Selecting the best internet provider may seem like a daunting task if you're not familiar with the features each one offers. In addition, you may only have a choice of one or two internet providers in your area, which means it's even more important to be able to evaluate the available packages.
As technology advances, new types of connections become available, such as fiber optic internet. In this guide to broadband internet and more, I'll give you tips and information that will help you choose the right internet service for your household.
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In This Guide
Our Top Internet Providers
Key Considerations Before Choosing a Provider
Certainly one of your main concerns is finding great internet deals. In addition to price, however, there are several other things you should take into consideration when choosing the best broadband internet provider for your household.
1. Internet Speed
What do you plan on using your high-speed internet connection for? The more demands you are going to put on your broadband connection the more speed you will need. Don't always buy the hype when an ISP claims to have a certain connection speed. They often advertise the highest possible speeds which can actually be a lot higher than the average speed.
Don't always buy the hype when an ISP claims to have a certain connection speed. They often advertise high speed which can actually be a lot higher than the average speed.
The average download speed in the U.S. is 11.9 Mbps. Your speeds, however, may vary based on your location and other factors. For example, cable internet is notorious for slowdowns during what's known as Internet Rush Hour. This is because the cable is a shared connection, and many people in the neighborhood are typically trying to get online simultaneously around the same times of the day. DSL, on the other hand, is susceptible to line attenuation, which is a technical way of saying that the farther you are from crucial parts of the infrastructure, the more speed your data loss.
2. Connection Type
High speed is closely linked to the internet delivery method you choose. In order of slowest to fastest, here are the most commonly available connection types offered by the best internet service providers:
- DSL: A DSL Internet connection is facilitated by your phone line. It offers speeds up to 15 Mbps (megabits per second), which, according to the FCC's (Federal Communications Commission) Household Broadband Guide, is sufficient for most households. Unlike dial-up, you can use your landline phone while you're using DSL internet, and it's widely available across the nation.
- Cable: This delivery method still dominates in the U.S. It's widely available, providing access to high-speed internet of 25Mbps or better to more than 82% of the nation, and is convenient for many customers simply because they can combine services through internet and TV bundles.
- Satellite: As opposed to standard broadband, satellite internet service available virtually everywhere. However, it's generally preferred as one of the best rural internet options rather than for urbanites because it has low data caps, high latency (lag time), and tends to be pricey. All you need is a satellite dish and a fast Internet connection can be yours.
- Fiber: The fiber optic craze is spreading, and it's bringing with it speeds that were unimaginable just a few years ago - between 50 Mbps and 10Gbps (gigabits per second). Fiber is mostly limited to large urban areas as of yet, but several internet providers are working on increasing coverage.
- WISPs: There are wireless internet providers, or WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers), available in select markets, however, this technology is not completely smoothed out for large-scale deployment as of yet. Still, if you're located rurally it may be an option worth looking into.
- Dial-Up Internet: Dial-Up Internet service is an old school means of connecting to the internet. It's definitely not fast and can be an annoyance at times because it uses your phone line to back a connection, but dial-up internet service will do the trick for those with no other options. To learn more about dial-up Internet you can head over here.
3. Other Services
You may prefer to bundle your internet with other communications services. If that's the case, the best internet provider for you is likely to be one which offers cable television and/or landline phone options packaged with their high-speed internet service. Not only does combining your services reduce the number of separate bills you have, it can also save you money.
Related: Optimum is a great internet provider to have if you live in the New Jersey, New York, or Connecticut areas.
4. Customer Service
This is an important aspect of any product or service, but especially whom you choose for your ISP. Since so much of our work and play is online these days, it is vital that you have some way of contacting your provider in case your internet goes down, so that you can find out why and for how long. You also want to be sure that should you need repairs, a technician can be dispatched to your home within a reasonable amount of time.
5. Security and Extra Services
Take the extra features into consideration. What forms of security does an ISP offer? Do they offer parental controls? Some of the top internet providers even give you perks like free antivirus software. If possible, look into an online backup service that will keep your personal information secure. User privacy is important no matter who you are.
Related: For more information about Internet Safety & Online Privacy, go here.
Where You Live May Affect Internet Provider Performance
The answer to this question will depend on your specific household's needs. Each connection type has pros and cons, and each provider offers different features, pricing, and package options. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding among home internet service providers such as these.
