You probably spent ages choosing the perfect school. Years thinking about your major. You may even pore over your dinner options with a fine-toothed comb every Friday night. But when it comes to internet providers, you may have chosen the first one that popped into your head. Oops!
This could very well be the first time you've had to deal with choosing a service company, and it can be overwhelming to not only compare broadband internet providers, but also their plans. On the other hand, those plans may look pretty similar at first glance, leading you to believe it doesn't matter which ISP you choose.
But consider this: as you look more closely at internet providers, you will probably see differences that make one ISP the better choice for students who need the internet for everything from marathon study sessions to classwork to weekend homework submission. Plus, these days the internet is how we stay in touch with family and friends not only in faraway places, but also in the very next room. A reliable connection is non-negotiable for college students.
Finding that reliable connection at a price you can afford can take a little time, but this guide can make it easier. Continue reading as we lay out the types of plans you as a student should be looking for as you compare and contrast internet providers so you can find an ISP that never lets you down.
First, Look for Reliable Internet Providers
Reliability is important because you don't want your internet to go down right when you're trying to submit the term paper that will be worth 50% of your grade! DSL and cable are now similar in terms of reliability for most customers, though cable can get slower during peak usage hours.
What ISPs are available in your area? Those will be your top-level options to dig into. Have you heard anything negative from friends, family, or neighbors about any of the local providers? Focus on the internet providers that get rave reviews from people in your network and those that are highly rated on unbiased sites like BroadbandSearch.
It's Not Just About Homework
How you use the internet won't be how your roommate uses the internet, though the common factor will be that you both use it for work and play. As you look at broadband plans, consider whether you're mainly using the internet for light research and keeping in touch with friends or whether your classes require you to stream lectures, upload files, or even take entire courses remotely. Do you need to video conference with your professor? Are you a hardcore gamer or a movie buff who is always streaming?
Here's a quick breakdown use versus plan:
- Light users can get away with less expensive plans that have data caps
- Heavy users should opt for unlimited plans and higher bandwidth
- Multi-person households sharing a plan will always be heavy users
- Users who spend more time away from home should prioritize mobile access
- Users who watch a ton of sports should look at TV bundles
If you're going away to college for the first time, it can be helpful to check in with your parents to ask them what kind of broadband plan you had at home. You may not be able to use the same internet provider if you're going to a faraway school, but it will give you an idea of what speeds and data caps you can comfortably live with.
Your Options as a Student
Your choices when it comes to internet providers will be the same as those of your neighbor - almost. Because you're a student, you may have access to providers or plans that they can't get. You'll be able to choose between:
Cable: If there is cable TV in your area, cable internet will be one of your choices. Getting service as a student may be easier or less expensive if your university has a deal with a specific provider. The only downside to cable is that it can (but doesn't necessarily) slow down a little during peak usage hours.
DSL: If your living situation includes wiring for a landline, you'll probably be able to get DSL. It's an especially good choice if you are going to school in a metro area because it's more reliable the closer you are to the DSL hub.
Fiber: This is the fastest broadband internet around, but unfortunately it's not available in most locations yet. If your university has a fiber connection, however, it may be available in your neighborhood.
Satellite: Going to an out-of-the-way school may mean that satellite, which is available around the globe thanks to satellites in orbit, is your only option. This shouldn't be an issue unless you do a lot of online gaming, in which case you may notice a tiny bit of lag.
No matter what type of broadband makes the most sense, always be sure you ask about student discounts. Even internet providers that don't advertise broadband discounts for college students may be willing to cut you a deal if you ask a representative. You may even be able to get discounts on laptops and software products through your ISP if they know you're a student or they have a deal with your university.
The Speeds You Need
People have a tendency to opt for the top internet speeds they can get, but as cool as blazing fast broadband sounds, you might not actually need it - and why pay for something you don't need? Obviously slow internet can make it hard to complete assignments so you don't want to choose a plan that will make doing your homework impossible. The key is finding the middle ground where you're getting enough speed but not paying too much for it.
- In general, students who won't be sharing a plan should look for internet providers offering speeds of at least 6 Mbps or more.
- If you're sharing a plan with roommates, having speeds in the 10-25 Mbps range will let you stream at the same time without consequences.
- Look at 50 Mbps plans if you plan to regularly host multi-person study sessions that will require everyone to be connected to the internet.
Why do you need high upload speeds in addition to high download speeds? Because high download speeds are what makes it possible to stream videos and lectures. High upload speeds let you quickly submit work to your college's portal, participate in online lectures, or take online exams.
What About Data Caps?
Considering how much students rely on their internet connections to make the grade, it doesn't make sense to choose a plan with a data cap. The good news is that you may be able to find local internet providers that offer no-cap plans, so you can choose one of those and then stream to your heart's content. But if the only ISPs in your area have data caps and you'll be sharing a plan with housemates, you will probably benefit the most from the plan that has the highest cap. It's either that or dealing with having your speeds throttled for the remainder of the month or until you can pony up for extra data.
BroadbandSearch lists data caps on its Broadband "Nutrition Facts" Labels so you can compare companies more easily. Get more data than you think you'll need because the cost of buying extra data when you hit your cap is usually higher than paying up front.
Flexibility Is Key When It Comes to Contract Length
Internet providers that still make customers sign a contract typically ask for 12- to 18-month commitments, which probably won't work for you if you plan on going home for the summer. Canceling your contract before the end of the minimum term can mean having to pay a cancellation fee, and if you're canceling every year just before moving back home it can put a real dent in your budget. As you research ISPs, keep an eye out for no-contract broadband plans with enough bandwidth for multiple users if you will be sharing a plan. The next best thing will be a plan with a 30-day renewable commitment.
Do You Need to Go Mobile?
Chances are your school has reliable Wi-Fi that you can use whenever you're on campus, but if not (or if you need to study on the go) then your broadband plan needs to work for you wherever you are. Mobile broadband technology enables anywhere access on laptops and other devices, which is useful for anyone who needs to study between shifts or do homework on public transportation. The main downsides are that mobile broadband tends to be slightly less reliable than cable or DSL and you'll need to keep a close eye on your data usage because mobile plans tend to have much lower caps.
Even if your parents have offered to cover the cost of your broadband, you should look for internet providers that offer cost-effective plans. It's easy to go overboard and pay for things you don't need because the marketing draws you in. For instance, some ISPs offer extras like antivirus software, firewalls, and email addresses, but these are all things you can get for free elsewhere. On the other hand, it might make sense to pay a little more for a great plan that includes anytime Wi-Fi hotspot access, a phone plan, or a bundle that gives you access to professional sports on TV.
If you're living on campus, you can really economize with a pay-as-you-go plan that you only use when the school's Wi-Fi is less than reliable or if you need to access content that your college's firewall is blocking. And remember that it never hurts to ask about student discounts. The worst an ISP's rep can say is no, and then you're no worse off than you were before.
The bottom line is this: as a student, you're never going to find a perfect internet provider. But you can find an ISP and plan that works for you, whether you're living in the dorms and just need internet when you're off-campus or you're living in shared housing with a bunch of hardcore gamers.
When you're ready to start shopping for internet providers that can get you through four years of undergrad and beyond, check out the ISPs in your area.