Starlink vs Viasat: An In-Depth Satellite Internet Comparison Guide

Searching for internet service beyond the reach of traditional cable or fiber connections? Satellite internet offers high-speed broadband beamed from space, but today‘s two largest satellite internet providers in the U.S. – SpaceX‘s Starlink and Viasat – operate very differently in ways that significantly impact speed, data restrictions, and reliable performance based on the underlying technology utilized by each company.

Let‘s compare how Starlink and Viasat satellite internet stack up across all the key metrics you should know to determine which provider offers the best high-speed internet option depending on your location and usage needs…

What is Satellite Internet and How Does it Work?

Historically, mainstream internet service has relied on underground fiber optic cables or copper coaxial lines running to homes and businesses to connect devices like our phones, computers, and smart home gadgets to the global internet. Areas outside major urban population centers often lacked cable or fiber infrastructure to offer home internet access on par with speeds most modern applications require.

Satellite internet solves this by transmitting signals wirelessly through space itself. Here‘s a quick overview of how data transmits from satellites orbiting above earth out to dishes installed at people‘s homes:

Diagram of signal path from satellite to home

A satellite internet provider launches a network of satellites to orbit the earth and broadcast coverage beams that align with the region below intended to receive internet connectivity.

Customer antenna dishes on the ground beam requests up to the satellites orbiting overhead. The satellites receive these requests for webpages, video streams, etc. and beam relevant data from onboard caches or route requests through interconnected terrestrial fiber networks.

Signals relay back and forth at near light speed all the way down to consumer devices connected to the satellite modem/router with an ethernet cable or wifi just like a traditional home router.

Voila! Broadband internet delivered from space anywhere with clear line-of-sight view between your rooftop dish tilted northward and the satellites passing 550 miles overhead.

Now let‘s look at the two largest providers leveraging this general model of satellite internet today and how their technical approaches differ…

Starlink and Viasat – How the Leading Satellite Internet Networks Compare

Founded in 2015 as a subsidiary of Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, Starlink takes a cutting-edge approach to satellite internet with over 2,400 compact, low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched already (over 42,000 total planned!).

Starlink‘s constellation flies under 1,200 miles overhead. This is radically closer than traditional provider Viasat‘s satellites parked in geosynchronous orbits over 22,000 miles high. We‘ll explore the technical implications of this huge difference in operating altitudes next.

Viasat markets itself as the world‘s most advanced high-capacity satellite internet provider, though restricted to only 3 satellites currently. Operating since 1986 with internet services dating from around 2001, Viasat relies on proven satellite and networking hardware but available speed leaves much to be desired for modern Ultra HD video streaming era demands.

Let‘s see how these very different satellite internet innovators providing residential broadband web access across the United States stack up…

Orbiting Satellite Network Scale Comparison

ProviderNo. of SatellitesSatellite Orbital Altitude
StarlinkOver 2,400 active
42,000+ planned
340mi to 580mi
Viasat3 primary satellites~22,300 mi

Viasat currently relies on only 3 spacecraft built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin with very limited capacity to serve millions of subscribers. Their core internet satellites sit in geosynchronous orbits requiring each satellite stay locked in place relative to earth‘s rotation almost 22,500 miles directly above the equator.

From this extreme altitude, one satellite can broadcast coverage beams spanning continent-sized regions below by pointing focused antennas towards desired areas hundreds or thousands of miles across.

Starlink takes a radically different approach by flooding lower orbits just a few hundred miles overhead with thousands of inexpensive mass produced satellites continuously circling the globe. What Starlink sacrifices in broadcasting reach per satellite, it aims to make up in vastly greater cumulative capacity with so many more individual nodes interlinking major regional ground stations using laser data links.

So in simple terms: Viasat = Few satellites very far away; Starlink = Many satellites much closer overhead. This key difference drives all the subsequent performance capabilities for each internet provider.

Geographical Service Area Footprints

Viasat‘s trio of satellites allow national coverage across the entire continental U.S. with the caveat that internet plans, speeds, and data caps can still vary considerably based on the precise beam your location falls under. Always verify Viasat plan details specific to your home‘s address before ordering!

Starlink is rapidly expanding but still more limited by capacity restrictions in densely populated metros. As of October 2022, Starlink reports excellent coverage for available capacity across the northern U.S and southern Canada with expanding waitlists throughout the southern continental states pending further satellite launches. Refer to Starlink‘s service map for their latest reach projections specific to your address.

Map showing Starlink and Viasat coverage areas

Red = Starlink Waitlist/Coming Soon; Pink/Purple = Starlink Active Coverage

Speed Comparison

Now on to the single most important question about any internet provider – how fast can you expect downloads and uploads to run?

Download Speeds50 to 250Mbps
(avg over 100Mbps)
12 to 100Mbps max
Upload Speeds10 to 40Mbps3 to 30Mbps max

You‘ll notice Viasat displays wide speed ranges too. Why‘s that?

Well, base Viasat plans from $70/month only deliver 12 to 18 Mbps down. You must upgrade to higher price tiers like the $150/month "Unlimited Bronze 100" plan to hit max rates up to 100 Mbps down / 30 Mbps up if Viasat has capacity to deliver full speeds for your area.

Real-world user speed tests show Starlink hitting over 150 Mbps down fairly consistently…blazing fast for satellite internet!

Meanwhile, crowdsourced telemetry data reveals the average Viasat customer sees speeds around just 3 – 5 Mbps down based on capacity limitations. Quite dismal compared to Starlink falcon pounding performance.

