So you want to know the best options for internet out in the sticks? This is the article for you.
First off, my definition/assumption for Rural Internet is that you are in a spot where it’s not practical to trench cabling, so fiber, coax cable, and such are not available. If you can get fiber or cable internet, that’s your best option by far. Don’t even bother to read any further.
Ironically, many small towns have started to build out their own fiber networks after being ignored by big ISP providers, so a more exurban setting actually has some of the better odds for a fiber connection being available for residential customers.
For our purposes here, we are assuming these options are not available.
What is available?
There are 3 major options for everyone else without a cabled option. DSL service might be considered a 4th, but requires telephone service and typically it’s going to be horrendously bad service (under 1mb/sec), so it’s basically impractical and not worth mentioning.
This is a classic option. ISPs like Hugesnet have been offering Satellite internet for a long time. It’s simple and widely available, since you just need a clear view of the sky where you mount the dish. The speeds available aren’t unusable for modern needs.
The HUGE downside is latency, or the time it takes to send or receive data. Since you have to send data to space and back every time you make a request, the delays are pretty bad. The better part of a second usually. This won’t matter for streaming music or netflix, since that type of data can be buffered and the latency is only noticeable when you first load up some content.
It will matter for time-sensitive stuff like live streaming, playing multiplayer games online, video conferencing, VoIP calls, and anything else where the equipment has no way to predict what is coming next. As time goes on, more and more traffic will be of this time sensitive type.
As a result, Satellite internet is probably your worst remaining option and should be used as a last resort.
SpaceX is launching a low orbiting constellation of internet satellites in the not too distant future that is promising latency more in line with a 4G data connection. If true, this makes it a markedly better option than traditional satellite internet.
Wireless Internet Service Providers
Does your location have any operating WISPs? A google search of “WISP [Your town or county]” should return results if you have any options. This is by far and away your best wireless option if it’s available. The WISP will provide, and typically install for you as well, a small antenna that is mounted in line with their equipment that is used to provide service.
You plug this into your local network, and it works just like any other internet does. the latency shouldn’t be too bad (<50ms), and the data rates should be very respectable (>50mb/sec).
Cellular Based Fixed Access Wireless
This is probably the best, or at least most commonly best, choice out of these options for most people in a rural setting, unless you luck out and have a Wireless ISP available locally (see above). For everyone else, 4G cellular is gonna be your best option.
This is accomplished with a few pieces of equipment. First, you want a pair of mounted antennas, tuned for the specific frequency ranged used by Cellular equipment.
You want at least two antennas to take advantage of Multiple In Multiple Out (MIMO) technology which improves reception and quality, including ultimately the speed and service quality of your internet.
If you want the best performance possible, Mount your own Yagi-style antennas in a cross-polarized pair, as show above. You point these towards the nearest tower ( technically the tower with the best signal, which is typically one and the same in a rural setting). You have to mount and aim them carefully, but a building doesn’t move, so it’s only a one time thing.
You can get an all-in-one panel that acts as both of the necessary antennas, but mounted as one package. This is more tolerant of the angle towards the tower, but at the cost of lower range and signal gain. I use these in suburban installs for backup internet all the time. It might make sense depending on your situation.
Either way, the higher and clearer the line of sight in the location you mount the antennas, the better.
Then you want a special type of low resistance copper coax. Your standard coax you might use in a wall for cable TV isn’t the right kind of stuff for the job. Sadly, you want at least the much more expensive 50ohm stuff, plus you want the correct terminations on the cable already (unless you happen to have coax termination tools). Literally the most expensive part of the project if you need to go any distance. If you can keep the distance short, it’s better for the signal…and your pocketbook.
Those coax runs go from the antenna to where ever you are going to setup your 4G Modem/router, which will get attached to the antennas
You have a number of options, including high end enterprise equipment from Pepwave or Cradlepoint which can combine multiple 4G connections and do bonding, redundancy, etc. If you absolutely need guaranteed performance and uptime, it might be worth it to you. I have one such system in a lake house for a Day-trading customer, who finds it well worth it to spend some serious money on the setup. If you are a professional that needs the connection and are willing to pay for it, these options exist. You can stitch together a very nice connection almost anywhere (within reason) with enough money.
Your average person is probably just looking for a standard internet connection though, and that type of equipment is far more reasonable in price. The Mofi-4500 or the Netgear M1 Nighthawk are both only a couple hundred bucks and will get the job done.
I have many MoFi routers deployed in the field, but only two Netgear MR1100‘s, owing to them being newer, and less ruggedized. If you want to be able to grab your 4G router and use it as a mobile hotspot on vacation or something then the MR1100 is for you. Otherwise, the MoFi is probably the better option at this time. The MR1100 technically offers support for higher speeds potentially, but this is rural internet we are talking about, so the chances of your local tower being packed with state of the art gear and a fat pipe is extremely low. That’s not where the industry traditionally spends their money on hardware upgrades.
In any event, by the time it even matters, it will be a few years down the road and newer 5G compliant hardware will be available, and both will be equally dated.
If you go with the Netgear, they use itty-bitty coax connectors, the TS-9 varient of SMA. you can’t screw them in and you will need these adapters to make the cabling fit. You can make it work…but I wish it had normal SMA connectors like the MoFi 4500. If you go with the Netgear MR1100, when you are cursing under your breath trying to keep them plugged in while you fight with the thick and inflexible antenna coax, just remember I warned you. Also once it’s setup, you don’t really have to worry about it moving
Both of these devices offer an Ethernet port you can use to connect your home network equipment. Both also technically work as a wireless router in their own right, and you can totally use them that way…I just don’t recommend it. They aren’t going to power a real household anyway, since they aren’t super powerful in that respect. Hotspot duty is a different animal than whole home WiFi. Better to just treat them as modems, when thinking about them. They are the box with the job to spit out an internet connection as a Ethernet cable, nothing more.
This is going to depend on your location, but you want to find a plan with the wireless carrier than gives you the best service. Most of the time you will want to use a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) of that main carrier to get a better deal. For lots of the country the best signal is going to be either Verizon or T-mobile, while AT&T will hold the crown in some other areas.
I have had good luck with a T-mobile MVNO, Millenicom, in the Midwest. Verizon itself offers an unlimited plan for $75-95 dollars/mo depending on your area and bundle deal you can get.
You are probably best served by a 4G internet connection, unless you have a local WISP or better still, some cabled option like coax or fiber.