With new satellite tech, rural dwellers get access to true broadband

Just three months after settling into geostationary orbit, Hughes Network Systems’ (s sats) new EchoStar 17 satellite is ready for commercial service. Hughes Net on Monday launched new plans offering download speeds as high as 15 Mbps, in the process joining the growing ranks of satellite operators bringing true broadband speeds to rural areas.

HughesNet has named the new service Gen4 and the satellite utilizes EchoStar-Hughes’ new Jupiter high-throughput technology, which expands the total capacity of the satellite to 100 Gbps. That has allowed Hughes to distribute that capacity more liberally to its customers, bumping up download speeds from 1-2 Mbps to 10-15 Mbps and upload speeds above a megabit. ViaSat(s vsat) launched a similarly brawny satellite last year, and began offering a $50/month 12 Mbps service in January.

Hughes service plans are comparably priced with cable broadband, ranging from $50 to $100 a month, but the satellite’s finite capacity does give the service some stiff limitations. Unlike its previous plans, these newer, faster tiers come with caps. At the low end customers are limited to 20 GB, while the upper tier taps out at 40 GB. By comparison cable operator Comcast recently raised its monthly cap from 250 GB to 300 GB a month.

What’s more, customers are restricted when they can consume that data -– on all plans, half of the monthly data bucket can only be tapped between 2 AM and 8 AM. But Hughes also seems to have done away with the old daily throttling policies that irked so many of its customers.

Before Gen4, customers technically didn’t have to deal with caps, but they were limited to daily download allotment from 250 MBs to 450 MBs. If they exceeded those caps in a 24-hour period, their connections were throttled back to dial-up speeds, returning to normal after another 24 hours. It’s not clear if Hughes is eliminating those fair-use policies completely, but it looks like customers are getting much more flexibility in how they consume their admittedly limited monthly data allocations.

Though it’s still not on par with its wireline counterparts, satellite broadband has made leaps in last year as a new generation of equipment has gone into orbit. That’s led to several new services that have bumped up the speeds available to a large swathe of the American hinterland and other underserved areas where DSL and cable aren’t options. In addition to ViaSat’s Exede and HughesNet’s Gen4, Dish Network(s dish) has bought capacity from both companies, allowing it to sell a broadband service called DishNet in areas ViaSat and Hughes’ respective birds don’t cover.

Improved satellite technologies have also expanded broadband access beyond rural homes and business. ViaSat’s satellite will power JetBlue’s(s jblu) forthcoming in-flight Wi-Fi service, significantly boosting the speeds available to passengers while drastically lowering the cost of delivering that data. In three years, Iridium(s irdm) will begin launching a new constellation of 66 satellites into low-Earth orbit, which will be able to supply 8 Mbps connections not just to homes in the Midwest farmlands but to any point on the globe.