For most people, stacks of AOL CDs and the not-so-gentle beep boop WHHHHRRRR of dial-up modems are things long since left in the past, and thankfully so. But while broadband lovers chat about streaming music and ditching cable for Netflix, 18 million homes across America still lack access to a high-speed Internet connection (mainly in rural areas). There's new hope on the horizon, though; recently, Verizon launched HomeFusion Broadband, a service capable of bringing the company's speedy 4G LTE mobile service into homes across the country. How does it stack up against other rural Internet options?
First, the good news; HomeFusion actually delivers broadband-quality Internet speeds that other rural Internet options simply can't match. Verizon says the service delivers 5 to 12 Mbps average download speeds and 2 to 5 Mbps average upload speeds.
Wired broadband services, like DSL or cable, can match those speeds, but often aren't available in rural areas, where the main Internet options are dial-up and satellite connections. Satellite download speeds vary, but most clock in around 1 Mbps. Dial-up? It's just sloooooooooooooow.
Pricing and data caps
Now for the first bit of bad news: if you aren't willing to wait around while a dial-up connection slowly loads websites, getting Internet to your rural home is very expensive from a data-for-dollars perspective and entails putting up with very restrictive data caps.
HughesNet, a top satellite provider, offers a 1 Mbps plan (*Est. $40 per month) with reasonable pricing, but it restricts downloads to 200 Mbps total per day. Other HughesNet plans start at $80 per month and offer slight speed and daily data allowance increases. Verizon HomeFusion's three subscription tiers use monthly data caps instead: 10 GB (*Est. $60 per month), 20 GB (*Est. $90 per month) and 30 GB (*Est. $120 per month). While satellite providers often cut off your access after you hit your daily total, Verizon lets you consume additional data, but overage charges apply (*Est. $10 per GB).
Which plan fits your needs? It depends. If you want to stream the very occasional Netflix video, the high speeds and lack of a daily download limit makes Verizon HomeFusion your only real option. AT&T has a handy data calculator with custom usage estimates and a chart listing how much data is used by common tasks. Most broadband users consume around 20 GB of data per month.
Here's where HomeFusion really falters. While Verizon's promoting it as a service for people with limited broadband options, HomeFusion is only available in areas with 4G coverage, i.e. mid- to large-sized cities. Opening up Verizon's coverage map and selecting "4G Data Coverage" shows how few physical areas Verizon's 4G network actually covers. HomeFusion doesn't work with Verizon's widespread 3G network.
Dial-up and satellite Internet, on the other hand, are available in virtually all areas of the country, though geographic issues may limit satellite availability.
Cellular tethering; a final option
Rural residents have one final option: subscribing to a 3G or 4G cellular data plan and connecting a USB modem to their computer or by using a smartphone or a dedicated mobile hotspot device as a Wi-Fi hotspot. 3G connection speeds usually hover between 0.5 Mbps and 1 Mbps, though that can vary wildly depending on your location and carrier. 4G is much faster.
Dedicated mobile connection devices often cost up to $100 upfront, however, and cellular carriers usually hit you with an additional monthly charge to unlock Wi-Fi tethering/hotspot capabilities on your smartphone. You'll also want to make sure your house is covered by your cellular carrier of choice and isn't in a roaming area.
Which rural Internet option is right for you?
There's no clear cut answer here. It depends on your usage and whether or not specific services are available in your area. Cable and DSL plans outshine all of the services discussed here in both pricing and available speeds; snag one of those if you can.
If you need more help, our mobile broadband and wireless card reports have a lot more information about the various cellular networks and devices that are available, while ConsumerSearch's Internet Service Provider report touches on dial-up and satellite providers.
Do you live in a rural area? What ISP do you use?