As remote work continues to permeate the professional landscape, the use of mobile broadband internet solutions with business-level reliability and speeds becomes essential. Whether you're using it for travel, supplementing a spotty internet connection at your home office or taking video conferences, a mobile hotspot or satellite internet connection could be a viable solution. Read on to learn which type of internet connection is best for your needs.
A mobile hotspot provides access to the internet wherever you can find a strong cellular signal. Internet-connected hotspots can be created through smartphones and shared with other devices (like tablets and laptops) via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and USB cables.
For a better signal and faster service, you can also use a dedicated hotspot device, like the Jetpack MiFi 8800L for Verizon or the Nighthawk LTE for AT&T, to create a Wi-Fi hub and share your broadband connection with multiple devices. You can expect better speeds and signal strength when using a dedicated hotspot device than when tethering with a smartphone.
Prices, speeds and data caps vary widely by provider, so make sure to read the fine print before committing to a new contract for a dedicated mobile device. Even if you have an unlimited data plan through your mobile service provider, it probably does not apply to hotspots. But if you have the budget for new hardware and you're operating where there is consistently strong 4G LTE or 5G cellular service, a dedicated mobile hotspot is an excellent way to stay connected to clients, vendors and co-workers wherever your business takes you. [Read related article: How Much Internet Speed for Your Business?]
One reason hotspots have become such a popular mobile internet solution is their accessibility, since smartphones come with hotspot or tethering features ready to enable. If you use your smartphone as a hotspot regularly, your battery will be drained incredibly fast. Dedicated mobile devices, on the other hand, are built for the sole purpose of sharing a data connection with multiple devices. As a result, they're equipped with much larger antennas and lithium-ion batteries capable of delivering a broadband internet connection for 24 hours at a time.
Satellite internet can provide you with a data connection wherever you can find clear skies for your satellite dish. Download speeds can range anywhere from 12 Mbps to 150 Mbps, depending on your service provider. However, watch out for data caps.
Once you install your dish and point it in the right direction, you'll be able to access broadband speeds through a modem and/or Wi-Fi router, just as you would for a standard cable internet system. However, satellite internet users often have to deal with poor download speeds, very long latency, multiyear contracts and data usage limits. But for many businesses operating in rural areas, a satellite internet plan is often the only way to get online with decent data speeds and reliability.
Availability, prices, speeds and data limits vary by provider. Your signal strength and speeds are also dependent on your location and access to the sky. If you work in an area surrounded by tall trees, large hills or mountains, or your building is nestled between larger structures, you may not be able to keep direct contact with enough of the sky to send data in a straight line to your orbiting satellite.
In the best conditions, dedicated mobile hotspot devices can provide around 50 Mbps to share among connected devices. Mobile hotspots benefit from low latency of around 60 ms, with upload speeds that hover around half of the download speed. That's a strong enough connection for HD video conferencing with a couple of devices in areas with solid reception. And it's more than enough for day-to-day tasks, like sending emails, making VoIP calls, streaming music and sharing basic internet functionality with multiple devices. If you can find great cellular reception, you can expect a fast connection from a mobile hotspot device.
With the clearest skies in the best locations, satellites can provide up to 100 Mbps, but most providers struggle to provide latency below even 500 milliseconds (ms) because of the distance the signal must travel between orbiting satellites and the dish at your location. While that delay won't make a big difference in sending emails or downloading files, it could make live video conferencing a frustrating experience.
Satellites also suffer from incredibly low upload speeds, so it will take a very long time to upload a video tutorial to YouTube at 3 Mbps, for example. And for travel, you won't have luck maintaining a signal if you're constantly changing the location of your dish. However, if you do have a clear view of the sky, the internet speeds offered by satellite providers do outperform the mobile alternative.
Some of the biggest technology leaders are addressing many of the significant drawbacks of satellite internet performance. For example, SpaceX's Starlink satellite network should reach speeds of up to 300 Mbps, with a latency of 20 ms, in 2021, according to a February tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. That would put Starlink on par with many home cable internet plans, which could make satellite internet a very attractive option for small businesses anywhere on the planet.
The main factors to consider when comparing pricing for mobile hotspots and satellite internet are the speeds and the data limits, plus any equipment expenses associated with your plan. Generally speaking, satellite service is more expensive. You could spend $25 to $45 per month for a 25 Mbps cable plan, whereas the same plan through a satellite provider could cost $50 to $150 per month.
Satellites may also be a bit costlier in terms of their data caps, but that may be changing soon with pressure from more competition. A one-hour video conference can use about 1GB of data. While your internet access will not be cut off completely once you exceed your monthly hotspot data allowance, it might be throttled or slowed to the point of not being usable for any tasks that require broadband access. Both hotspot and satellite providers handle throttling differently, so make sure to be aware of your "backup" internet speeds and potential overages once you pass your allowance. If data caps are among your biggest concerns, you'll generally find fewer restrictions with a satellite internet provider.
Starlink currently offers its service with standard unlimited monthly data, which you won't be able to find from any other satellite or mobile hotspot service provider. While the trade-off may be the one-time $499 equipment fee for your satellite dish, the promise of faster speeds with greatly improved latency makes Starlink an ideal option for businesses in rural areas without alternative internet options such as cable or fiber.
Many of the best internet service providers also offer mobile hotspot devices and data plans. Verizon has the reputation for providing the best speeds, but if you've experienced better cellular reception in your area with another provider, that will probably be your best option. We're providing stand-alone pricing, but you may be able to bundle a dedicated hotspot device with an existing mobile plan.
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Two major satellite internet service providers, HughesNet and Viasat, offer nationwide coverage with speeds that vary by location. Newcomer Starlink has more than 1,200 satellites in orbit, with long-term plans to launch a low-orbit constellation of more than 40,000 satellites capable of delivering higher speeds and lower latency to dishes anywhere on the planet. Starlink's current lack of a data cap makes it the clear choice for business use, but availability is still limited by location.
Amazon plans to invest $10 billion with subsidiary Project Kuiper to develop similar low-Earth-orbit satellite internet systems, with public access expected in the next few years. Other companies, such as OneWeb, are also gearing up with competing services. With increasing download speeds, low latency and unlimited data plans on the horizon, the future is growing brighter for satellite internet each year.