As you compare internet providers, you're undoubtedly noticing something - the array of options, not to mention the terminology, can be overwhelming. Do you need DSL or fiber optic? What exactly is "broadband" anyway?
Even if there's only one option in your area, you still want to do an internet service comparison. This means deciding between the different speeds and costs, and deciding what your household really needs. I've put together an overview of the options to help you figure out exactly what you're dealing with.
In This Guide
Comparing Internet Providers Connection Types
What Is Broadband?
You've probably seen many different types of internet connections, including some rural internet options like DSL, advertised as "broadband." That's all changed now. In January 2015, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) made a bold move by redefining broadband internet, which we delve further into in another one of our articles, as having a download speed of 25Mbps (megabits per second), and upload speed of 3Mbps. These numbers are up from the previous standards of 4Mbps download and 1Mbps upload.
The reasoning is complicated, but all you really need to know in terms of your high speed internet comparison is that unless you're subscribing to a 25Mbps plan, you're not getting true high-speed broadband internet service according to the new standards.
The good news is that whether or not your internet speed is defined as a broadband connection, the vast majority of households don't need anywhere near those speeds to handle their daily online activities. And if you do need high-speed broadband internet, now you know what to look for.
When it comes to home internet service providers, cable is the indisputable king. According to the NCTA (the Internet and Television Association, formerly the National Cable and Telecommunications Association), high-speed cable internet is now available to 93% of American households. A major factor in the appeal of this type of connection is the ability to get a package deal along with other services like home phone and cable television. This often means a discounted rate for high-quality, high-speed service due to bundling the services together.
In my research for this high-speed internet comparison, I found that there are four cable companies with standout offerings which make them the top high speed and broadband providers.
Read More: If you're unsure of what the definition of cable internet exactly is, you can take a moment to read, "What Is Cable?"
Cable Internet Providers
- Comcast XFINITY - Comcast's internet plans is available in 40 states, making the corporation the largest high speed internet and cable provider in the U.S. You can choose from broadband plans starting at $30/month, or for less than $100/month some areas now even have blazing fast 1GB service. Comcast customer service has been known to have issues, but it's tough to beat the lightning-fast offerings.
- Time Warner Cable - as you compare internet service providers, Time Warner Cable Internet is bound to be a contender. TWC offers a flexible range of plans, with internet speeds to meet a variety of needs - from 15Mbps to 50Mbps. The company serves 29 states, although you'll need to check with them to see if the highest speeds are available in your area.
- Cox - Cox's internet plans can be accessed in 19 states if you are in one of their select service areas you'll have access to a great high-speed internet service provider. Their pricing structure is competitive when you compare broadband plans among providers. Monthly costs range between $40 and $85 with speeds of 15Mbps to an incredible 200Mbps.
- AT&T - Formerly U-Verse high speed internet, AT&T Internet is one of the most prominent high-speed internet providers. With availability in 21 states and packages with speeds up to 75 Mbps, AT&T makes it easy to combine your cable TV and internet services at a discount. As noted, however, the company is phasing out its U-Verse high speed internet brand in favor of the simplified name.
Cable internet plans are an effective way to simplify your bills by bundling television, home phone, and high-speed internet services with the same company. Even if you choose not to subscribe to more than one service in order to get a discount when you compare internet rates the costs are reasonable among all of these providers.
When it comes to doing a high-speed internet comparison, DSL is still a major player. A DSL internet connection also runs through the phone lines, except it's much faster than dial-up service and allows you to use your landline for calls even if you're online.
DSL technology called G.fast can now provide speeds of up to 750Mbps for both downloading and uploading. This is 50x faster than speeds currently used by most households, an incredible achievement for data delivered through the humble phone line.
When you compare internet plans for DSL service, you'll find there's a wide range of speeds available. You can get download speeds of anywhere from under 1Mbps up to 15Mbps, allowing you to choose an option that fits your budget and bandwidth needs. There are hundreds of DSL internet providers in the United States, however only a few service more than 1% of the population (according to research from DecisionData.org).
DSL Internet Providers
- AT&T - AT&T Internet covers 40% of the U.S. and offers DSL speeds up to 6Mbps for about $30/month. You can also get DSL through AT&T as part of cable and internet bundles.
- Verizon - Verizon Internet provides two tiers of DSL service. Their enhanced plan claims speeds up to 15Mbps, at a rate of $40/month when you also subscribe to home phone service.
- CenturyLink - this DSL specialist offers some of the fastest DSL speeds available in my high-speed internet comparison. At speeds of up to 40Mbps for $34.95/month, CenturyLink keeps pace with many popular cable internet providers. The internet plans, however, require a contract.
Related: Compare TV and Internet Bundles
While we tend to think of DSL as a fading technology, it may very well soon be a premium option offered by the fastest internet providers. Press release firm Marketwired reports that DSL technology called G.fast can now provide speeds of up to 750Mbps for both downloading and uploading. This is 50x faster than the internet access currently available to most households, an incredible achievement for data delivered through the humble phone line. While AT&T and others are testing G.fast for deployment, there is no word yet on exactly when this technology will be widely available to consumers.
Fiber Optic Internet
Fiber or FTTH (fiber to the home) is the holy grail of residential internet service, and it's spreading like wildfire. Although fiber optic service isn't available everywhere yet, it is quickly gaining speed (pun intended) due to the incredible data transfer rates of up to 1000Mbps (no, that's not a typo - a whole gigabit). But the true beauty of this technology is that the upstream rate is equal to the downstream. In other words, if you get a download speed of 500Mbps, you'll also have an upload speed of 500Mbps.
