The high cost of staying connected in today's technology-driven world has many people on the hunt for cheap internet service providers. The dilemma, however, is that "cheap" is a relative term. There are more than a few ways to get on the web for next to nothing, or even literally nothing. The answer to whether this will be useful to you depends upon your online activities.
While there are plenty of options for lower cost internet access, they are not all created equal. Some are truly bare-bones and will end up being hugely frustrating even for watching something as typical as a YouTube video. Others cost a bit more but come with better connection speeds and data packages.
The good news is that with so many different service options and pricing tiers, you can easily customize your choice to your needs and budget. We've even gone ahead and done the work for you, analyzing the prices and other data available and compiling the details into this comprehensive guide.
Below I've provided you with an overview of the types of internet access and what you can expect to pay, along with the needs each choice can meet. By the end of this guide, you'll understand how to get cheap internet service and be able to slash your internet and cable bills.
In This Guide
The Cheapest Way to Get Internet: Dial-Up
Yes, dial-up is still around, and in fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 3% of Americans were still using dial-up internet as of 2013. There's no doubt this is the cheapest way to get internet although it obviously comes with some constraints. Dial-up speed is 56Kbps (kilobits per second), while broadband service - used by 70% of Americans - averages 200 times that at just over 11Mbps (megabits per second).
Dial-up won't cut it if you've got a high-tech household with several devices which need to stream media, but it does still have a few applications for those seeking cheap home internet service. You might be able to get away with this affordable service if:
- You only use your internet connection for email and light Googling
- You only have one or two computers and don't need to be online simultaneously
- It's the only type of internet service available where you live
Even in this era of high-tech everything, rural internet options are still somewhat limited. The lack of population density in these areas prevents cable companies from investing in the necessary infrastructure for faster internet service. So if dial-up is all there is available to you, you'll definitely want to know how to get the best deal on it.
Cheap Dial-up Options
1. NetZero: This internet service provider has experience on its side, having been in the dial-up game since 1998. Choose from free dial-up service with a 10-hour per month limit, or unlimited for $24.95/month.
2. AOL: Unlimited dial-up from the industry leader comes in packages ranging from $7/month to $26. AOL offers unique perks as you move up the tiers, including gems like Verizon discounts and complimentary LifeLock Identity Theft Protection.
3. Juno: Another one of the cheapest internet service providers, Juno, also offers a free option with 10 hours per month. Their other plan is $24.95 per month and comes with unlimited access.
You might see some cheap home internet plans referred to as "HiSpeed" or "Accelerated", along with claims of speeds 5x faster than traditional dial-up. It's important to keep in mind that this technology does not allow for faster music downloads or streaming.
As PCMag explains, it's simply a data compression technique which allows normal web pages to load faster, particularly those which you've already visited in the past.
A Step Up: Cheap DSL Internet Service
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is one of the cheapest high-speed internet options available. Its connection speed and reliability rival that of cable internet and it's typically less expensive. One such provider that offers reliable DSL service is Netzero DSL. Netzero DSL offers DSL speeds of up to 6Mbps too!
How DSL Works
DSL uses the regular phone line as its gateway just like dial-up does, however, you may still be left out in the cold if you live in an extremely rural area. This is because DSL service requires a local office in order to transmit data to your home.
Access and Speed
Even though it doesn't have the virtually 100% geographical coverage of dial-up, availability is wide because most of the major cable companies are also DSL internet providers for customers within their service area. Speeds range from 769Kbps to 15Mbps, which Verizon Internet claims to provide with its enhanced high-speed DSL package. T
o compare, DSL internet can be slower than both cable and satellite internet. One thing to keep in mind is that the farther you live from the DSL office, the weaker your connection is and the slower your speeds will be.
The thing to remember about DSL is that it does require a home phone landline, so this is a good choice if you've already got phone service with your provider. You can usually get a discount for subscribing to the additional service, and your household can still do all of the things it normally does on the web, like stream music and videos and download or upload large files.
Unlike dial-up, you can talk on the phone while surfing the web. This is because there is extra "room" in the wiring along phone lines, allowing DSL to utilize the additional bandwidth to power your internet connection without interrupting your phone calls.
Cable Internet Service
Cable is one of the most popular options for internet usage due to the fact that it's delivered through the same wiring as your cable television. Furthermore, cable service is faster than satellite service, basic DSL service, and dial-up service.
For instance, satellite service speeds are only up to 25Mbps (and most satellite internet providers do not reach that speed). The International Business Times reports that 83% of American households subscribe to pay television service, which means cable may be the cheapest high-speed internet option for the majority of people. Why? Because bundling allows you to get a better rate on all of your services.
