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Starlink vs HughesNet: Battle of the Satellite Internet Giants

Satellite internet access has long been a lifeline for rural residents, remote businesses, and others without access to cable or fiber broadband connections. While often slower and less reliable than terrestrial internet, satellite remains the only option for millions of premises outside metropolitan areas.

The advent of new low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations promises a revolution in satellite internet capabilities. The most ambitious of these projects is SpaceX‘s Starlink, which has already launched over 3,000 small satellites and begun offering beta service in selected regions.

Starlink takes aim squarely at legacy geostationary orbit satellite providers like HughesNet. But which internet service reigns supreme? This comprehensive guide compares Starlink and HughesNet across several key metrics to crown the current king of satellite internet.

LEO vs GEO: A Tale of Two Satellite Technologies

The most fundamental technical difference between Starlink and HughesNet lies in the architecture of their satellite networks. Let‘s examine how these different orbital regimes impact internet performance.

What is LEO?

Starlink utilizes a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. The operational Starlink satellites orbit at ~350 miles above ground level and complete an orbit every 90 minutes. This is extremely low by satellite standards.

What is GEO?

In contrast, HughesNet employs conventional geostationary satellites parked in fixed positions ~22,000 miles above Earth. At this higher vantage point, their orbit period matches Earth‘s rotation.

Diagram comparing distance of LEO and GEO satellites from earth

LEO satellites like Starlink orbit far closer to Earth than GEO satellites used by HughesNet

LEO Benefits: Speed and Responsiveness

Starlink‘s lower LEO satellites offer two key advantages:

  1. Reduced latency – The shorter distance signals must travel cuts latency (delay) dramatically compared to GEO. This benefit is most noticeable for real-time applications like video chat and online gaming.

  2. Increased bandwidth – Shorter distances also allow more concentrated transmission beams carrying greater bandwidth. Starlink offers download speeds exceeding 100 Mbps, much faster than legacy satellite internet.

However, operating large LEO constellations poses huge technical challenges, including orbital debris mitigation and network management. Thankfully SpaceX has smart engineers working on solutions!

Satellite Antenna Technologies

The antenna systems used to transmit and receive signals from satellites also impact performance.

Starlink‘s compact user terminal features an electronically steered phased array antenna. Tiny antenna elements can beamform without mechanical steering – tracking multiple satellites simultaneously. Custom Starlink router hardware and software optimize traffic routing in real-time based on link conditions.

In contrast, HughesNet customers must precisely aim a large parabolic dish antenna using a clear view of the southern sky. Their system lacks dynamic beamforming capabilities to intelligently switch connections across satellites.

Phased array user antenna dish for Starlink vs large dish antenna for HughesNet

Advanced phased array antennas help Starlink maximize speed and reliability

Availability: HughesNet Still Reigns Supreme

Although Starlink promises superior technical capabilities, its availability remains extremely limited – for now. HughesNet continues to offer service to far more customers across a wider geographic area including South America and Europe.

Map showing wider availability of HughesNet vs limited availability of Starlink

HughesNet coverage remains far more extensive than Starlink

As of February 2023, Starlink reports "over 1 million active subscribers globally". However, concentrated sign-ups in the U.S. and Canada mean long waitlists and unavailable service across much of their licensed territory.

Meanwhile, HughesNet already offers satellite internet access to over 1.3 million North American subscribers.

Clearly Starlink has its work cut out playing catch up even on its home turf. Yet with launch costs plummeting and satellite production accelerating, Starlink may someday blanket the world.

Speed Test Showdown: Starlink in the Fast Lane

Raw technical capabilities are great on paper, but do Starlink‘s LEO satellites really translate to faster speeds for customers compared to HughesNet? Independent speed tests tell the real story.

Ookla‘s crowdsourced Speedtest Intelligence platform aggregates performance testing data submitted by users across provider networks. Their figures for early 2023 show a decisive download speed advantage in Starlink‘s favor:

Provider Avg Download Speed
Starlink 138.76 Mbps
HughesNet 19.73 Mbps

Wow! While achieving speeds beyond 100Mbps, Starlink offers nearly 7X higher average download speeds than HughesNet in recent samples. These results align with SpaceX‘s promises of 50-200+ Mbps.

However, Speedtest Intelligence does show evidence of Starlink download speeds declining month-to-month as more users come online. This bears watching as the network expands. Latency (ping) also increased slightly but remains impressively responsive for satellite at just 45ms during recent tests.

