The Best Internet Service Providers
All stream, no buffer
Thanks to big telecommunications monopolies, the majority of Americans don't get to pick their internet — we just stay (dis)satisfied with whichever is in our area. But if you're lucky enough to have options, we've analyzed all the nationwide players, comparing speeds, customer service ratings, and pricing to discover which truly are the best internet service providers.
If it's an option where you live, Verizon Fios has speed, reliability, and customer service that's worth a slightly higher price.
If you prefer your internet with fewer wires, T-Mobile's fast-growing network has solid speeds and high customer ratings.
If you’re searching for the “best internet service provider” online, chances are you’re stuck in a horrible relationship with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or one of the other major providers. The industry is now the most hated in America — and most US households can’t switch. Sixty-one percent of us don’t have a choice. In fact, the idea of “choosing” a provider is pretty much a misnomer: You tether yourself to whichever telecommunications conglomerate is active in your neighborhood and pay the steadily increasing bill, rented modem in hand.
Large local monopolies (and the corresponding paltry competition) are breeding grounds for what is now notoriously poor customer service, and might be why the US consistently ranks lower than most other developed countries for access to reliable and fast internet.
But we love the internet! We’re using it right now! It’s the stray cat we can’t stop feeding; in fact, some people love it so much that they pay actual real money to participate in “digital detox” programs to feel real non-internet connections.
And yet for all of that love, the internet maintains its shroud of mystery, a thick fog through which we see only blinking modem lights. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use our collective ignorance to their advantage. Although 88.5 percent of Americans use the internet, we’re paying more for slower access than the rest of the developed world.
How We Found the Best Internet Service Provider
Since the industry is so vast, we focused only on providers that are broadly available. We used the total number of states and the total population served as measures of availability. After analyzing data from more than 2,000 ISPs nationwide, we established availability benchmarks for each type of provider: at least 20 states or a population of 5 million; 10 million for DSL.
AT&T U-verse, AT&T Wireless, Birch Communications, Bright House Networks, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Cogent Communications, Comcast Business, Cox Communications, Cricket Wireless, Earthlink Business, FairPoint Communications, Frontier Communications, Integra Telecom, Level 3 Communications, Lightower Fiber Networks, Mammoth Networks, Mediacom Cable, MegaPath DSL, MetroPCS, nTelos, Optimum by Cablevision, Spectrotel, Sprint, Suddenlink Communications, Sunesys, T-Mobile, TDS Telecom, Time Warner Business Class, Time Warner Cable, TOAST.net U.S. Cellular, Verizon Business, Verizon Fios, Verizon High Speed Internet, Verizon Wireless, Windstream, Windstream Business, WOW!, XFINITY from Comcast, Zayo Enterprise Networks
This means that some very highly rated providers — like Midwestern upstart Midcontinent Communications — didn’t fit the bill. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the areas with access to a smaller, speedier ISP, don’t rule it out. Rule it very much in. Midcontinent Communications is in its second year as fastest in the nation and rated the best ISP for gamers in PC Mag tests. As they put it: “If you live in the Dakotas, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, you need Midcontinent Communications.”
If your areas isn’t served by one of the smaller game-changing ISPs, unfortunately your best bet will still be one of the major media companies that can deliver the internet speed you need. (Although again, you’re bound by region, so even our top picks might not be available to you. Broadband Now is a great resource: Just plug in your ZIP code and it’ll let you know which providers are active in your neighborhood.)
Once we found the major players, we measured their Mbps, compared customer service ratings, and looked at their packages and pricing. We’ll tell you up front right now: none of these guys really won in the service department — but some are certainly faster.
Our Picks for the Best Internet Service Provider
Yes, Verizon Fios is plagued by billing complaints, and yes, Fios’ roughly 7 million customers are spread across just 13 states (although watch this space — the company recently announced a $300 million plan to make inroads in Boston, while simultaneously shucking its service in California, Florida, and Texas over to Frontier). That said, it has lofty expansion goals, and its fiber optic service delivers blistering speeds.
How fast is blistering? Fios advertises “upload and download speeds up to 500/500 Mbps and upload speeds up to 5x faster than cable.” You might not always be getting these speeds, and you’ll have to pay more to access them, but if you’re in the market for something seriously zippy, Fios is it. Most DSL and cable providers simply can’t compete.
Fios has also been playing the fiber optic game the longest, which means it’s able to deliver a reliable network with far fewer outages. In surveys from both PC Mag and J.D. Power, Verizon Fios consistently ranks at the top in terms of customer satisfaction with speed and reliability. Plans range from $50–$270 per month for 50–500 Mbps, so there is a lot of flexibility — especially since the FCC considers anything over just 15 Mbps “advanced.”
Fios is also our pick for small businesses, not only for its speed and reliability, but also for providing the best safeguards against hackers. In fact, if the safety of your personal data is a major concern, we’d recommend making the switch to fiber optic service. Public wireless access points and increasingly sophisticated technology mean your private information is more vulnerable than ever. In fact, your old dial-up connection was actually one of the safer ways to get online: cable and DSL are much more susceptible to breaches. If protecting your information is your primary concern, fiber optic is the way to go — it’s more difficult for hackers to gain physical access to the cables.