Fiber may very well become the standard for residential internet, however it will take a while due to the need for all new infrastructure in order to provide those speeds.
While there are quite a few top-tier fiber optic internet providers nationwide, it's no surprise that some of the best internet providers are at the forefront of creating the necessary infrastructure for this technology.
Fiber Optic Internet Providers
- Verizon FiOS: Verizon FiOS is, without a doubt, the leader thus far in fiber optic internet options. They offer a wide range of plans, from 50Mbps at $50 per month to 500Mbps at $270 per month. To give you some perspective on just how fast 500Mbps is in terms of your online activities, you can upload 200 pictures in four seconds at that rate. That's some serious speed.
- AT&T U-Verse: AT&T Internet is only available in select cities. They are, however, quickly rolling out new areas in their fiber-optic network every day. If you happen to find throughout the course of your high-speed internet comparison that AT&T Fiber is available near you, you can pay $90/month for speeds up to 1000Mbps.
- Google Fiber: Google rolled out its fiber optic internet service in 2012, and now boasts roughly half a million broadband customers, despite only being available in 20-some cities. The cost for a broadband connection on Google's fiber-optic network is reasonable, at under $100 for up to 1000Mbps. Wiith this broadband provider also offering fiber-optic cable TV service Google may just become a viable competitor in the bundling market. They definitely have the advantage of many cord-cutters looking to break away from the cable company.
You can use our zip code checker to see if these services are in your area.
Fiber may very well become the standard for residential internet, however, it will take a while due to the need for all new infrastructure in order to provide those speeds. In the meantime, rest easy because fiber is really overkill for most families. That is, at least, unless you have a house packed to the brim with devices which are constantly streaming HD content and/or downloading/uploading exceedingly large files.
Portable devices that deliver wireless internet service via the 4G network are widely available from major cellular providers. You typically need to buy the device itself and then either purchase a wireless internet plan or buy data one GB at a time. Some providers require a contract, while others, like Karma Go, allow you to buy their pod free and clear and then go month to month.
You'll often see wireless internet marketed as "mobile broadband". While the 4G LTE network is no slouch when it comes to speed - connections can reach around 10Mbps - mobile broadband, in the truest sense, is likely still years away. Keep an eye out, we will no doubt one day have widespread wireless broadband internet access and the 25Mbps that it provides.
Related: How to Get Wireless Internet
Depending on where you live, there may be other ways for you to get online aside from those listed above.
Satellite Internet Providers
Dial-up service isn't the only game in rural towns. You may be able to choose satellite service instead. While it's not the cheapest option, you'll get faster speeds than with a dial-up connection. The best satellite internet providers include:
- Exede: This company provides satellite internet to all 50 states and offers speeds between 5Mbps and 12Mbps. You get unlimited off-peak hours, and plans range in price from $50 to $150 per month, plus installation and equipment rental fees.
- HughesNet: Plans speeds from this satellite provider range from 5Mbps to 15Mbps. HughesNet satellite internet service costs between $40 and $130 per month with no installation fee. As with most satellite internet providers, however, you will pay around $10/month for equipment rental such as your modem and satellite dish. One advantage of HughesNet satellite internet is that they claim to be able to provide wireless broadband internet access with speeds up to 25Mbps.
- DishNET: This company is a solid choice among satellite internet providers, particularly for rural customers. Plans and pricing vary so you need to contact the company for information, however, there is a range of budget-friendly choices to meet most household's needs. If you don't have access to a cable company, dishNET could be a good solution as they offer both satellite TV and satellite internet service.
Keep in mind when you compare internet plans from satellite providers that you will have to sign a contract. The standard length of this type of commitment is two years.
Pro Tip: While HughesNet doesn't offer satellite TV itself, the company does partner with cable provider AT&T to offer DIRECTV packages bundled with HughesNet satellite service for internet. You may need a separate satellite dish for DIRECTV, although AT&T now offers the television service in streaming form as well.
Dial-up is available virtually anywhere there's landline phone service. There are even a few tiny pockets of rural America where companies providing dial-up service are the only local internet providers. A dial-up connection is the slowest of all options at 56kbps, however, as you compare internet providers you'll also find it's the least expensive. Dial-up internet service may work for you if:
- You don't stream music or video.
- You don't have multiple devices like a household full of tablets and smartphones.
- You only need the internet for email and some Google searching and want to keep your costs down.
Dial-Up Internet Providers
- AOL - plans are available from $7 to $26 per month, and come with perks like free security software.
- NetZero - this provider has a free plan for 10 hours of access per month, and an unlimited plan at $24.95.
- Earthlink - this company has a great customer service reputation and similar pricing to the above two choices.
As you do your internet provider comparison you will find that there are many additional, smaller companies which are more locally based. You may be able to find a better deal if you shop around in your area using our handy zip code checker tool.
There is such a wide variety of types and price points for internet service that it may take a bit of research before deciding on which option is best for you. We've helped narrow down your search by providing a convenient zip code checker to enable you to quickly find providers in your area.
As you compare internet plans, take your entire household's online activities into account. If you've only got one or two devices going at the same time, you can probably do with one of these cheap internet providers. If, however, you've got a house chock full of tablets, laptops, and smartphones, you'll want to consider your broadband options (true broadband according to the new FCC definition - 25Mbps). Fortunately, there are plans befitting almost anyone's budget and bandwidth needs.