In summary, early data confirms Starlink‘s real-world speed and latency do appear markedly improved over conventional GEO satellite internet like HughesNet. LEO tech benefits already materializing!

Chart showing higher download speeds for Starlink vs HughesNet

Ookla Speedtest – Average tested download speeds (Source: Speedtest Intelligence)

Satellite Infrastructure Comparison

Examining the extensive infrastructure required to deliver satellite internet service shines further light on this David vs Goliath dichotomy.

Constellation Scale

As of February 2023, Starlink has launched over 3,000 low Earth orbit satellites – already qualifying as the largest satellite constellation in orbit. Yet their plans call for eventually operating up to 50,000 interconnected satellites to power global service!

In comparison, HughesNet‘s four aging Boeing-built geosynchronous satellites seem quaint. But combined with other EchoStar joint ventures, their fleet currently enables an order of magnitude more active subscribers.

Ground Stations

Likewise Starlink has regulatory approval for gigabit interconnection deals with multiple terrestrial partners and hundreds of ground stations to link its massive LEO constellation with local ISP infrastructure.

HughesNet relies on just 5 major satellite gateways in North America. But their long term site leases and simpler routing through geo satellites has proved reliably profitable for years.

Active Development

While HughesNet earns steady revenue from existing infrastructure, SpaceX actively launches new Starlink satellites weekly. Their rented solar array-powered satellites only operate about 5 years before replacement. Maintaining continuous LEO coverage demands intense coordination and capital investment no GEO operator must undertake.

Both network architectures clearly work – even if ultra complex LEO constellations create unique scaling challenges.

Cost Comparison: HughesNet More Affordable (For Now)

When it comes to satellite internet pricing in early 2023, HughesNet frequently comes out ahead:

Costs Starlink HughesNet
Equipment $599 upfront Free-$99
Monthly Fee $110 + tax $45-$150
Data Caps None 10-50GB

HughesNet satellite internet plans don‘t charge for equipment and offer lower minimum monthly prices. Plus, intro discounts can net additional savings for the first 3-6 months of service.

The lowest published HughesNet plan runs just $45 monthly (for 10GB data). More expensive Starlink packages with roaming capability exceed $500 upfront and $135/month!

On the other hand, every Starlink subscription features unlimited data. All HughesNet options impose restrictive data thresholds between 10GB and 50GB before expensive overage fees trigger. For rural households with school age children or data-hungry occupants, HughesNet‘s punishing data caps present an unpleasant surprise each month.

In technology markets, prices usually fall over time. If SpaceX achieves their cost targets for user terminal production and satellite launch, expect Starlink service pricing to become more competitive. But for now, HughesNet offers clearly cheaper satellite internet service to customers who can keep their usage in check.

Reviews: Starlink Speed Thrills but HughesNet Nets Promoter Points

Independent customer reviews help balance technical capabilities with actual user experiences. What do real-world subscribers say after living with these satellite internet services day-to-day?

Over 175,000 Trustpilot reviews combine to give Starlink a Great rating averaging 4.4/5 stars. Customers largely rave about fast speeds. The most common complaints relate to reliability issues from weather/obstructions and inconsistent performance as the network overloaded through 2022.

By comparison, over 11,000 Trustpilot reviews give HughesNet a Good rating of just 3.8/5 stars. Reviewers highlighting restrictive data limits and slower speeds compared to Starlink. But many preferred HughesNet‘s superior customer service and sales presentations over Starlink‘s minimal support channels.

In side-by-side profile, Starlink subscribers emphasize raw performance while HughesNet customers favor brand trust and support. Both score reasonably strong marks across thousands of evaluations.

For satellite internet users prioritizing affordability and customer service over peak speeds, HughesNet remains a worthwhile choice. But early adopters wowed by Starlink‘s low latency and 100Mbps+ downloads are unlikely to switch back without improvements from geosynchronous providers.

Reliability: No Clear Winner

Unfortunately for satellite internet subscribers, weather remains public enemy number one. Due to their very long signal paths through the atmosphere, satellite signals get disrupted by clouds, rain fade, and even extreme heat. Users must learn to expect occasional outages or reduced performance.

Starlink has touted innovative phased array antennas able to seamlessly switch links among satellites as some drop below the horizon. However, heavy weather can still cause trouble by attenuating signals. Most consumer antennas lack sufficient angular range to connect satellites at lower elevations.

Similarly, HughesNet subscribers experience well documented struggles with rain fade, often losing signal entirely in extreme storms. Without nearby alternate satellites to failover between, HughesNet customers simply wait out disruptions.

