It can be tough to compare internet providers! A lot of people start by looking at ads, but internet service providers don't put all of their packages and pricing plans in their marketing materials. What makes it even harder is that ads can't help you choose between the different types of broadband. Cable may be more reliable than DSL where you live. Some types of broadband delivery that you'll see in local advertising might not be available at all in your particular neighborhood. Clearly, ads don't tell the whole story, which means that finding the best ISP for your household will take some research.
As tempting as it can be to go with the first ISP that pops into your head, taking the time to compare internet providers can pay off in both better service and money saved. You need the internet to work, play, and stay connected, and that means your choice of broadband provider can make your life easier... or harder. We put together this article to make finding the right ISP faster and simpler so you can get connected and get on with your life.
Step 1: Get Familiar with the Terminology
You can't compare internet providers without knowing the lingo. As you read up on each ISP's packages, you'll start seeing the same terms again and again. Knowing what they mean can help you determine whether a plan is a good deal or not worth the price tag.
First, there's broadband. Broadband usually just refers to always-on, high bandwidth internet delivery. Bandwidth (which is typically expressed in megabits per second or Mbps) commonly refers to the volume of data that an internet connection can handle in some unit of time. Bandwidth comes in two varieties.
Then there are download speeds, which are a measure of how fast you can get data from a server to your device. Upload speeds (which are often slower than download speeds) measure how quickly you can send data to others. Finally there's ping, which is how fast you get a response after you have sent a request to a server.
It's not important to have a thorough understanding of the ins and outs of broadband delivery, but it's helpful to know the above terms so you can compare internet providers' packages and read reviews of the different ISPs in your area. Just remember to always look for unbiased reviews like the ones on BroadbandSearch.
Step 2: Get Familiar with the Technology
Now that you know what broadband actually is, you can start looking at the different types of broadband delivery. The three most common types of high speed internet delivery are cable, DSL, and satellite broadband. Many people now access the internet via mobile broadband. Fiber and fixed wireless are still the least common broadband types. All of these technologies do the same thing, which is give households and businesses access to the internet.
Users in densely populated areas can usually choose any of them and get service that is sufficient. However, users in rural locales and low income neighborhoods may discover that their choice of ISPs is limited. And users who need a speedy, reliable connection or the biggest data plans for work may struggle to find a broadband provider that can meet those requirements.
Understanding current broadband technology can help you as you compare internet providers because there are pros and cons to all the delivery types.
This type of connection, which stands for ‘digital subscriber line', uses existing copper telephone lines to deliver broadband internet into homes and businesses. Whereas once you'd have to hang up your landline to go online, DSL uses higher frequency bands to send and receive data so you can use the connection for voice calls and the internet simultaneously. DSL is one of the most common types of broadband in use today even though it tends to be slower than cable broadband.
Currently, some DSL services can deliver download speeds up to 100 Mbps, but the bandwidth users actually receive is typically less. There are a number of things that can slow down a DSL connection, including the quality of the local telephone lines, the quality of the connection in your home, and your distance from the nearest telephone exchange. Given all that, you may be wondering why it's so common. The answer is that you can get DSL broadband anywhere there is a landline telephone connection.
This type of broadband delivery uses high bandwidth cable television infrastructure to provide users with high speed internet access on some channels while other channels are used to deliver the television signal. Because the coaxial cable that cable companies use has more bandwidth than telephone lines, cable broadband tends to be faster than DSL (up to 150 Mbps). However, speeds can suffer during peak use hours and cable broadband companies are more likely than DSL providers to have plans with strict data caps so they can accommodate more customers on the existing lines. Also, cable is simply not available in some parts of the US.
As you compare internet providers, you'll quickly discover that fiber is the fastest type of broadband technology out there. The only problem? It's typically more expensive than either DSL or cable and most of the country isn't wired with fiber optic cables (which are made of ultra-thin, transparent glass and use light to transmit data). ISPs that offer fiber internet in select locations often advertise it everywhere to generate demand, so don't be disappointed when you get excited about the prospect of 1,000 Mbps internet only to discover you can't get fiber where you live. If fiber broadband is available in your neighborhood and fits into your budget, it is ideal for people who use lots of data or need an extremely stable connection for work or other applications.
