Looking for a new internet service provider? The providers in your area may look, at first glance, nearly identical. The key to choosing between them is to look beyond price, digging deep into what they have to offer.
Considering how much time you probably spend online each day, your choice of home internet service or business internet provider can change your life for the better — or for the worse. Your first impulse may be to go with the ISP that will give you the most bandwidth for your money, but your monthly bill shouldn't be the only factor you take into consideration.
Below, you'll find 10 other ways to compare internet providers so you can choose an ISP that will let you work, play, and stay connected day in and day out.
First, Find Your Local Internet Service Providers
Your address is still typically the determining factor when you're comparing internet providers. But don't sign up with the first ISP that pops into your head. The largest nationwide ISPs have equally large advertising budgets, so you might be unaware that there are smaller budget-friendly providers operating in your area. If you find that your cable and DSL choices are limited, it's time to see how satellite and wireless stack up.
Are They Reliable?
ISPs for home internet service and business internet will draw you in with the promise of lightning fast speed and connections that never drop, but don't put too much stock in ad copy. User reviews won't necessarily reflect the service as it's delivered in your area, so talk to your friends and neighbors about their experiences with their internet service providers. And when you do read reviews, make sure they come from an unbiased source like BroadbandSearch because the information you're getting will be as trustworthy as what you get from your social network.
Bottom line: If you read or hear multiple complaints about a particular ISP's unreliable connections, slow speeds, and bad tech support, stay away.
Will You Get the Best Customer Service?
You should be able to reach your internet provider as soon as there's an issue with your service, but that isn't always the case. As you're comparing ISPs, look for companies that provide 24/7 support by chat or phone and have robust, easy-to-navigate support pages on their website. You can also read customer service reviews, though it's important to realize that most people only leave feedback when they've had a negative experience so user reviews probably won't show the whole story. Look for reviews from impartial sources like BroadbandSearch to get all the facts about how ISPs treat their customers.
Next, Start Looking at Options
Once you're familiar with the internet service providers operating in your area and you have an idea of which have the best reputation, it's time to look at what they can actually deliver. You'll need to consider what type of internet will give you the best value and speed, which packages make the most sense for your situation, and whether a given ISP's idea of fast internet gels with your own.
From there, here are 10 ways to narrow down your selection:
Do You Need Wired or Wireless Service?
There are five types of internet delivery, and if you're in a densely populated urban area you may have the luxury of choosing between all five.
Cable internet uses high-bandwidth cable television networks to provide internet to customers and tends to be faster than DSL, though speeds may suffer during peak use hours.
DSL is often the less expensive option and operates over phone lines to deliver consistent speeds very similar to cable.
Fiber optic service (FiOS) delivers internet over fiber optic lines and is one of the fastest types of internet delivery, though it's still only available in select locations.
Wireless internet (also known as Wi-Fi internet) gives people access to high-speed internet in areas where the infrastructure for wired broadband doesn't exist.
And Satellite broadband uses satellites to provide internet service to customers in rural areas where DSL, cable, and fiber are unavailable.
The best choice will always be the available choice, which for people in more rural parts of the US will be satellite or wireless. Satellite still suffers from latency issues that make gaming difficult, but companies like SpaceX are working to make this type of internet delivery as fast and reliable as wired options.
To Bundle or Not to Bundle?
Bundles are packages that internet service providers put together with multiple services (usually internet, television, and phone) in one plan. The benefit of the bundle is that each service is typically less expensive than it would be if you bought it à la carte, and you may get a higher tier of service for a lower price. That said, whether a bundled package is the best choice for you is less about cost and more about lifestyle. When looking at bundles, consider the following:
- Do you use a landline?
- Do you really need that landline?
- Are you a big fan of specific cable TV shows?
- Is access to sports networks important to you?
- Are you more likely to watch Netflix than cable?
- Has your phone/cable company proven it's reliable?
- Could having just one bill make your life easier?
- Will the bundled services be equal to or better than what you have now?
If you decide it does make sense for you to bundle services and you think you'd like to work with a company you're already using, contact them to ask about bundle options. You may be able to get a bundled package that's better than what they're currently advertising.