Both next generation LEO constellations and upgraded GEO satellites with advanced beam forming technologies should help. But no satellite ISP yet provides fiber-like reliability and availability. Those demanding consistent uptime should insist redundant connections or backup options for critical activities.

Business Analysis: HughesNet Leads Subscriber Race But Starlink Closing

Examining key business metrics shows HughesNet retaining decisive near term revenue scale advantage – but for how long? Strong growth projections for Starlink and other emerging LEO networks foreshadowcredible long term threats.

Market Share

Company 2022 Subscribers
HughesNet ~1.3 Million
Starlink >1 Million

For now, HughesNet serves 25-50% more satellite internet subscribers in North America. Their first mover advantage leaves geo services with extensive market penetration – for now.

Capital Investment

Company Investment
Hughes Network Systems ~$2 Billion*
SpaceX Starlink ~$10+ Billion**

Building satellite constellations requires serious capital. SpaceX continues investing billions yearly to launch new Starlink infrastructure faster than Hughes has spent in 20 years! Such outlays eventually require customer growth and revenues to follow.

Revenue Estimates

Early projections for Starlink‘s revenue potential vary wildly, but $30 to $50 billion by 2025 would not shock telecom analysts. Representing 10-20x growth vs HughesNet‘s 2021 sales of $1.9 billion. Capturing even fractions of this total addressable market positions Starlink for possible IPO by mid-decade.

Clearly Starlink and other nimble LEO operators aim directly at the heart of GEO incumbents. While disruptive technology grabs headlines, underestimating resilient competitors like HughesNet with deep customer relationships and operating scale also seems unwise. Not all satellites orbiting overhead make for mortal enemies.

The Future: Advantage Starlink?

Comparing the short and long term outlook suggests a potential power shift among satellite internet rivals:

1-2 Years: Starlink racing to expand network capacity and availability, HughesNet upgrading existing GEN4 coverage

3-5 Years: Global Starlink coverage at lower prices, new LEO constellations launching

Beyond 5 Years: Telesat Lightspeed, Project Kuiper emerge as LEO competitors while GEO incumbents migrate users

Having already connected over 1 million subscribers in just 2 years, Starlink growth shows no signs of slowing. Their mission to provide low latency satellite broadband "anywhere on Earth" appears well underway.

While HughesNet stretches availability of upgraded fourth generation technology, next generation assets remain years from deployment. Without major infrastructure investments, further speed and reliability improvements seem unlikely.

The latest generation of LEO satellites clearly outperform their aging GEO counterparts on technical measures. Over the mid-term, advanced constellations like Starlink look poised to surround incumbents like HughesNet – even if took 15 years to make good on their initial promise!


Conclusion: LEO Leapfrogs but HughesNet Hangs On

This thorough feature comparison finds Starlink claiming a narrow overall win thanks to game changing low Earth orbit satellite technology – with key caveats.

Pros

  • Blazing fast speeds up to 200Mbps down
  • Low latency for better responsiveness
  • No restrictive data caps

Cons

  • Limited availability remains an issue
  • Reliability still trails terrestrial internet
  • Higher monthly costs for now

LEO satellites drive a generational leap in satellite internet capabilities. For customers with access, Starlink offers unmatched performance meeting or exceeding cable speeds for the first time. Despite reliability and coverage gaps compared to traditional GEO satellites, their technical capabilities astound and should only improve from here.

Nevertheless, incumbent provider HughesNet retains strengths around availability, affordability, and customer service – for now.

Pros

  • More widespread coverage options
  • Lower monthly costs, particularly when discounted
  • Longer track record and brand recognition

Cons

  • Congested bandwidth leads to slower speeds
  • Strict data caps can lead to overage fees
  • Weaker reviews highlight customer service issues

With investments in next generation assets still years away, HughesNet satellite internet rides older technology but continues serving more total customers. Parts of the world may never see fiber or 5G, keeping GEO satellite relevant despite its limitations.

For most rural premises lacking physical broadband infrastructure, LEO constellations like Starlink present the clearest path to closing the digital divide. But legacy satellites will coexist serving cost-conscious consumers and remote regions for years to come. Both technologies bring unique capabilities to the table expanding internet access frontiers.


Related Reading

[Starlink Business Internet: Plans, Pricing, Reviews]

[GeoStationary vs LEO Satellites: Pros and Cons Compared]

[Telesat Lightspeed Explained: Alternative to Starlink?]