For example, if you have a Time Warner cable Internet package or Charter internet (unfortunately, there are only a couple of Charter internet plans available) and you also want cable TV, you can get speeds of up to 60Mbps for $30/month in addition to your cable. In other words, Time Warner bundling saves you $10 per month off of the retail price of $40/month when purchasing internet separately, allowing you to save on your cable bills.
Find out more about cable television and internet bundles to examine your options for bringing down the costs of both cable services. Just be sure to read the terms because the cheap cable internet plans typically come at a temporary introductory rate that expires after six months to a year.
Some of the cable providers only list their most popular (and most profitable) deals on their website. You may very well be able to get cheap high-speed internet from your cable company by calling and asking about their bottom tier offer. The speeds are typically lower, but still plenty sufficient for what most households need.
Related: You can compare cable and satellite providers with our buyer's guide to cable TV providers.
A Solid Choice: Wireless Internet
Today's busy, on-the-go lifestyles have spawned some other unique internet usage options. One such service is a mobile hotspot, which is a pocket-sized device which gives you a connection no matter where you are. Granted, this route isn't the cheapest wireless internet out there, but with pay-as-you-go options, it beats getting roped into a contract.
How It Works:
- Buy a mobile hotspot of your choosing.
- Some hotspots may ask you to buy the data you need in advance. Choose how much data you need, and then activate the device again to get started.
There are other portable choices for getting online, however, mobile broadband service options aren't exactly what I'd call cheap internet plans. There is a provider with free wireless access, FreedomPop, however, I found the website to be less than user-friendly and the "free" option only includes 500 MB of data. You must also, of course, purchase the hotspot device and speeds are rumored to be painfully slow.
One good possibility for mobile broadband internet is to check with your cellular provider (whether by looking up the information on the website or calling the customer service phone number), as many now offer devices which give you wireless access without having to tether your phone.
Cheap Internet Service for Low Income
In March of 2016, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) expanded their Lifeline program to include subsidization for broadband internet service. The program has been in place since 1985, providing discount phone service to low-income Americans in order to enhance their access to job opportunities and other essential life functions. The FCC has broadened the Lifeline program with the goal of making vital technology in today's global world affordable for low-income families.
The program has been in place since 1985, providing discount phone service to low-income Americans in order to enhance their access to job opportunities and other essential life functions. The FCC has broadened the Lifeline program with the goal of making vital technology in today's global world affordable for low-income families.
The best part of this expansion is that the FCC is working with partner companies to provide cheap high-speed internet that is the same as any other customer would receive at the same level. It's not a watered down version with slower speeds or fewer features. Here are the essentials:
- Your service is provided by one of the big industry players, like AT&T Internet and Comcast Internet.
- Prices sit right around $10 per month, typically with no installation fee.
- You get speeds up to 10Mbps.
- Most partner companies provide in-home Wi-Fi.
- Depending upon your state, you must provide either proof of participation in a public benefits program, or proof of low income (either 135% or 150% of the poverty level, depending on where you are).
If you fall into the low-income category, this program is an ideal way to gain access to cheap home internet. Just remember that it is your responsibility to notify your provider if you no longer fall within the income guidelines for the program.
Internet Essentials are one such provider that offers high-speed internet to low-income families. Even better is that with Internet Essentials, there are no credit checks, no installation fees, no contracts, and in-home WiFi is included at no additional cost.
Save More Money By Watching TV over the Internet
Looking to save more money? You can opt for internet TV. Internet TV is often far more affordable compared to cable TV service. Affordable streaming services include Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Better yet, streaming services can be streamed from a myriad of devices like your mobile phone and streaming video stick (a streaming video stick would be Amazon Fire Stick or Google Chromecast).
Furthermore, you can always opt for live TV streaming. One of the most affordable examples of live TV streaming is Sling TV. Sling TV packages begin at $20 per month. You can also look to satellite TV as well. Satellite TV providers like Dish Network, which relies on a satellite dish, tend to offer incredibly flexible packages at an incredibly affordable price. You can read more about satellite TV and satellite dishes here.
As I stated earlier, you can see that "cheap" depends on what you plan to do online. The cheapest internet service may not pack a punch to your wallet, but it won't do you much good if you need to stream a lot of media or deal with large files for work.
On the other hand, there are ways to make high-speed internet cheaper if you're willing to do a little legwork to find the best deal. Also, don't forget to call your provider's phone number for a rate cut - they'll often work with you rather than lose a customer.
There are so many options for affordable internet access these days, you shouldn't have much trouble finding a provider and a plan that suit your budget and your needs. To make things easier, we've provided you with a convenient zip code checker so you can quickly assess which of the top internet providers offer affordable service in your local area.