High-speed internet is a term used liberally by internet service providers in their marketing materials, but what does the term really mean? What are you getting when you order high-speed internet? In this guide, I'll give you insight into the evolution of this kind of internet access, along with information on what it means in today's world of advanced technology.
I'll also give you tips on how to choose from the best internet providers for your high-speed internet connection.
What is High-Speed Internet? - In This Guide
High-Speed Internet Definition
The meaning of the term high-speed internet has evolved over the years. Originally it just meant any connection capable of speeds higher than dial-up (56Kbps). As the early days of the world wide web came and went, the late 1980s brought DSL internet and changed the face of the online experience. Then 1996 came along and brought cable internet access, which was the first true broadband connection available thus far. The definition of high-speed internet 20 years ago barely broke 500Kbps.
Related: The Best Internet Providers
High Speed Internet Today
Fast forward to today and the term has taken on a whole new meaning, both in terms of raw speed and user experience. Instead of waiting literally minutes for a photo to load, you can download an entire HD movie in that time. As for the technical definition, that's still up in the air. In 2015 the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) upped the requirement for high-speed internet providers to use the term broadband, raising the standard from 4Mbps to 25Mbps for downloads and from 1Mbps to 3Mbps for uploads. In their publications, the FCC uses the terms broadband and high-speed internet interchangeably.
It's unclear as yet what impact the FCC's change will have on the language used by high-speed internet providers. Take a cruise around the net, however, and you'll find that the world at large is still applying the term to everything from about 6Mbps to insanely fast 10GB service. I even found that AT&T is still calling their DSL Lite "high speed", at 768Kbps downstream. What is clear is that these companies will no longer be permitted to market anything below 25Mbps as "high-speed internet".
You Say Tomato...
In the real world, the name of your connection speed is simply semantics. You still want to pay attention to the same things - delivery rates downstream and up, data caps, connection reliability, and pricing. In other words, the definition of high-speed internet really won't alter much about how you compare internet providers when shopping for service.
Types of High-Speed Internet
There are several delivery methods to choose from if you're looking to have high-speed internet installed. Obviously dial-up is out of the question, even though it is still clinging to life. The following connection types, however, are capable of delivering speeds that are generally considered to be high speed:
- Satellite: This connection type has suffered a bit of a bad rap, and to some extent with good reason. It's susceptible to weather interference and unlimited internet plans like these are virtually unheard of with satellite service. If you're not big into gaming, however, a satellite can be a viable choice. Speeds average up to 10Mbps downstream, and one of the best satellite internet providers - Exede - even offers a 25Mbps option.
- DSL: Once thought to be a quickly aging relic in the annals of modem history, DSL internet may actually be a formidable contender in the high-speed internet market of the future. This potential is thanks to G.fast technology, a method of delivering 750Mbps download speeds over ordinary phone lines. Even as it currently stands, DSL offers speeds up to 15Mbps, which leaders in the industry - such as Verizon Internet - market as, you guessed it, high-speed internet.
- Cable: Boasting a commanding market lead above all other high-speed internet connection types, at 41% of users (according to Statista), cable has no trouble meeting the FCC's broadband designation. Current technology provides up to 100Mbps downstream, with new advancements boosting coaxial's capacity to a whole gigabit.
If you're looking for the fastest internet provider, one that offers fiber in your area is the holy grail.
- Fiber: Fiber optic internet, like what Verizon FiOS consists of, is the only connection type which literally does not come at any speed except broadband levels. It provides a symmetric experience (download and upload speeds are the same), ranging from 50Mbps to 10Gbps. If you're looking for the fastest internet provider, one that offers fiber in your area is the holy grail.
- WISP: Wireless Internet Service Providers have been in the limelight of late, due to their ability to provide the high-speed wireless internet with minimal infrastructure. The technology is far from ready for widespread deployment, however, due to some reliability issues. Still, this type of home internet service is worth watching as time goes on.
You may notice when you enter your location into our zip code checker tool that not all of these connection types are available in your area. This is because certain technologies do not have the coverage of, say, cable (which offers access to more than 82% of Americans). Don't worry, though, access to the best high-speed internet providers, especially those who offer fiber, is expanding every year.
What to Consider
Particularly, if you live in an urban area with several different high-speed internet options, you may find it difficult to decide among all of these different internet plans and prices. It all comes down to what you do online, what kind of connection you prefer, and how much you want to spend each month.
If you're shopping for high speed internet because you're considering upgrading your current level of service, it can be helpful to know what internet speed you're actually getting out of your existing plan.
How Much Speed Do I Need?
