If you're living or staying out in the middle of nowhere or a rural area outside of a big city or town — where there are no reliable cable, fiber, or wireless networks available — how can you get an internet connection? There are several possibilities, but they all come with tradeoffs, which we'll go over in detail.
Normally, rural, more isolated areas in the U.S. are usually only served by one internet provider, whether that's dial-up or some other connection type. These providers offer slower speeds than most ISPs in more populated locations. Because they are the only ones in the community, there isn't any pressure for them to innovate and upgrade their infrastructure to give users higher speeds.
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DSL is the service that knocked dial-up off the map. It's faster than dial-up, always-on, and you can use your landline phone while you're surfing the web. This is the most common type of internet connection you'll be able to get out in the countryside since it uses the phone lines you already have. However, while faster than dial-up, it's still super slow by today's standards.
When I was out in the middle of nowhere in Montana, the only DSL provider was Frontier Communications. And typical speeds were around 10 Mbps for uploads and 1 Mbps for downloads. That's crazy slow. You might be able to stream a low-quality video on Netflix, Prime, or YouTube, but you can pretty much forget about Apple TV or Disney Plus. And a one-gigabyte file would take approximately 15 minutes with a steady connection.
You'll definitely have a slow connection, but that connection will also be fairly reliable — possibly the most reliable one on this list. If you need a steady connection for downloading or uploading, this will provide you with fewer interruptions and outages.
You can search in your area for DSL providers using a simple web tool, to see what's available. Common providers include AT&T, CenturyLink, EarthLink, Frontier, and Verizon. Still, there are many companies with DSL products since it's a fairly cheap game to get into with the basic infrastructure already in place.
If there are no DSL providers in your area, another option to check out is satellite internet, where the system in place uses a geostationary orbit, aka geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO).
Now, I'm not talking about the new Starlink system designed by SpaceX that can give you anywhere from 50 Mbps to over 150 Mbps download speeds. It's only available in select locations, so you likely won't be in a service zone. It's a very-low Earth orbit non-geostationary satellite orbit constellation (NGSO) with lower latency, a smaller size, and lower losses compared to its geostationary counterpart.
The GEO type of satellite constellations move with Earth's rotation so that satellite antennae on the ground can be permanently fixed in one position without tracking the satellites above. They are placed above low orbit, which means high latency because of the distance to your home — and slower-than-DSL speeds. Average speeds nationwide are around 1 Mbps downloads and about a quarter of that for uploads.
In the same area in Montana, using HughesNet as my provider, I typically saw just over 1 Mbps for downloads, and it hardly ever went over 0.5 Mbps for uploads. The maximum download speed I observed was about 20 Mbps.
Satellite internet is more for simple tasks, like needing a way to make a VoIP call because you have no cellular reception in the area. However, the high latency really makes even a simple call suffer because you'll be talking over each other constantly. We wouldn't recommend it except when there is absolutely nothing else. Downloading a one-gigabyte file would take almost 2.5 hours at 1 Mbps. A five-megabyte file, which is typical for many photos these days, would take almost a minute.
Another downside to satellite internet is that you will not have a reliable connection if there are any obstructions such as trees, barns, large hills, and even weather in some instances. Companies serving North America include HughesNet and Viasat Internet, so there aren't many choices, and the monthly pricing tiers are ridiculously expensive — with data caps! If you can wait, hold out for Starlink.
So far, our options aren't that great, and they make cellular data providers look pretty good. If you have a smartphone that lets you use it as a personal hotspot, you can have data on your phone and your computer, killing two birds with one stone, with more portability since you just need to be in range of a cellular tower. If you want a fixed personal hotspot, you can take an old smartphone and use your wireless SIM card in that. That way, you can multitask better with your smartphone and computer.