Take the time to read the information in the "learn more" or "show offer details" section of the provider website. This little area is a treasure trove of useful details about the plan.
- Options Vary Greatly by Location - One of your first questions, when you're ready to order service, is "Who are the internet providers in my area?" If you're near a major metropolitan area, you may be able to choose among a fiber connection, as well as DSL and cable. You may even have the option to pick from among multiple providers in each category. Conversely, rural residents typically have a choice of dial-up, satellite, wireless, and sometimes DSL.
- Look at the Big Picture - The best ISP is the one you're going to be happy with over the long term. As you're perusing the available internet plans and prices, remember that the discounted rate you see on the website is often just a temporary offer. Make sure you're happy with the overall rate structure and what you're getting for the money before committing to anything.
- The Devil Is in the Details - Take the time to read the information in the "learn more" or "show offer details" section of the provider website. This little area is a treasure trove of useful details about the plan. For example, if you've got a lot of streaming going on in your household, over multiple devices, you'll want to check out the data allowance. Unlimited internet plans are scarce these days, however, you can at least make sure you're getting enough data to accommodate your family's typical online activities.
- Budget-Friendly Options - Even though the most prominently marketed packages are those with blazing fast speeds and all kinds of bells and whistles, cheap internet providers are still out there ready to serve the budget-minded consumer. These will generally be dial-up and lower-tier DSL service or cable plans. If you're a minimalist looking to limit your online experience to only the necessary tasks, one of the more barebones options may be the best high-speed internet service for you.
Who Offers the Best Internet Service?
Again, the answer to this question is going to depend on what you're looking for. As you spend time comparing internet providers, you should read online reviews of your top choices to see what others have to say about them. You might also want to investigate news stories about the company's plans for the future. The best internet providers typically provide at least some publicity regarding their next move, particularly when it comes to deploying new technologies like fiber and gigabit-speed DOCSIS.
Look Into Local Internet Options
Sometimes the company with the best internet service is the little guy. I'm talking about local internet providers - independently owned ISPs that operate within a confined region. You may not get the deep introductory discounts of the larger companies, but you will get a payoff via a more personalized experience and better customer service. If searching for internet providers by address doesn't yield any local internet companies, try searching elsewhere online, such as in the yellow pages.
The power of local internet service should not be discounted. For example, EPB, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, offers fast internet to customers throughout Tennessee. EPB isn't a typical broadband provider. Instead, they offer high-speed internet service to their consumers faster than any cable company or phone company listed here. With download speeds of up to 10 gigs--and no caps--you can expect fast internet through fiber optic cable. No cable provider or telephone service can match those speeds as of the time of this writing.
Related: Guide to Mobile Broadband Plans
Here are a few more things you can keep in mind to help the experience of shopping for internet service go a little more smoothly.
1. Ask About Extra Charges
In addition to the cost of the monthly charges, there may also be a number of other charges, including installation. Installation ranges between $50 and $100. It's not uncommon for the top home internet providers to waive this fee if you're ordering multiple services, such as one of their internet and phone bundles. Be sure to ask for free installation if it's not explicitly offered with your plan. Oftentimes providers will extend this courtesy if you request it.
Depending upon the type of service you're ordering there could be other costs, like a setup fee. Make sure you know what the total cost will be before signing up and find out if you will need to pay this fee all at once or if they can spread it out over several months.
2. Compare the Terms
Each ISP in your area will offer package deals. You should determine your own budget before ordering the service and then compare the packages carefully. Figure out which features you need and don't buy a more expensive package that what you really have a need for. If you change your mind later, you can always upgrade. This can actually work to your advantage because some internet service providers will often add things like free premium cable channels or a higher internet speed to sweeten the upgrade deal.
3. Bundled Deals
Although many internet providers offer phone lines and services for calling, be on the lookout for those who offer VoIP service. Although they are regulated by the FCC, a VoIP service allows users to call and communicate with others through an Internet connection instead of a telephone line. This is especially helpful for mobile users or customers that live in places inaccessible to phone lines.
This isn't new information to anyone, but the Internet can be a dangerous place to those who don't take the necessary precautions to keep their information and identity safe over the web. Finding a VPN provider is a great way to keep your personal information private and safe. VPNs can also help you torrent safely if your VPN provider permits this.
