The Best Cheap Internet Providers
Rejoice! Dial-up isn’t the answer
If you live in the US and want blazing-fast internet, you're going to have to pay for it. The good(ish) news is that blazing fast is relative: it depends on how much internet you truly need. We compared pricing plans and calculated Mbps to find the best cheap internet providers — now fingers crossed they are available where you are.
If all you really need is occasional, affordable, and reliable internet access, Karma's pod is only $14 per GB and you take it with you wherever you go.
The internet is an American invention, an American phenomenon, and now it’s an American problem. The US lags behind the rest of the developed world in both internet speed and affordability. In Tokyo, Paris, and Bucharest, $40 will get you around 300 Mbps; in Kansas City and most of the US, it’ll buy you 30 Mbps, according to New America’s The Cost of Connectivity 2014 report.
So what, exactly, are we paying for? If you’re in a traditional relationship with one of the major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the price you pay is directly tied to the speed at which you are able to download and upload. It seems logical, then, that most people would pay for internet based on their usage; unfortunately, that’s a rarity. The few telecommunication monoliths have created local monopolies — your options from the major providers will depend almost completely on where you live. But, that’s not the only option.
How We Found the Best Cheap Internet Providers
Rather than sending you down the rabbit hole, we’re recommending a more nuanced approach: Figure out what kind of internet you actually need, and compare costs between different providers for packages customized to your household (and your address).
We looked at data on speed and price provided by third-party research companies including J.D. Power and Speedtest. After analyzing data from more than 2,000 ISPs nationwide, we focused only on providers that are broadly available (to us, that’s more than 20 states and 5 million people).
So, just how much speed do you actually need? If you’re just checking email and reading the news, you don’t actually need much; 10 Mbps is plenty. Mbps (megabits per second) is the miles per hour of the internet world — the standard measure of broadband speed that describes how quickly information can be downloaded from or uploaded to the internet. The FCC reports that speeds up to 10 Mbps improve the basic web browsing experience. More, in this case, isn’t better.
However, if you’re like most people, you’re using the internet to stream video (streaming video accounts for over 70 percent of internet traffic) and 10 Mbps isn’t enough. According to Netflix, streaming without buffering requires 5 Mbps for standard definition; upgrading from 5 Mbps to 15 Mbps would give your household the power to handle multiple HD streams at once.
How much internet you actually need depends on a few factors: how many people live in your house or apartment; how many devices will be logged on at once; how these devices are using the internet (HD streaming vs. data transfer vs. casual email); and how speedy you really need things to be. Not sure where you sit? Check the FCC’s usage profiles to see if your best bet is basic, medium, or advanced.
If you’re living the spartan life, preferring the actual outdoors to cultivating your Twitter persona, we bet you can get away with minimal Mbps.
Email: 0.05 Mbps
Google: 0.03 Mbps
Total: 0.08 Mbps
But if your household is totally plugged in — one desktop, two laptops, four iPads, and smartphones galore — you’ll need way more.
Skype: 0.6 Mbps
Streaming: 10 Mbps
Online learning: 0.15 Mbps
Total: 10.75 Mbps
Our Picks for Best Cheap Internet Providers
Cheap is cheap, and if that’s your only concern, dial-up stalwart NetZero Dial-Up still exists. It’s so cheap it’s free. If you already have a phone line and are looking for extremely barebones internet, it offers 10 hours of dial-up a month on the house. Good luck streaming anything, though.
Unfortunately, many “cheap” internet providers are like at-home hair dye: cheaper up front, but more expensive in the end. In other words, you’re likely to find data caps, hidden fees, or unresponsive customer service.
That’s not the case with Karma Go. Buy the little white Karma Go pod for $149 and pick your plan: The $40 per month 5 GB Pulse entry-level plan isn’t super cheap, but the pay-as-you-go option is great if you’re an ultra light user. It’s $14 a GB (about 15,000 emails, or less than an hour of streaming HD video). It never expires. And there’s no way to “go over” — you just top up.
Karma runs on Sprint’s LTE network, so depending on where you’re at, you can expect download speeds of 6–8 Mbps, and upload speeds around 3 Mbps.
