Hughesnet and Wildblue/Excede: Some Side-by-Side Tests

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In our neck of the woods, which is very much woods, we are limited to satellite internet. Though there are resellers, the only two providers (meaning they actually own the satellites) are Wildblue (rebranding as Exede) and Hughenet. We were on Wildblue for a long time and decided to try Hughesnet. I opted to not cancel Wildblue for a couple of months so that I could test them side-by-side.

The short answer: we chose Hughesnet. Though the differences were not huge, Hughesnet beat Wildblue in every test we conducted and seemed a definite improvement in day-to-day internet usage.

What to Test

There are three basic shortcomings of satellite internet: bandwidth allotment, connection latency and transfer speed. I tested the last two.

  1. Your overall monthly bandwidth allotment. This is controlled by your service agreement and isn’t something you really "test". That said, the providers can count bandwidth differently (upload/download counted together or separately, for example). In theory Hughesnet offered more bandwidth by contract. In practice, Hughesnet seemed to also use less bandwidth for a given set of tasks because of the way they count it, but that is probably dependent on actual usage patterns. At the time I tested, we had plans that both cost $60/month and Wildblue/Exede gave us 7GB, while Hughesnet gave us 10GB. I believe Wildblue have increased their quotas in the last few months though. to put this in perspective, with standard AT&T DSL, you usually don’t reun into any issues with the Fair Access Policy unless you regularly use over 250GB per month or 25 times the bandwidth you get on a fairly high-end satellite connection.
  2. High latency. Latency is the time it takes for your request to get to the server and back to you, not counting the time it takes the server to actually do anything. I measured this with ping times. On standard DSL, you would expect a ping time to Google to be about 50 milliseconds. If you were in California pinging a server in Boston, you might expect to see a time just over 120ms. On a satellite internet connection, though, your request has to do two round trips between geosynchronous satellites and then still do all the ground-based travel. Since geosynchronous orbit is 35,786 kilometres (22,236 mi) above the equator, it means that at the speed of light, the round trip takes 477ms, plus a bit extra because we’re not on the equator, plus all the normal time for switching and relays. So we’re easily at numbers that are 7 to 12 times that of ground-based internet.
  3. Transfer speed. This has improved a ton in recent years. Part of the reason we switched to Hughesnet was that they were offering 5Mbps connection speeds, while Wildblue only offered 2Mbps. Both companies offer 12Mbps connection speeds in some locations, but we are not in the service area for that for either company. Again, people who pay a similar price get a much better offering with ground-based internet. I commonly see friends who are getting 50Mbps and some who even get 100Mbps. In South Korea, 50Mbps is considered slow. But most people in the United States are seeing speeds of 3 to 12 times our advertised speed. We never get it as you’ll see. Downloading a one-hour low-def TV show over satellite can take three hours. In rural Vermont, my dad can do it faster than real time.

 

The Test Results

Hughesnet versus Wildblue/Exede Performance
Test
Wildblue Hughesnet Percentage Improvement
Ping Google (avg)
1144ms 1013ms 13%
Ping Google (max)
1368ms 1134ms 21%
Ping Whitehouse.gov (avg)
1439ms 1034ms 39%
Ping Whitehouse.gov (max)
1663ms 1213ms 37%
Ping ideawrights.com (avg)
1721ms 1026ms 68%
Ping ideawrights.com (max)
2084ms 1144ms 82%
Speed Test via CNET (down)
2934kbps 4830kbps 65%
Over VPN: attempts required

to make SSH connection
3 1  
Over VPN: avg time to echo
back 10 chars
4.5secs 4 sec  
Real-world large-file download
1600kbps 4300kbps  

Some Notes on the Tests

  • For some reason, most of the speed test sites wouldn’t test Hughesnet correctly. My own tests with file downloads showed the CNET test to be pretty accurate, but the other ones showed nubmers that were clearly inaccurate.
  • Latency is a huge issue when using a VPN.
  • As Wildblue has shifted more customers onto their Exede system (equivalent to the Hughesnet Gen4 system), they have increased the max download speeds on their system, so the speed test and the real world file download might not be as different today. The latency, though, which more than anything determines how easy it is to use websites with a lot of interactivity (GMail, Facebook, etc) is a function mostly of the ground-based network (since the round-trip to the satellite is the same). I doubt there has been any improvement there.

Conclusion

I’m no network engineer and these test are not comprehensive in any way, but in my quick testing, Hughesnet beat Wildblue in every test. My own experience using both networks side by side and switching frequently to try different networks was that Hughes was in general faster. There were some oddities. Though I can access the Google Play Store on my Android phone now, for the first few weeks with Hughesnet, I could not. Since we had a lot of extra bandwidth to burn during the testing period, we experimented with watching movies online via Amazon Prime streaming. We streamed at the lowest possible quality. We found that it took a few tries to even get started with Hughesnet, but eventually it would buffer and show an entire movie or TV show. We made several attempts to watch something via Wildblue and we were simply unable to do it at all under any circumstances. This is not really a particularly relevant test, because you really can’t be streaming video over satellite anyway because of bandwidth quota limits.

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