Will Your Data Be Capped?
A data cap is a limit to how much data you can use in a given time period. Most ISPs impose some form of data cap, though these differ not just by company, but also by region and by plan. For instance, in most areas Comcast has a terabyte data cap (after which they bill $10 for each additional 50GB of data up to $200) but in some regions customers still have unlimited access. We list data caps on our Broadband "Nutrition Facts" Labels so you can compare companies more easily.
Most customers won't use a full 1TB each month, but if you're a heavy video streamer, work from home, or have a lot of connected devices in your household it may make sense to limit your ISP options to internet providers with plans that give you unlimited data or close to it, so you never have to worry about bigger bills or having your internet speed throttled midway through the month.
What's the Average Download Speed (and Will You Get It?)
It's easy to get carried away looking at internet service providers' download speeds - i.e., how fast data travels from the internet to your device - but it's important to remember that they're just estimates. Advertised speeds are usually optimistic averages taken from speeds that real world customers experience, and the actual download speeds people get in your area (and speeds you experience in your own home) may be slower or faster than what's promised. Search for unbiased speed tests for the companies you're considering because the results will give you a more realistic idea of what speeds to expect.
As for how much speed you actually need, keep in mind that download speed is definitely something you should be using in your comparisons if you do a lot of video streaming or online gaming.
5 Mbps is an okay speed for casual emailers and browsers. Up to 10 Mbps will work for occasional streaming and bigger downloads on a couple of devices, though users may experience some lagginess while watching videos. And most people will be able to do just about anything they want online at 40 Mbps, though if you're a hardcore streamer or gamer look for 40+ Mbps providers.
Do Your Upload Speeds Matter?
Most people look at an ISP's download speeds and stop there because they download much more often than they upload data. Some internet service providers don't even list their average upload speeds in their advertising! However, if you back up one or more devices or synchronize your music and photo libraries in the cloud, share your own videos on sites like YouTube, or you're running a server, average upload speeds should be a consideration.
FiOS is currently the only service with symmetrical (and super fast) upload and download speeds so if your online activities include a lot of uploads and FiOS is available in your area, it's a clear winner.
Finally, Look at the Limitations and the Extras
Let's say you started out with a handful of internet service provider choices and now you've narrowed your search down to two or three internet providers that seem to be a good fit. Here are three more factors to consider before you make your decision:
Can You Live With the Contract Policies?
High-speed internet used to always come with an annual contract, but now no-contract internet plans are becoming more common. Always look into whether a particular ISP requires you to commit to a contract, the length of any terms, and what the repercussions will be if you choose to break that contract.
The reason some ISPs still require you to commit to a contract is that they want to lock you into a package price for as long as possible. While you can switch companies or downgrade your service package at any time, breaking your contract may mean paying a hefty fee. If the best ISP option for you is one with contracts, be sure you can live with the contract terms before signing up.
Do You Actually Need the Add-Ons?
Most of the special add-ons internet service providers advertise aren't that special at all — especially if they're charging more for them. You can download effective antivirus and firewall software (e.g. Avast Free Antivirus) for free that will provide you with the kind of basic protection that most people need. There's no upside to using an ISP email address and there's a huge downside: switching companies will mean having to get a new email address and update it everywhere.
On the other hand, add-ons like free 24/7 customer support, on-demand services, video package access, and anytime Wi-Fi hotspot access may be the perks that sell you on one ISP over another.
What are the Hidden Costs?
The last thing you need to compare when choosing between internet providers is if there any hidden costs. Some companies require you to rent or buy equipment or to pay to have equipment installed on your home, but very few make this clear in their upfront pricing, so ask about equipment fees before signing up with an ISP.
And finally, never assume that the amazing package or bundle price you're being quoted is set in stone. Be sure to ask whether that price is an introductory price so you're not unexpectedly hit with a bigger bill six months or a year down the road.
The right home internet service or business internet provider is out there! You may never find a perfect ISP but chances are that with a little legwork you'll be able to sign up with one that meets your needs at a price you can live with.
Ready to learn more? Start comparing the ISPs in your area.