The biggest downside is that the shared hotspot isn’t totally private. In fact, it’s part of Karma Go’s marketing plan that anyone near you, say sitting in the next seat over in the airport, can log onto your network (and you’ll get a 100 MB bump in your data for the good deed). Karma says you aren’t opening your hard drive up or offering your browsing history to strangers, but if you’re the lockbox type, this definitely isn’t for you.
Big-Name Subsidies A number of the brands we’ve all heard of — AT&T, Comcast, and Google Fiber, among others — offer subsidized internet that can cost as low as $5 a month with no deposit, no equipment fees, and no gotchas. Check EveryoneOn.org to see if you’re eligible.
We also looked into FreedomPop, which offers 500 MB free a month on the Sprint network — just purchase one of its hotspot devices (around $80 depending on the model). But, the FreedomPop freemium model makes it clear: You will most likely end up paying more than $0. We couldn’t get behind the upsell of $2 for an email alerting us that we were nearing our data limit, or the $4 to roll our data over month to month, and were confused by the extra 1 GB of “free” data we were offered for committing today! Sign up was a mess, too; multiple times the hotspot we were about to buy suddenly had the “offer expire.” The entire site screamed: This will not be free.
If you’re looking to stream content or download music, you’ll be better served by a more traditional plan on a major carrier. They won’t track your usage; instead you’ll be picking a speed — and you can use as much internet or data at that speed as you want.
Time Warner Cable has some of the consistently lowest prices across the board. For its barebones 2 Mbps package, the “Everyday Low Price” plan, you’ll pay just $15/month (not including startup fees). It won’t be winning any awards for speed or customer service — Time Warner consistently scores lower than other major ISPs when it comes to speed tests and it’s dead last for customer satisfaction in the ACSI Telecommunications and Information Report.
However, it does offer more plan options than any other provider, so you can get exactly what you need, for a good price. Take note: The two lowest price plans, the Basic and the Everyday, aren’t available online — you’ll need to call in to sign up. Want a bit more? The $35 plan for 15 Mbps is a good value.
The FCC recently approved Time Warner’s merger with Charter Communications, which will make this massive communications conglomerate a superpower in years to come. While the merger will bring service to 2 million new customers, it’s too soon to tell how it’ll impact prices and customer satisfaction.
Verizon Fios is our top pick for best overall ISP (regardless of price): It gets consistently high ratings for speed and reliability, and even manages to not entirely bomb at customer service. It’s certainly worth checking out if you have access — and that’s a big “if,” since fiber optic internet requires huge overhauls of local infrastructure, meaning it’s only inching its way across America. Yes, it is more expensive; a basic package will get you 50 Mbps at $50 a month for one year, excluding equipment charges, taxes, and other fees (which can add up). But, if you’re after more speed, or have more users in your household, Verizon has the best service and the bang for the buck gets pretty enticing: $60 for 100 Mbps, $70 for 150 Mbps. Those are introductory prices; expect the typical one-year price hike with this option.
Runner-Up for Best Cheap Internet
Comcast Xfinity: Its second tier plan — 25 Mbps for $40/month — is a good deal, but buyer beware. Comcast gets slammed in all the polls for its poor customer service, so only go this route if you’re willing to sit through a lot of hold music.
Did You Know?
Prices vary by location.
While some cities subsidize broadband, installation and infrastructure expenses could drive up costs in rural areas. And not everything is available everywhere. Broadband Now is a great resource for finding which options are available in your ZIP code.
The cheapest plan might be the plan you already have.
Make it even cheaper by buying any equipment you’re renting (you might be getting charged over $10/month for a modem/router combo you could buy for $50), bundling your services, and then calling up to negotiate — tell your ISP you’re considering some of our other top picks and see if it’ll give you a deal.
The Bottom Line
The cheapest way to get internet is to figure out how much you actually need — if it’s not a lot, you don’t have to pay a lot. A Karma Go costs $149 up front, but can be as inexpensive month-to-month as you want. For more bandwidth, your address determines your options: Fios is the fastest and the best (but not the cheapest); Time Warner is cheaper and more flexible (but certainly not the best).