The level of high-speed internet your household requires is dependent on how many devices you have and how you use them. Light users - households with just one or two devices being dominated by low-demand activities - may only need a 1 - 2Mbps connection. If you have multiple devices and enjoy high-demand tasks like gaming and HD video streaming, you'll need to move up in tiers. Here are a few general speed guidelines to keep in mind:
- No matter which type of connection you choose, quoted speeds are "up to" - not guaranteed.
- If you go with cable internet, you will experience slowdowns during peak times (afternoon to evening/weekends).
- Choosing satellite for your high-speed internet will give you decent browsing, but high latency (lag time) makes it unsuitable for tasks requiring real-time reaction such as gaming or stock trading.
- Using extremely high-speed internet such as higher tier cable or fiber optic connections means you're likely going to be performing data-hogging activities. In this case, it's wise to consider shelling out for unlimited data.
If you're shopping for high-speed internet because you're considering upgrading your current level of service, it can be helpful to know what internet speed you're actually getting out of your existing plan. You can refer to our guide on "How to Test Internet Speed" to see where you stand now. This should allow you to estimate how far up you want to go in speed.
Future-Proofing Your High-Speed Internet
While some feel that the FCC's change in the definition of broadband was too dramatic, there is significant logic to it. It's true that most households can function perfectly fine on a connection under 25Mbps. If you prefer to prepare ahead, however, it might be wise to go with one of the faster internet options rather than simply going for a cheap internet provider.
There are a couple of reasons you might want to future-proof your internet connection by subscribing to a higher speed than you currently need. Firstly, technology is advancing at breakneck speed. Ultra-HD video (or 4K) is already a reality, and it is a considerably aggressive data hog, gobbling up as many as 18GB per hour. Content is only going to get more and more high quality, so you can avoid having to shop for a new plan within a couple years by choosing a high-speed internet plan that will grow with you.
Another consideration that many people don't think of is the growing prevalence of the smart home. According to home technology firm Icontrol Networks, there could be as many as 500 connected devices per household by 2022. Those devices use bandwidth, and that bandwidth typically comes from your high-speed internet connection. From light bulbs to refrigerators to thermostats, the IoT (Internet of Things) is getting bigger all the time. The better your high-speed internet service, the fewer snags you'll experience as this automation marches on, right through your home.
How to Find High-Speed Internet Providers in My Area
The best way to quickly narrow down the high-speed internet options in your area is to use our convenient zip code checker tool. Simply enter your zip code and you will get a list of providers in your area, their speeds, packages, and starting prices. As long as you don't live in a rural area, you should have no trouble finding at least one cable and/or DSL internet provider. Those in larger metropolitan areas may have access to fiber optic internet as well.
Next, you can begin your research into the best internet deals available in your location. It's a good idea to read online reviews, as well as talk to local family and friends to find out their experiences with various companies.
The Best High-Speed Internet for Rural Areas
If you live out in the country, you're likely to have a harder time than urbanites accessing a high-speed internet connection. The FCC closely tracks internet access statistics, and according to their 2016, Broadband Progress Report, 39% of rural Americans have no access to 25Mbps service. Furthermore, 20% of those who live away from the city don't even have access to a 4Mbps connection. Even so, there are a number of rural internet options that are solid enough for regular use:
- DSL: According to FCC data, more than 70% of rural residents have access to DSL service. The suitability of DSL as high-speed internet service depends on how far you are from the DSLAM (digital subscriber line access multiplexer), which is essentially a signal repeater. Those close to the DSLAM will get higher speeds than those who are close to the 2 - 3-mile distance limit.
- Satellite: If you live in an area with access to satellite internet, you could get speeds up to 25Mbps, as I mentioned earlier. You won't get as much data as you do with cable internet, but for those with low-demand households, this can be a good choice.
- Wireless: There are a few high-speed wireless internet options for rural customers. WISP, as I explained above, is one possibility. It offers lower latency than satellite, however, is subject to the same weather interference. Cellular wireless service is another option. There are plenty of choice from major providers, including mobile hubs and cards that plug into your computer. The main downfall of cellular is that data is very expensive. One other option is called line-of-sight. A company installs a tower in a central location, and then you pay to pull the internet signal off that tower. The catch is that you must be within (big surprise!) line-of-sight of the tower.
There's no ideal answer for every rural household. You should evaluate your options based on your location, available providers, data caps, speed, and price.
High-Speed Internet Recap
When shopping the various internet packages, be sure to read the details so that you know what you'll be paying once your introductory rate has expired. If you're not happy with the high-speed internet options you see on the provider's website, you can call and request a custom bundle as well. The search for high-speed internet services can seem overwhelming, but if you take all of the above factors into account you should be able to make a sound decision.