If you go this route, unlimited 4G LTE or 5G data plans are the way to go. All the big players — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer them. But you'll find that unlimited plans usually throttle the connection after a certain period. For instance, you may have a maximum amount of data you can use at full speeds each month before being throttled down to lower speeds. Likewise, if you're using a phone as the wireless hotspot, there may also be monthly data caps that are even lower than the regular data caps.
Smartphones don't usually have the best antennae, so your signal may vary widely from time to time. That's why it's better to invest in a device that's solely to be a mobile hotspot. For example, on T-Mobile, you can get a ZTE 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot for about $200 or Alcatel LINKZONE 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot for about $50, pop the SIM in that, and you're good to go.
However, while the antennae in these mobile hotspots are better than in phones, you won't be able to use a directional antenna, and you'll find yourself jumping from room to room to find the best signal. You might even want to tape it to a window or place it outside! Plus, your cellular provider will know that it's not a phone, and phone plans are meant for phones. So if you use a mobile hotspot like these, you'll need a mobile hotspot plan, which usually have more restrictions.
The download and upload speeds you'll get will vary greatly from provider to provider and depend on the quality of the signal and the type of tower nearby. 5G towers are relatively new, so don't expect to find any of those within operating distance to you. 4G LTE is most likely, but you may even be stuck with 3G speeds in remote areas.
If you find that mobile hotspot plans are too limiting for you, you can get around the restrictions of using a mobile hotspot on a regular smartphone plan by using a device that spoofs itself as a smartphone. We recommend the MOFI4500-4GXELTE-SIM4 with Embedded SIM which should work with regular phone plans on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless.
Mofi's router makes the network think it's a smartphone. That way, it doesn't limit you to those throttled data caps for personal hotspots (you'll only have to deal with the overall data cap) while giving you both wireless and Ethernet connections to use on all your devices. You can also use directional antennae to get the best signal possible while keeping it in a convenient location.
The Mofi router is a bit expensive, starting at $299 and sometimes going up to $400.
- Buy on Amazon: MOFI4500-4GXELTE-SIM4 with Embedded SIM for $329
- Buy on Amazon: MOFI4500-4GXELTE-SIM7 with Upgraded Antennae for $299
While we haven't tested them, there are cheaper solutions to the Mofi router, such as the MikroTik LHG LTE kit-US. This particular one does not provide a wireless connection and only has one Ethernet port, but it can be powered over that Ethernet port. Make sure that whatever you get, that it works on the same band.
If the Mofi router wasn't enough to get you a fast, reliable internet connection on all of your devices, there's another thing you can do to improve things: get a signal booster. A signal booster will amplify the signal between the tower and your Mofi router, giving you the best performance possible in this list of options. However, with the Mofi router's cost and a good signal booster's price tag, it's definitely not cheap. Some of the best signal boosters can be priced up to $900, though you can get an OK one from $100 to $200.
With signal boosters, you need some detailed knowledge of the cell infrastructure in the area. So you'll need to do some research to make sure it will boost the right frequency, and that can be a tricky thing to find out. Make sure that it'll work on the same band and channel that your Mofi router uses. Some of the cheaper options include:
- Buy on Amazon: Phonetone 4G LTE Signal Booster (Bands 12, 13, 17) for $189
- Buy on Amazon: Bosuru 4G LTE Signal Booster (Band 13) for $135
- Buy on Amazon: Amazboost 4G LTE Signal Booster (Multi-Band) for $210
- Buy on Amazon: HiBoost 3-Band 4G LTE Signal Booster for $199
- Buy on Amazon: HiBoost 4G LTE Signal Booster (Multi-Band) for $399
Channel bonding lets you combine all of the above options to give you the best of everything. It's a paid service that combines all of your internet sources, chops up your packets, and then sends them to a source using all of the available bandwidth where they're reassembled and sent to the internet at large. Theoretically, you could get an accumulative amount of download and upload speeds from each option, but it's more complicated to set up. Most DSL providers will offer a channel bonding option, so it's worth asking about if you're going that route.
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