If you're a small business (or maybe like things a little old-fashioned), an online fax service may be up your alley. Online fax service may come as an extra perk when browsing for internet providers, or you can check out our side-by-side comparison of the best over here. Another useful tool for a small business is cloud storage. Otherwise known as an online backup, these cloud storage services, like these here, can keep your data safe and secure.
Many internet service providers also offer home phone service at reasonable rates. You can take an in-depth look at our buyer's guide to home phone service for more information. And lastly, if you enjoy streaming or viewing Internet TV, you should check out the top-tier streaming sites to see if they're compatible with the speeds you'll receive.
Related: We compare the Internet and TV bundles across all major providers here.
How to Find Internet Providers in My Area
Before making your final decision, it's important that you check what is available in your area and do a side-by-side comparison. We make it easy for you to search internet providers by ZIP code by providing you with our search tool.
Simply enter your postal code in our handy tool and then take a look at the services that are offered, the speeds they claim, and the prices that they offer. Think about what you'll need in terms of internet speed and compare internet plans that offer the most attractive value. If you know anyone with the service you are considering, talking to them about their experience can be a helpful way to compare internet providers in your area.
Sometimes, the best internet providers are the ones servicing your local area. Depending on where you live, the quality of service may vary. You might even be lucky enough to qualify for special discounts or offers because of your location. Consider these internet providers, which come complete with links to plans and more information, when you start your own research:
- Frontier Communications: Frontier, original a phone company, now offers cheap internet access to eligible customers across the United States.
- Mediacom: A cable company who specializes in the Triple Play, bundling telephone service, cable tv, and a high-speed internet connection across their Mid-West network.
- CenturyLink: CenturyLink provides cheap, high-speed broadband, phone service, and satellite TV to its customers across the South and Mid-West.
- Charter Spectrum Internet: For customers in the South and Mid-West, Charter provides phone service, a fast broadband connection, and cable TV.
- Cox Communications: Also specializing in Triple Play bundles, those who like Cox will get high-speed internet service, cable tv, and a phone line at competitive prices.
Tips & Advice
Before you decide on an Internet service provider, spend some time in our advice section to learn more about the industry. Peruse the guides to find in-depth answers to questions that may help you make a better purchase. Here are some topics to explore:
- What should you look for in a satellite internet provider? If you live in a rural area, satellite internet service may be your only option for high-speed internet. Also, where can you put a satellite dish on your house?
- What causes your internet speeds to slow down? Does your internet seem to be moving slower than it was before? There are a number of factors that can bog down your internet speeds.
- On the other hand, which internet service provider is the fastest? This PCMag article ranks the fastest internet providers of 2016.
- How can you save money with TV, phone, and the internet? If you need multiple services you might be able to save significant amounts of money by bundling.
- Latency can kill the mood when it comes to gaming or streaming. Find out what latency is and how to avoid it with this guide.
Take advantage of all of the resources you can - the more information you have, the better chance you have of making the best choice possible.
Related: If you have secured your internet provider, you'll probably need a good router. Please refer to our buyer's guide if you're on the hunt for the new router.
Customer service, legitimacy, and company reputation are three important factors to consider when doing business with any of the companies reviewed in this article. Head over to the American Customer Satisfaction Index for a numerical analysis of customer satisfaction within the internet provider industry.
While the political nature of internet regulation may be going beyond the scope of investigating Internet providers, understanding the policies laid out by the FCC (like net neutrality) is important for any Internet user to understand his or her freedoms. Internet regulation is essentially restricting or controlling access to certain information over the web. Common forms include censorship and domain registration. The Heritage Foundation has a great article about Internet regulation and net neutrality that you should check out.
Related: How to Extend Your WiFi.
Location, location, location. That's ultimately going to be the dictating factor when it comes to choosing an internet provider. Be sure to check your area using our convenient ZIP code checker tool to see what is available to you. With many great options on the table, knowing what you can actually get in your home should be the first thing you consider when shopping for an internet provider.
For urban dwellers, the fastest internet provider available will likely be one that offers cable or fiber. If you live in a rural area, far from the reach of cable internet providers, you might need to consider any of these strong satellite internet providers as an option. Though it's not the fastest connection type, it can reach virtually anywhere in the U.S. For those looking for the cheapest Internet option available, DSL service will do the trick.
Finally, if you're a business owner you should check out our buyer's guide to business internet providers. For more information on Internet service providers, the FCC has several comprehensive guides available.
No matter where you live, you'll be sure to find an option that works for your household and budget.