Advantage: Starlink

Latency Comparison

Latency represents the time delay data experiences transmitting between network endpoints. Satellite inherently suffers higher latency due to the great distances involved bouncing signals up tens of thousands of miles and back.

Starlink average latency clocks in around 31 milliseconds – impressively close to cable internet typically measuring 20 to 30 ms pings.

Viasat customers endure an agonizing 600+ millisecond slog however that ruins real-time apps like video calls or online gaming. Can you imagine multiplayer shooters hiccuping every 2/3rds of a second? No fun.

Advantage: Starlink

Data Caps

Satellite internet historically enforced strict data restrictions given capacity limitations in space. Running out of your allotted gigabytes results in painful overage fees or speed throttling.

Viasat data caps currently range from 10 GB on their basic plans up to 150 GB for higher tier unlimited packages. Exceeding your monthly limit gets your connection squeezed down to painfully slow speeds.

Starlink features no data caps whatsoever. Download and stream to your heart‘s delight!

Advantage: Starlink

Hardware, Installation & Ownership

Viasat dishes must point precisely at their satellites parked southward way up in geo orbit to maintain a reliable connection. Consequently, professional installation with a truck roll service call generally runs $350 or more for lease of Viasat‘s antenna/modem equipment with 2 year contract.

Starlink‘s compact dish features motors allowing it to automatically pivot and point itself skyward wherever you mount it for the clearest view north-facing. The Starlink kit ships right to your door for self-guided setup in minutes like any home router or mesh wifi system.

Ownership also differs – Starlink equipment belongs to you even if you later cancel service. Viasat forces users to return leased equipment adding hassle and potential hardware fees.

Advantage: Starlink

Contracts & Cancellation Policies

Viasat ties all customers to a 2 year service agreement. Cancel early for any reason and you‘ll trigger fees up to $400. Make sure to carefully weigh whether Viasat works well at your location before committing extensive time given prorated termination penalties and mandatory equipment return.

Starlink offers month-to-month service easily canceled anytime without penalties. Do note high ongoing demand can limit reactivation if you cancel and wish to resume service later, however.

So Starlink wins on flexibility, but Viasat provides longer term plan rate lock-in and guarantees.

Advantage: Starlink (for cancellation freedom) / Viasat (for rate guarantees)

Pricing & Fees

Let‘s break down what it costs monthly for Starlink vs various Viasat plans:

PlanMonthly FeeContract LengthInstallation FeeEquipment Ownership
Starlink$110/monthNone$599 one-time hardware costUser owned
Viasat Basic 12$70/month24 months$349+Leased equipment
Viasat Bronze 12$100/month24 months$349+Leased equipment
Viasat Silver 25$130/month24 months$349+Leased equipment
Viasat Gold 30$150/month24 months$349+Leased equipment

Accounting for Viasat‘s mandatory contract length to avoid termination fees, higher tier unlimited plans still save substantially less over 2 years than Starlink‘s hardware purchase + reasonable $110 monthly rate with no data caps and vastly faster performance.

Value Advantage: Starlink

Reliability & Ongoing Coverage Improvements

No provider offers 100% bulletproof internet year-round, but Starlink does suffer occasional brief connectivity drops during extreme bouts of thunderstorms or blizzards since heavy rain/snow interference impacts satellite signals the most.

Viasat customers frequently lament far more systemic network congestion as capacity remains severely oversubscribed. Both aim to launch enhanced satellites over the next few years promising big improvements. However, Starlink has over 1,800 satellites set to launch in 2023 alone to quintuple current available capacity!

On the cybersecurity front, Viasat suffered a devastating ransomware attack in February 2022 with strong evidence that destructive malware originated from Russian state-sponsored hackers purposefully targeting Ukraine telecom networks at the outset of their invasion.

The frightening attack left tens of thousands of Viasat satellite internet customers across Europe completely offline for weeks with wiped modems until recovery experts could restore vital ground station functions.

While no network today provides foolproof data protection from advanced persistent threats, Starlink does benefit as a newer grid leveraging end-to-end SpaceX inhouse encryption technologies for likely stronger defense.

Reliability Advantage: Starlink

Cyberattack Resilience: Starlink

Verdict: Starlink Wins as the Superior Satellite Internet Provider

Evaluating the full weight of evidence across all the critical criteria – network speeds, latency, reliability, value pricing, technology infrastructure advantages, customer hardware ownership, flexible policies, plus cyberattack susceptibility – Starlink clearly prevails today as 2022‘s best satellite internet provider option available.

The sheer scale of SpaceX‘s satellite network scales combined with ground infrastructure supporting Starlink enables consistently faster broadband speeds and lower latency than Viasat can realistically ever achieve relying on only a handful of geosynchronous birds lingering many thousands of miles farther away.

While Viasat still holds the advantage for residents across southern regions outside Starlink‘s current reach capabilities pre-full constellation buildout, Northerly latitude users should choose Starlink wherever available for the vastly superior satellite internet experience on par or exceeding traditional cable/fiber with unlimited data and competitive pricing too.

As Elon Musk ambitiously expands Starlink‘s LEO constellation to achieve truly global service coverage in coming years, expect their first-mover advantage lead out the gate to cement firm command of the blossoming home broadband internet market freed from underground infrastructure limitations once and for all.

The choice is clear – for most satellite internet consumers, go with Starlink!

Hope this guide gave you clarity deciding between Starlink and Viasat. Let me know if any other questions come up!

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