This type of internet delivery is provided via a mobile phone signal directly to phones or to other devices like laptops and tablets via mobile dongles and 4G SIMs. Mobile broadband works anywhere there is a cellular signal and is extremely useful for people who need internet access on the move, but there are two good reasons that more people don't use mobile broadband exclusively.
First, no cell service means no internet, so it's not a reliable option for anyone who lives somewhere with spotty service. And second, mobile broadband plans almost always come with strict data caps - some of which are very low. The fees for exceeding the cap can be high.
A satellite broadband signal is delivered via geostationary communication satellites in orbit that send and receive data via satellite dishes on users' homes and at ground stations. Today's satellite broadband providers advertise speeds up to 100 Mbps, though whether users actually receive those speeds consistently depends on many factors.
There needs to be a clear line of sight from the dish to the southern sky to get an optimal connection. If there is any interference (due to weather, for instance), then the connection will be much slower and laggier. However, when you compare internet providers and discover that the only choices available to you are dial-up and satellite (as is still the case for many people in the rural United States) then the choice is clear.
Fixed Wireless Broadband
This is a relatively new form of wireless broadband delivery that is only available in select locations. It uses a series of ground stations (also called transmission towers) instead of a cellular network to deliver wireless broadband internet to out of the way customers, who install special transceivers in order to receive the signal. The appeal of this approach to internet delivery is that it is faster and more reliable than mobile broadband and expanding service doesn't require building out physical infrastructure as far. Fixed wireless also doesn't suffer from the kind of network latency issues that can be an issue for satellite broadband customers. The big downside to fixed wireless is that users have to be within the line of site of one of the provider's ground stations. That means setting up fixed wireless in rural areas can still require a substantial investment on the part of ISPs.
Step 3: Compare Internet Providers' Packages and Plans
Now that you know what ISPs are providing, it's time to start looking at their plans. There are so many ways to compare internet providers other than price, which is a good thing since providers operating in a single neighborhood may offer packages at similar price points so they can be competitive. Here are some other ways you can compare internet providers near you:
Look at What's Available Locally
When you put your zip code into BroadbandSearch, do you see a lot of choices or just a few? The upside of having a lot of options is that you can comparison shop. On the other hand, the upside of having just a handful of options is that your choice becomes an easy one. In the city? DSL may be faster than cable. In the country? If an upgraded mobile data plan can meet your internet needs and your cell service is reliable, you may not need a satellite connection. And if fiber is available in your neighborhood, then consider yourself lucky!
Decide On Your Speed Needs
Many ISPs try to push customers into the highest bandwidth plans when a lot of users don't need lightning fast broadband. As you compare internet providers, don't automatically nix plans in the 1-10 Mbps range. Casual internet users or people who live alone can typically get by with that amount. Hardcore gamers or people who telecommute and need good upload speeds should look for higher speed plans. And don't discount satellite internet just because you're worried about lag. The latency on most satellite broadband service will be barely noticeable to casual users.
Be Aware that Most Hot Deals are Time Limited
The amazing deals that ISPs use to lure customers in are more often than not short-term promotions. Always ask broadband providers whether the price they're offering will expire after six months or a year, because they'll seldom include the limits of their promotions outside of the fine print.
Ask About Data Caps, Contract Lengths, and Hidden Fees
Many broadband providers (especially cable and mobile providers) have strict data caps, and running up against those caps can mean paying big bills for more data or dealing with super slow speeds for the rest of the month. If you use a lot of data, look for unlimited plans. But if you don't, rejoice because you may be able to score a great deal on a low-data plan.
Next, look at contract lengths. Many ISPs now provide service without asking users to lock into a one or three year contract, though some providers still mainly deal in contract plans. Don't lock yourself into any plan that seems too expensive because the penalties for breaking your contract can be steep!
And finally, make sure you compare internet providers' one-time charges and hidden fees. Will turning on service mean having equipment installed on or in your home? How much will that cost? Do you need to rent equipment to use the connection? Make sure you don't get any nasty surprises when you get your first bill.
Don't Pay for Bundled Service You Don't Need
On first glance, bundles always look appealing. TV, phone, and internet on the same bill? Sounds like a win unless you prefer to stream Netflix and don't need a landline. Don't let an ISP talk you into paying for services you don't need. These days, most broadband providers do offer internet only plans, though you may have to call them to request one since many companies don't advertise these basic plans.
Are you ready to start comparing and contrasting the ISPs in your neighborhood? Start by finding internet providers near you.