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Fast, reliable internet is required for the cord-cutter lifestyle. You can’t stream movies on HBO Max or play your favorite online games without it. With the increased prevalence of Zoom calls, social media, and remote work, the internet is also becoming a core part of our social and work lives.

High-speed internet is taken for granted in cities, but the deeper you go into the country, the harder it is to find broadband access. Often, rural users can’t just go to their cable provider (if they even have one!) and ask for internet access. The options — from mobile broadband to satellite internet — are more complicated. In this guide, we’ll help you navigate all of these options and figure out how to get the internet in rural areas.

Why Is It So Hard to Get the Internet in Rural Areas?

Internet service providers make more money by producing or improving infrastructure in cities and suburbs than in rural areas. Some rural regions have fewer than 10 people per square mile, while many cities have 200 times that population density. That’s a lot more potential customers to share in the cost of installations and upgrades!

What Should You Look for in a Rural Internet Provider?

Availability and Reliability

You’ll want to make sure that the provider you choose offers coverage where you live and that their service is reliable. You can generally check availability through their website, but you’ll want to look for reviews to verify the reliability of the service.

Speed

Slow internet will make it impossible to stream video or play online games, and it may even limit your ability to access some media-heavy websites. When considering your internet speeds, you should be thinking about two factors: bandwidth and latency.

Bandwidth is the amount of data that you can receive (download) or send (upload) in a given period of time, typically measured in megabytes per second (Mbps). Higher bandwidth is better. If you want to stream standard definition video, you’ll need at least 3 Mbps. For 4K video, you’ll need at least 25 Mbps. If you want to stream on multiple devices at once, you’ll need even higher speeds.

Latency is a measure of how long it takes for a signal to travel from your computer to a remote server and back, usually described in milliseconds (ms). Lower latencies are better. While bandwidth matters more for streaming video, latency is more important than bandwidth for online gaming, especially fast-paced games like Call of Duty or Fortnite. For video chatting and internet browsing, both bandwidth and latency matter.

Data Caps

Data caps are a monthly limit on your data usage, above which you will be charged extra. If you frequently stream video or play video games, you’ll want to find a provider that offers unlimited data or a very high data cap.

Some providers — even those advertising unlimited data — have soft data caps, meaning that they throttle (reduce) your internet speed after you use a given amount of monthly data. These caps are often only found in the provider’s fine print, so be sure to check reviews or ask the provider directly.

Pricing

The monthly price can vary wildly depending on what type of internet service you want. Even comparable internet plans may differ drastically in price from provider to provider. Beyond the monthly fixed pricing, also consider any per-GB pricing; some cheaper plans include a low data cap, with a costly per-GB pricing scheme above that cap.

What Kind of Internet Can You Get in Rural Areas?

Dial-up Internet

Dial-up is the oldest form of consumer internet access. It operates over standard phone lines by using a modem that effectively makes a call to your internet service provider (ISP) each time you log on. It’s cheap and readily available wherever phone lines exist, but it operates at very slow speeds and blocks a phone line while in use.

DSL

A digital subscriber line (DSL) is a widely available option even in rural areas. Like dial-up, DSL works by sending signals over existing phone lines. Unlike dial-up, though, DSL operates on a different frequency, so it doesn’t block the phone line.

Where it’s available, DSL is often cheaper than options that require new infrastructure, and it can offer reasonable speeds. Not all phone lines can support DSL, though, and it can suffer from slowdowns when the lines are experiencing heavy usage. Customers that live far from their provider may notice an additional slowdown effect as well.

Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband uses the wireless 3G and 4G networks that already supply your mobile internet plan. This service can offer decent speeds where there is good coverage, but users will often experience low speeds and high latency in areas where wireless network signals are spottier. These plans are not ideal for heavy internet users as they often have data caps or high per-GB prices.

Fixed Wireless

Fixed wireless is a way of solving the so-called “last mile problem” of internet access. It extends cable, DSL, or fiber connections by sending them wirelessly using a radio at the source location and a receiver at the destination. Think of it as a scaled-down version of a satellite signal, with both the sender and receiver located in stations on the ground.

Fixed wireless internet doesn’t suffer from the speed or latency issues of mobile broadband because it uses more densely clustered towers that can rely on line-of-sight signals. However, for these same reasons, it also doesn’t have the same wide availability as mobile broadband.

Satellite Internet

Most of the previous options rely on having capable phone lines or cellular service. That won’t help with how to get the internet where there is no service from any of these other sources.

Satellite internet doesn’t require you to have access to a phone line, live near a cell tower, or have line-of-sight to anything located on the ground. Because satellites are in space, they are able to reach sparse rural areas just as easily as dense urban zones — making them easily the most widely available internet service.

Satellite is able to provide faster internet speeds than both dial-up and DSL. However, it has very high latency and is usually one of the most expensive internet options. Many satellite internet providers also impose a data cap, even if it’s just a soft one.

Unlike the previous options, satellite internet generally doesn’t come from your home phone or wireless provider. The most common satellite internet providers are HughesNet and Viasat, both of which are available in even deeply rural regions of all 50 U.S. states.

Step-by-Step Guide to Getting the Internet in Rural Areas

1. Find ISPs in Your Area

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides a broadband availability map that lets you search for all available broadband internet providers based on your address. Their list includes information on the kind of internet provided and the bandwidth of the service. You can also find ISPs in your area by entering your zip code into the search box on our ISP page.

2. Check Reviews of Each Provider

Picking the wrong ISP can lead to frustratingly slow internet and costly hidden fees. Worse, many ISPs have installation costs or contracts that make switching providers difficult and expensive. Spending a few minutes reading reviews can save you a lot of hassle down the road.

3. Compare Plans and Deals from Available Providers

Once you’ve narrowed down your providers, you’ll want to compare their available plans based on pricing, data caps, and speed as described earlier. As part of that process, you’ll want to check for any active deals they may be running, which can often save you quite a bit of money over the first year or two of service.

4. Sign up and Enjoy!

Most ISPs will provide all of the equipment you need and will install it for you. Once you’ve contacted them to set up your service, all you have to do is schedule a time to set everything up. Then, it’s time to binge some Amazon Prime Video or play a few matches of Rocket League.

The Best Is Yet to Come

If you follow the above advice, you will almost certainly find an ISP available in your area. Even if nothing else reaches you, satellite internet probably does — as long as you can deal with the higher cost and latency issues.

You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned StarLink or 5G yet. StarLink, with its claims of low-latency satellite internet that is 10 to 40 times faster than traditional providers, is likely to be a game-changer for rural internet users. 5G, similarly, is looking to revolutionize mobile networks and wireless home internet — dramatically boosting their speeds, decreasing their latency, and enabling them to handle a thousand times as many devices!

Stay tuned to CordCutting.com for the latest news on when and how you can get your hands on those new technologies.

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