Are you trying to figure out how to choose among the best home internet providers? It doesn't have to be a complicated decision as long as you're armed with a few essential facts. Even if you already have home internet service, you may find yourself shopping for a new provider at some point.
According to a CNET report, 2015 data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index shows that fewer than 70% of Americans are happy with their information services (internet, cable TV and wireless). That fact combined with growing access to options such as fiber optic internet means that it's wise to know how to pick the right provider for you. In this guide, I'll provide you with tips that will help you make an informed decision.
Key Considerations When Choosing Home Internet Service
The best way to find home internet service is to use our zip code checker tool. And while this handy widget can help narrow your search by telling you which providers service your area, you'll still need to check with the companies themselves to find out if your address is eligible for service. The reason for this lies in the way home internet providers determine their area of operation. Because major providers typically stick to their own territory, sometimes sharing cities among the various companies with a presence in that location, you could find that the home internet options available to you are different from those available to someone a couple of blocks over, or even next door in some instances.
The reason for this lies in the way home internet providers determine their area of operation. Because major providers typically stick to their own territory, sometimes sharing cities among the various companies with a presence in that location, you could find that the home internet options available to you are different from those available to someone a couple of blocks over, or even next door in some instances.
The good news is that according to the FCC's 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 90% of Americans now have access to home internet service which measures up to the commission's broadband speed guidelines (that 25Mbps number I talked about earlier). This means that chances are very likely that you will at least have one choice of high-speed internet providers.
Once you've used the zip code checker tool to see which providers are available in your area, you'll need to decide what you're looking for in home internet plans and how to choose the best one for your budget and lifestyle.
Every household is different, with various needs as far as speed, data usage, and other related services. The best home internet for one family may not be the ideal choice for another. Aside from speed and other features there are other aspects of choosing home internet service to take into consideration. Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate the ever-changing landscape of home internet options.
What Broadband Means
The term broadband has become a bit ambiguous in the realm of home internet service. In January of 2015, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) made a controversial decision to change the definition of broadband to mean any connection providing speeds equal to or greater than 25Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 3Mbps upstream. The hike was a significant change to what the FCC has coined as "advanced telecommunications capability". The former level of 4Mbps download speed and 1Mbps upload speed was established in 2010.
What does all of this mean to you? Ultimately, not a whole lot unless you live in a very rural area (the change was driven in large part by efforts to encourage broadband internet providers to expand their service areas). Home internet service providers still use a number of words to describe their fastest offerings.
Terms you may see as you're comparing home internet options include high speed, advanced, and broadband. These terms could refer to anything between 1Mbps to ultra-fast gigabit service. Thus, it's important to make your choice of home internet plans based upon actual speeds rather than simply because of the word "broadband" appearing in the ad.
Home internet service providers still use a number of words to describe their fastest offerings. Terms you may see as you're comparing home internet options include high speed, advanced, and broadband. These terms could refer to anything between 1Mbps to ultra-fast gigabit service.
Home Internet Connectivity Options
There's no one "right" way to get online. Modern communications technology affords us the luxury of multiple home internet options. Unless you live in an extremely remote area of the country, you'll be able to choose from at least two or three of the following home internet delivery methods.
1. DSL Internet
Digital Subscriber Line, another form of home internet service which works via the phone wiring, offers much higher speeds than dial-up - from under 1mbps and 15mbps or higher. Plus, it's affordable, lets you talk on the phone while you surf. For a while there, it seemed as though DSL was on its way out (even the net-savvy gurus at Ars Technica thought so). This humble technology ended up making great strides, and may even give fiber a run for its money in the near future. I'll talk more about that development later in this guide.
2. Cable Internet
Cable internet is the most common form of home internet access in the U.S. It offers speeds exceeding the FCC's broadband designation, up to 100Mbps, and is available to the majority of consumers across the country. Cable isn't the best source of cheap home internet - in fact, it can be one of the priciest options. You can, however, save money by taking advantage of cable and internet bundles.
3. Fiber Optic Internet
If you're lucky enough to live in the roughly one-fourth of the country with access to fiber optic internet, you can enjoy speeds between 50Mbps and 10Gbps both downstream and up. FTTH (fiber to the home) is still a bit more expensive than high-tier cable, but it also gives you a symmetric connection and frees you from the slowdowns of internet rush hour. Plus, you typically get unlimited home internet when you opt for fiber.
If it's wireless home internet you're after, there is an alternative. WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) has primarily been marketed to rural customers in the past, however, awareness - and availability - of this option is growing. I'll talk more about WISP internet later in my guide to home internet service providers.
4. Satellite Internet
Satellite internet is one of the better rural internet options because it offers respectable speeds - up to 25Mbps - and it's widely available. On the downside, satellite is known for being vulnerable to weather outages, and there are typically low data caps. Satellite providers are also known to throttle bandwidth if you exceed your data allotment.
5. Dial-up Internet
You can still get a 56Kbps connection through your phone line, although I wouldn't recommend it unless you live a very low-tech lifestyle and only need to be able to check email or do very light web surfing. One thing can be said for it - dial-up is definitely the cheapest home internet available today.