So, what’s a speed demon who doesn’t have access to Verizon Fios to do? Comcast Xfinity consistently competes in regulated speed tests, often inching ahead of Fios when it comes to download speeds. Why, then, was it not our first pick? Because the company gets the official medal for “least beloved,” ranking at the absolute bottom in customer service.
Unfortunately, none of our major contenders are going to be winning the “Best Smile” award anytime soon. So, while we can’t really laud any one of them for killer customer service, we can tell you that Comcast receives more customer complaints than AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable combined, despite having 15 million fewer subscribers. Some of the complaints levied against Comcast include inconsistent meter readings and service outages. Another sticking point: a 300 GB data cap the company has been testing in several markets around the country. (However, as of June 2016, Comcast has raised those caps to 1 TB and set overage charges at up to $200 per month.)
If you have the patience, though, Comcast might be for you. Plans range from $30–$70 per month for 10–250 Mbps. It also has a superfast plan that offers 2 Gbps for $300 per month, but it also comes with some gnarly fine print:
"Restrictions apply. Not available in all areas. Limited to residential customers. Requires subscription to XI Gigabit Pro service. Minimum two-year term agreement required. Early termination fee applies. XI Gigabit Pro service is only available within one-third of a mile of Comcast's fiber network and requires custom installation. Installation may require six to eight weeks or more to complete. Installation fee of $500 and activation fee of $500 applies."
It’s available just about everywhere and its average download speeds of 31.8 Mbps on testmy.net put it in the top 10 among all our contenders. Major downside: you’ll have to deal with Comcast’s customer service. Plans for businesses with at least eight-plus people start at $250/mo for 15 Mbps — on the high side of Fios’s price range.
Other Business Internet Options to Consider
At 69 percent, AT&T U-verse has the highest customer satisfaction rating in the 2015 ACSI Telecommunications and Information Report, but it’s only available in 21 states and doesn’t offer mind-blowing download speeds — around 18 to 24 Mbps outside of select markets.
Charter Business was one of our top picks for business, but it recently merged with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks and rebranded as Spectrum. Spectrum business plans start at $40 per month for up to 60 Mbps and it’s a little too early to weigh in on how this merger will impact service.
The proliferation of smartphones and mobile wireless hookups means more and more Americans are abandoning wired home internet for a mobile-only diet. A recent study by the US Census Bureau shows that one in five US households is now mobile-only, compared with one in 10 in 2013. That’s incredible growth in a relatively short time.
If you’re considering this route, T-Mobile is your best bet. According to data from Speedtest.net, T-Mobile is the fastest nationwide provider, with its new “wideband LTE” network improving LTE speeds in 185 markets. It also dominated Computerworld’s rankings, coming in first place in five of the eight categories: both upload and download speeds, value, technical support, and customer service.
There’s very little difference among most major providers in terms of price, here: For T-Mobile, plans start at $20 a month per device. That gets you 2 GB per month, but you can increase that to 6 GB for $15/month and go as high as 18 GB for an extra $60. For Verizon, it’s $30–$100 per month for 1–18 GB of data.
Verizon is second only to T-Mobile for customer satisfaction (62 percent to T-Mobile’s 68 percent) and according to Testmy.net has speeds that are among the fastest (roughly 9 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up). It offers five plans, but pick the right one: Overage will run you $15 a GB. Streaming just an hour of HD video beyond your limit will cost you 3 GBs, or, quite suddenly, an extra $45.
Other Internet Service Providers to Consider
Google Fiber Unsurprisingly, Google is vying for a piece of the connectivity pie. Google Fiber, a service with starting speeds of 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps), is currently only available in 22 cities, but Google is making inroads and, notably, boasts excellent customer service. Its efforts are already spurring more competitive rates in some areas from previously unchallenged ISPs, like Time Warner in Kansas City.
Suddenlink won the average download speed award. At 43 Mbps according to TestMy.net, it actually had faster average download speeds than any other provider. But, those speeds couldn’t overcome two giant drawbacks: It’s only available in 16 states and its customer satisfaction rating on Broadband Now hovers around a paltry 50 percent. That low rating matches our experience — getting a simple layout of plans and pricing required entering the exact address of a home, and even then the prices were generic and far from transparent.
Mediacom had the second fastest download speeds (43.1 Mbps), and meets Suddenlink with its own pairing of paltry availability and gutter-level customer satisfaction (around 45 percent). Add to that monthly usage allowances on data and it’s three strikes from us.
Did You Know?
In the US, there are five primary types of internet connection. (Six if you include dial-up, but we don’t.)
DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, is the workhorse. It’s an amped-up version of the old dial-ups, and works through your home phone line. Speeds tend to be slower than newer modes of connection — around 1.5 Mbps to 10 Mbps — although they get better based on how close you are to your provider, and new technology is pushing speeds closer to 100 Mbps. Monthly plans range from $20–$120.
