The rural internet user may ask, “why do I want cable or DSL service over satellite or 3G wireless?” The short answer is, compared to service like cable broadband, satellite and wireless are ten times slower, have a data cap 10 times lower and cost twice as much.

To understand why satellite and 3G wireless lag far behind other forms of broadband, I’ll focus on three key areas:

  1. Speed (or bandwidth)
  2. Data caps (or download thresholds)
  3. Costs

In each area, I’ll give a brief overview of all the technical mumbo jumbo first. First, though, I’ll give a basic summary of the types of services I’m going to compare:

Cable
Provided by a cable TV company, access comes into the home through a coaxial cable
DSL
Provided by a Telephone company or other provider, access comes into the home through a your telephone line.
3G Wireless
Provided by a cellular phone company, uses a data card or wireless router which connects to the cell phone provider and either plugs into the users computer or connects to the user’s computer wirelessly with WiFi. Same access used by smart phones.
4G Wireless
Provided by a cellular phone company and works much the same as 3G wireless. It is a new, much faster more robust technology which is just starting to become available. Also used by smart phones.
Satellite
Provided by a satellite provider, provides internet access though a satellite dish via satellites 22,000 miles above the earth.
WiMax
A wireless technology provided typically by smaller local companies which can provide better range and speed than 3G wireless. Sprint also offers “4G” WiMax in Grand Rapids Michigan.

This list covers the types of service generally available in Washtenaw county. I’ve left out technologies such as fiber to the home and LTE wireless as I am not aware that those are or will be generally available in the near future.

Speed

For broadband internet access, the speed of your service is usually measured in megabits per second, abbreviated Mbps. Bandwidth is another term meaning nearly the same thing. The higher the speed (bandwidth), the quicker you can view web pages, download documents and send and receive emails. Also, if you have multiple devices (computers, iPads, Wii’s, etc.) that need internet access at the same time, the more bandwidth you will need.

You may also see the term kilobits per second, abbreviated kbps in reference to internet speed. The conversion between the two is fairly easy, 1000 kbps equals 1 Mbps. I’ll just use Mbps in this article.

The FCC has recently defined broadband as a service capable of delivering speeds 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload1. Download refers to how fast information can come to your computer from the internet, upload is how fast data goes from your computer to the internet. Typically internet users need much more download than upload bandwidth.

How do the speeds of various services compare? The chart below compare typical speeds available today2, 3, 4, 5, 6:

Broadband Speed Comparison

We see that satellite and 3G wireless far fall below the threshold of broadband as determined by the FCC. We also see that they far fall below the level of service offered by other providers. Furthermore, cable can provide speeds up to 100 Mbps and DSL up to 24 Mbps in other areas right now, demonstrating the clear lead these technologies have. This does not take into account fiber optic service which are just coming to market that can deliver 200 to 1000 Mbps to the home user.

4G wireless services currently being rolled out by Verizon can offer very solid speeds, but are dependent on the users ability to get a good strong signal. 4G plans also have serve data transfer limits as described below. While 4G is exciting, it is not a long term solution. As an emerging technology, it lags far behind existing cable and DSL capabilities not to mention the potential of fiber optic connections.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t get a broadband plan rated at about 5 Mbps, you won’t be able to effectively use some broadband services such as video streaming (e.g. NetFlix, AppleTV). The 5 Mbps number accounts for the actual speed requirements to stream video plus the unfortunate fact that all residential services suffer slow downs from network congestion, poor infrastructure and other factors. If you consider being able to stream video as a benchmark for broadband service, having a plan advertised at 5 Mbps could be considered a minimum speed requirement.

One last note on broadband speed. The broadband speed requirements will continue to increase. This is due to the inevitable increase in data size of the resource we use on the internet. Just as dial up practically cannot function as a means of internet access now, the 1 or 2 Mbps satellite plan of today will become obsolete in the future. When will this happen, my guess is within 2 to 5 years.

Data Caps

Data caps are a limit placed on the amount of data the user can download and upload. They are sometimes referred to as download thresholds, but I’ll use the term data cap. Once a user has transferred more data than his cap allows, the provider will either charge them extra (wireless plans), reduce their speed to very slow levels (satellite plans) or threaten possible service termination (cable plans).

Caps may be daily or monthly limits. They are usually measured in gigabytes, abbreviated GB, per month or megabytes, abbreviated MB per day. Both GB and MB are measurements of a quantity of data. 1000 MB equals 1 GB. Here, I will present everything in GB.

Below is a chart comparing broadband data caps on a monthly basis7, 8, 9, 10. As a benchmark to what can be considered the minimum data cap for a true broadband service, we can use the worldwide average broadband user’s monthly data transfer which is 14.9 GB per month11. I left out DSL and WiMax services because I could not find a data cap on their web sites or in their service agreements.

Typical Monthly Data Caps

Using 14.9 GB per month as the minimum for broadband, 3G and 4G wireless plans as well as satellite plans do not qualify. Note, 14.9 GB of data transfer per month can be considered a minimum, but should by no means be considered an adequate or acceptable data cap. The residential customers data transfer requirements will vary considerably depending on number of users, number of computers and types of online activities. To get an idea of how much data transfer you may need, take a look at our broadband data transfer calculator.

Costs

Ironically, it is the poorest performing services, satellite and wireless plans, that cost the most. Below I’ve compared typical monthly costs for various internet access plans12, 13, 14, 15, 16. These costs are averaged over a 2 year period, so any special introductory rates are averaged in with higher service rates for the balance of the term.

Typical Monthly Broadband Service Costs

Note that prices fluctuate greatly by market, bundled services and other unpredictable factors. These represent typical costs and are for general comparison only.

Looking at the data, it is fairly obvious that not only are satellite and wireless plans are considerably more expensive than other plans, even those providing much better service.

  1. “Sixth Broadband Deployment Report”, fcc.gov, July 20, 2010, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-129A1.pdf []
  2. “Charter Internet: High Speed Internet Service”, http://www.charter.com/internet/overview []
  3. “AT&T DSL High Speed Internet Service”, http://www.att.com/dsl/ []
  4. “Verizon Wireless – Mobile Broadband – Plans”, http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband/?page=plans []
  5. “20/20 Communications :: internet Services, Sales and Consulting :: 4G Business WiMax”, http://www.2020comm.com/business.php []
  6. “Rural High-Speed Internet Service – HughesNet Satellite Internet”, http://consumer.hughesnet.com/plans.cfm []
  7. “Acceptable Use FAQ’s – Charter Communications”, http://myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=2124 []
  8. “Acceptable Use Policy – Residential Customers”, http://www.charter.com/footer/footerPage.jsp?tag=policies_resi_hsi_accep_use_policy []
  9. “Verizon Wireless – Mobile Broadband – Plans”, http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband/?page=plans []
  10. “Rural High-Speed Internet Service – HughesNet Satellite Internet”, http://consumer.hughesnet.com/plans.cfm []
  11. “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Usage”, cicso.com, October 25, 2010, http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/Cisco_VNI_Usage_WP.pdf []
  12. “Charter Internet: High Speed Internet Service”, http://www.charter.com/internet/overview []
  13. “AT&T DSL High Speed Internet Service”, http://www.att.com/dsl/ []
  14. “Verizon Wireless – Mobile Broadband – Plans”, http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband/?page=plans []
  15. “20/20 Communications :: internet Services, Sales and Consulting :: 4G Business WiMax”, http://www.2020comm.com/business.php []
  16. “Rural High-Speed Internet Service – HughesNet Satellite Internet”, http://consumer.hughesnet.com/plans.cfm []