How to Compare Home Internet Options
One of your main concerns is no doubt finding the best internet deals. Keep in mind that no matter how great the bargain, however, it's not a real value unless it meets your household's needs. You want to strike a balance when choosing home internet service so that you don't end up overpaying every month for capacity you simply don't use, or conversely going with cheap home internet that leaves you frustrated with inadequate data caps and waiting for videos to buffer. Here are a few things to take into consideration when deciding on the best home internet for you.
Speed and Data
The first thing you should do when evaluating home internet options is to consider your usage. Questions to ask yourself include:
- How many people in the household need to get online?
- How many devices are there in the house?
- Do you need a wireless home internet network?
- What kinds of activities do you do online on a regular basis?
If you have several people using your home internet simultaneously for things like HD video streaming, downloading or uploading large files, online gaming, and other high-demand tasks, you'll probably want to stick with cable or fiber optic internet which can give you speeds of 25Mbps or better. Lower-tier DSL or satellite can suffice for those with light usage, or households where only one person is performing a high-demand activity at any given time. The FCC provides a helpful chart to determine your usage and speed needs.
Data caps can be a hindrance, particularly if you use the newest technologies, such as Smart TVs capable of 4k video streaming. Unlimited internet plans are available with cable internet and fiber, at an extra cost of course. For most average households the caps of around 500GB to 1TB (terabyte) that come with typical high-speed home internet plans are usually plenty sufficient. For example, my own high-speed internet plan comes with a terabyte of data.
Even with multiple people streaming Netflix, live streaming television broadcasts, and downloading and playing online games, I barely use half of that allowance in a month. DSL caps tend to be closer to the 150GB range so you will want to steer clear of this connection type if you are a heavy user.
About Local Home Internet Services
It's easy to assume that the big names are the only ones in the home internet game. After all, they're the ones who have the clout for nationwide advertising, putting them first in your mind when you start shopping. If you're the kind of person who prefers to support local business, you should know that there are local home internet service providers throughout the U.S.
Some of these companies are resellers of big name access, and some are independently-owned firms which install and manage their own infrastructure. They aren't as prominent, it's true because starting a local ISP isn't easy - it comes with many financial and bureaucratic barriers, however, they do exist.
If you don't find what you want among the high-speed internet providers you get from our zip code checker tool, do some research to see if there are other options in your area. Talking to family, friends, and neighbors is a great way to find out what home internet options are out there as well.
The Future of Home Internet Services
There are some exciting developments coming down the pike in terms of home internet service.
New and Improved DOCSIS 3.1
One potential wave of the future is Comcast Internet's rollout of gigabit cable internet. This is a major technological advance in terms of bridging what's known as "the last mile" in the communications industry. This is the term used to describe the challenge of transferring the high speeds that fiber facilitates from the street infrastructure into your home - and Comcast has figured out a way to do it. The 1GB home internet service is currently available in Atlanta, GA, Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI, and Nashville, TN. Cities slated for early 2017 delivery include:
- Denver, CO
- Indianapolis, IN
- Jacksonville, FL
- Kansas City, MO
- Knoxville, TN
- Portland, OR
- San Francisco Bay Area, CA
- San Jose, CA
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Seattle, WA
This ultra-high-speed access hardly qualifies as cheap home internet, however. It retails for $140 per month, although Comcast is offering introductory rates in some of the pilot cities.
Another interesting development is in the works, this one addressing the speed limitations of DSL internet service. Israeli chipmaker firm Sckipio has come up with a way to use existing phone wiring to deliver 750Mbps in both directions. The technology is called G.fast and has attracted keen interest from AT&T Internet, which hopes to incorporate this form of home internet service into their existing infrastructure. The company is already testing the technology on MDUs (multi-dwelling units), although there has been conflicting information as to how quickly they'll bring it to the general public.
Meanwhile, CenturyLink Internet is one step ahead. The DSL specialist, which also offers fiber optic internet in limited areas, has installed G.fast in 44 MDUs in Platteville, WI. The service is delivering speeds of 500/50Mbps and is focused on MDUs for these test markets due to the challenges of deploying FTTP (fiber to the premises) to these buildings. Other companies, like Windstream Internet, are also implementing G.fast in test markets, so keep an eye on this promising alternative.
Wireless home internet has been around for several years, however, it hasn't garnered much attention on a large scale until security company Vivint decided to listen to their customers' demands and provide a unique internet access solution. WISP works by way of transmission from the company's "beacons" to a hub antenna mounted on a host house's roof. The host house typically gets free access in exchange for space, and the device then broadcasts the internet signal to the rest of the neighborhood.
There are limitations to this technology - trees, walls, weather, and other external factors can interfere with the signal. Companies like Starry are working on better ways to deal with those issues, though it will probably be a few years before the technology is reliable enough to motivate widespread consumer adoption. On the plus side, WISP can provide speeds up to 1GB, making it a possibly viable contender once the kinks are worked out.
Home Internet Recap
Regardless of what kind of home internet service you're looking for, the basic steps are the same:
- Evaluate your usage needs.
- Determine your monthly internet budget.
- Use our easy tool to search internet providers by zip code.
- Research the best internet plans and prices available in your area.
Once you've made your final decision from the available pool of the best internet providers, there's only one thing left to do - subscribe and enjoy!