Cable internet works, unsurprisingly, through the television cable. It’s usually faster than DSL (with speeds around 10–120 Mbps), although that can be slowed down by how many people in your area are using the same network. (It’s the Konmari principle in action: more clutter, less joy.) If you do have access to cable, it’s likely to run you the same price as DSL. Most cable companies will bundle internet with phone and television, although you can untether them.
Satellite internet uses a network of, yes, satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the Earth. Since it doesn’t require a direct wired connection, it’s a popular option for remote areas where other connection methods don’t reach — and it’s a major component of several in-flight internet services. On the downside, speeds generally aren’t as high as its wired competitors and it’s more susceptible to disruptions due to weather conditions.
The sleekest of the bunch, mobile broadband is entirely wireless, and can be achieved in a few different ways, including home-install antenna, through a USB modem or dongle, or by tethering a laptop to your phone and putting the squeeze on your data plan. It’s portable, which is nifty, and the plans are usually more flexible than those offered in traditional packages. However, they are also less-than-reliable, since the quality of your connection is location-dependent, and the major data required to stream content means you might get stuck paying extra if you exceed your limit.
Finally, there’s fiber optic. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the great savior or a very messy tease. It’s the newest mode of connection, utilizing glass or plastic cables to carry internet via light and it’s the fastest of the bunch. However, it is also the most cumbersome and expensive, requiring lengthy, complicated, and pricey installs (upward of $300) that aren’t even possible in many places. Depending on where you live, you might not have access to the infrastructure at all. The download speeds of up to 1 Gbps are extremely fast — that’s enough to stream at least five high-definition videos simultaneously without buffering and still have enough bandwidth to send email and surf the web — but likely more oomph than most households need.
The internet is a public utility.
In 2015, the FCC voted in favor of net neutrality, reclassifying broadband internet as a telecommunications service regulated under Title II. Essentially, that means that ISPs can’t knowingly interfere with or disadvantage customers or companies in order to stuff their own pockets. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it, “We cannot have a two-tiered internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind. We cannot have gatekeepers who tell us what we can and cannot do and where we can and cannot go online. And we do not need blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization schemes that undermine the internet as we know it.”
It was a move that has drastically changed the conversation around how the internet can and should be regulated, and we’re only starting to see how it will affect the industry as a whole. James Zino, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University and project advisor at the NY State Science & Technology Law Center, sees in the actions of the FCC a tidal change in how access to the internet is controlled. “The FCC is always making efforts to ensure that once an infrastructure has been built, that it continues to meet the needs of consumers. To have a road riddled with potholes or a bridge that cannot bear the load of cars is functionally useless, and our country’s internet infrastructure is no different.”
The FCC didn’t stop at net neutrality: It’s also started regulating how fast is fast enough, officially increasing the broadband minimum from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps, and voted to subsidize broadband for low-income families. These moves are attempts on the part of the FCC to try and address what it calls the “digital divide,” the gap between those who have access to modern, responsive technology, and those who don’t. “In 2015,” says Zino, “the FCC noted that 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million) lacked broadband, whereas only 8 percent of urban Americans did. Shrinking this gap is one of the key ways that the FCC can accomplish its mission.”
Cities are getting into the ISP game.
In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, announced the nation’s first municipally owned gigabit network, offering its citizens high-speed fiber optic internet at bargain-basement prices (with the help of federal subsidies). It’s changed the game for the city’s residents — and opened up immense opportunities for companies who now have access to reliable, inexpensive, and powerful connections. As a result, Chattanooga has once again become a hub of industry: this time, of the startup variety.
The Bottom Line
Fiber optic is fastest and for many the very best. Good luck getting it though: service is limited and it has a reputation for playing hard to get. If you’re like most of us stuck with one of the big ISP monopolies, stats show you probably aren’t going to be wowed with great customer care — but hopefully above-average speeds will make up for it.
Track your usage. For most of us, a home connection makes the most sense. However, it’s not an absolute necessity, especially given how many of us are chained to our smartphones. To see if a less traditional route is for you, spend a week auditing how much time you actually spend online and what kind of user you are. You may be paying for a bigger or faster plan than you actually need — if that’s the case, take a look at our review of best cheap internet providers to cut down on costs.
Check your speed. Curious if you’re getting what you’re paying for? Netflix just released Fast.com, a simple site that will tell you just how fast your current connection is; meanwhile Speedtest.net can measure both upload and download speeds.
Ask for a better deal. While it’s true that many of us don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to our provider, there’s no harm in asking for a better deal from your ISP. Before you call your current provider, make sure you know what your current monthly bill is (and that you’re paid up!), as well as the amount it was when you signed up. Then put the company on the defense — have any service issues at the ready and ask about any bill increases. If it doesn’t budge, tell your ISP about the competition’s sign-up bonuses in your area. If you can demonstrate there’s a viable alternative, it’ll be more likely to give.
More Internet Service Provider Reviews
We’ve been looking into ISPs for a few years now, and you can check out some of our other reviews. They aren’t consistent with our latest round of research (yet!) so be on the lookout for updates in the upcoming weeks: