity can breed contempt, and I’ve heard many complaints about Frontier during the course of my research for this series on rural internet service. Nevertheless, our overall experience with Frontier DSL has been positive.

Nowadays, digital subscriber lines are about as old school as it gets. Frontier does offer fiberoptic, wireless and satellite internet to many rural locations in northern California, but where we live in eastern Shasta County, such services remain out of reach. DSL piggybacks on existing copper telephone wires, which physically limit available bandwidth to speeds far below the FCC’s broadband criteria, as can be seen from this Speakeasy Speed Test result for our Frontier DSL.


As you can see, our Frontier DSL download speed doesn’t quite reach 1 Mbps, the maximum available with the service. If you live in the city and have true broadband internet access, you’re no doubt cringing. But 1 Mbps is actually a pretty good score out here. During peaks hours, when the people ahead of us on the phone lines are on the internet too, the speed can be dragged down below .5 Mbps. It’s virtually impossible to stream video at such slow speeds without constant buffering. The paltry .14 Mbps upload speed makes sending files larger than I megabyte, such as high resolution photographs, a time-consuming process.

We pay $40 per month for Frontier DSL, although on its website Frontier currently offers a DSL service package for $20 per month, with conditions. However, where we live, all the available bandwidth has been used up, and anyone wishing to subscribe to DSL must wait in line. The good news is that Frontier is in the process of acquiring Verizon’s fiberoptic, wireless and satellite services in California, Texas and Florida, so true broadband may be coming to your area in the near future.

The final verdict: Frontier DSL, where available, is a low speed, moderately expensive option for people who have no other means to access the internet.

Hughes EchoStar 17 Satellite, photo courtesy HughesNet

Hughes EchoStar 17 Satellite, photo courtesy HughesNet

HughesNet: As Good As Satellite Gets

Right now, 22,000 miles overhead, a HughesNet satellite in geosynchronous orbit is communicating with the modem in our upstairs office. It still sort of blows my mind. I type anewscafe.com into my browser, and a signal traveling at or near the speed of light is beamed from our satellite dish up to the satellite, which in turns beams a signal to the Hughes networks operation center, which in turn beams a signal to anewscafe.com’s server, which in turn beams a signal back to Hughes, which in turn beams a signal back to the satellite, which in turn beams the signal back to our dish and voila! Less than a half-second later, I’m on the anewscafe.com website.

The beauty of satellite internet is that unless you live underground in a salt mine, you can get service practically anywhere. It is also relatively fast, compared to DSL. Our HughesNet service provides download speeds up to 15 Mbps and upload speeds up to 2 Mbps. However, the key phrase there is “up to.” Satellites have finite capacity compared to terrestrial internet providers, and this capacity must be shared with the number of subscribers online at any given time. While writing this story, I put HughesNet to the speed test several times, and got results much lower than 15 Mbps. The highest score is recorded here.


Additionally, the distance between satellite and end user can cause latency issues like “rain fade” as the signal gets scrambled passing through atmospheric disturbances. During this year’s stormy winter, we’ve momentarily lost satellite service on several occasions. Service has been restored relatively quickly on all of those occasions, and such interruptions seem like a small price to pay for rural customers who would otherwise have no internet service at all.

Speaking of costs, the price of satellite internet has been gradually coming down as the technology has improved and become more available. HughesNet currently offers discounted packages ranging from $50 per month to $80 per month, with conditions, for new customers willing to sign a contract. Those rates are slightly higher for speeds that are slower than cable internet providers in big cities like Redding, and also include a data cap. We currently pay HughesNet about $110 per month for a 15 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up package that is capped at 50 gigabytes of total data per month.

That’s enough data capacity to watch roughly 50 non-HD 1-hour Netflix videos per month, and you’d be surprised how fast those gigs get chewed up. When they are gone, HughesNet throttles your download speed to .125 Mbps, slower than DSL. Slower than mud. It’s a heavy price to pay, but out here in the sticks, beggars can’t always be choosers.

Com-Pair Services' Guy Lemke installing a wireless dish on our roof.

Com-Pair Services’ Guy Lemke installing a wireless dish on our roof.

Com-Pair Services Wires Us Up

In the last installment of this series on rural internet access, “Jefferson State Is Getting Wired,” I got to hang out for a day with Guy Lemke, managing network engineer for Com-Pair Services, the Anderson-based company that has been providing wireless internet access to rural northern Californians since 1999. Figuring out whether you’re a potential Com-Pair customer is relatively easily. If you have direct line-of-sight to one of the various hills and mountains on which Com-Pair has erected broadcast towers, you’re eligible.

As it turned out, at the end of the day when Lemke dropped me off, he pointed across the valley 7 miles to Blue Mountain, which is directly in the line-of-sight of our property and just happens to have a Com-Pair broadcast tower on it. Although we already have HughesNet, we were intrigued with Com-Pair because it offers similar download and upload speeds with no data caps. The past several months, we’d exceeded our HughesNet data cap and subsequently suffered through weeks of agonizingly slow internet service.

Lemke came out the next week and hooked us up to Com-Pair in about an hour. It was actually quite stunning when I first logged on. We selected Com-Pair’s top-tier package, which for $100 per month offers download and upload speeds of up to 10 Mbps and 2 Mbps respectively, which are actually lower than the alleged maximums of our HughesNet package. I opened my Facebook page and for the first time in months all of the videos posted on my wall began streaming, without even having to click on them. On other web pages, ads that had been heretofore invisible began popping up—I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing. Switching page tabs was visibly faster than the satellite. On the speed test, I keep getting consistent results.


It seemed impossible, so I asked Lemke what was going on. He explained that it’s a combination of two factors: the shorter distance Com-Pair’s wireless signal has to travel (7 miles vs. the satellite’s 22,000 miles) and the company’s proprietary algorithm, which creates a more uniform data stream that’s less susceptible to being scrambled. However it works, color us satisfied Com-Pair customers, including my brother, who lives next door and opted for Com-Pair’s $50 plan with download and upload speeds of 3 Mbps and .5 Mbps.

Now we’ve got a decision to make. Obviously, maintaining three internet service providers is a bit extravagant. But choosing between Frontier, HughesNet and Com-Pair isn’t as easy as you’d think. Any decision you make is going to be based on your own financial and logistical concerns. If it’s available in your neighborhood, Frontier is currently offering DSL service for $20 per month with conditions, which is a hard price to beat. If money isn’t as much of an issue and you’re within line-of-sight of a Com-Pair tower, they offer fantastic service from a locally-owned company. If Com-Pair isn’t an option, HughesNet can hook you up to the satellite virtually anywhere.

It’s worth noting that none of the rural ISPs reviewed here meet the speeds for the FCC’s new broadband criteria, 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. Meanwhile, the FCC is already discussing bumping the download speed to 100 Mbps! When it comes to true rural broadband, you still can’t really get what you want, but if you do a little shopping, you can find what you need to get by for now.


R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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