The Best Cable Internet
- March 21, 2018 - For this update, we did a deep dive into our contenders to stay current on prices and policies. We’ve also expanded our buying guide to provide a more comprehensive picture of speed requirements, reliability, and data usage.
- January 19, 2018 - We’ve updated this review to address facts and policies that have changed since originally published. We’ve also included summaries of more than just two providers. Most noteworthy, our previous runner up, Time Warner, was absorbed by Charter Communications, which has rebranded as Charter Spectrum. A full update and deep dive will be published in the coming months.
The Best Cable Internet
The best cable internet provider for you will depend largely on what’s available at your address, as you may not have a choice at all. If you do, you’ll want to think about the speeds that you need and then compare packages to find the right price. We ranked some of the nation's largest cable internet service providers based on customer service, speed offerings, and extras like fees and bundling. Any of these providers are good options in your search for cable internet — we recommend using the zip tool above to get started.
How to Find the Best Cable Internet
We should start by saying that your choices for a cable internet provider are likely limited; in fact, in many cases, you may not have any options at all. According to the FCC’s Broadband Progress Report, 70 percent of Americans have fewer than three provider options (and that's counting all internet types). Satellite internet is available nationwide and will usually be one of those options. DSL and cable have pretty varied availability based on state, and fiber-optic internet is the most rare. The limit in options is the result of regional monopolies and technological restrictions. Essentially, a cable provider won’t invest in building infrastructure and wiring if they have to compete with another provider who already dominates that region.
We looked at the nation’s four largest cable internet providers and dug into their packages, bundling options, and customer service reputation to see how they stacked up. The best cable internet service is fast, reliable, and painless to work with, but the best cable internet service for you depends on what you prioritize in a provider.
Our tool above can help you find the providers available to your zip code. Once you’ve located some potential providers, use our reviews below to discover which providers can offer you what you most value — whether that’s stellar customer service, low prices, or blazing fast speeds.
Audit your speeds and data usage.
When it comes time to purchase your internet plan, you’ll need to know how much speed your household needs. Internet service is sold in speed-based packages, measured in Mbps (megabits per second). Typically, cable internet packages range between 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps and accommodate HD video streaming, online gaming, and file downloading. If you only use the internet to check email or social media and you don’t want to pay for excess speed, DSL or satellite internet might be best for you. Keep in mind, these slower speeds usually come at a poorer value.
Determining your needs depends on your usage habits. A couple of things play into usage demands, including the number of connected devices and the type of internet activity. Internet speed works kind of like a traffic highway: The more people using it, the slower you’ll have to go. High demand usage like video conferencing or real-time gaming require higher speeds and more monthly data.
Multiple Users Requires Higher Speeds
Light use: emails, web browsing, social media, SD video streaming
Moderate use: music streaming, occasional online gaming, streaming HD video on one or two devices
High use: Multiple devices streaming HD video simultaneously, real-time gaming, video conferencing
Very high use: Multiple devices streaming HD or 4K video simultaneously, large file downloading, real-time gaming, video conferencing
We recommend rounding up a bit from your desired speed, as it’s unlikely you’ll receive the exact speeds advertised. The chart below displays the FCC’s data on actual vs. advertised speeds that customers were getting from each provider. Although there are some discrepancies between providers, cable technology fares much better than DSL or satellite. For example, though Cox Communications performs worse than other cable providers, with customers receiving 95% of advertised speeds about 70% of the time, it’s leaps above most DSL providers, who achieve 95% about 30% of the time.
Speed isn’t the only consideration, either: It’s also important to account for data limits. Internet data works similarly to your phone data plans in that you receive a certain allotment of gigabytes (GB) to "spend" over the course of a month based on your online activity. Most cable internet companies implement data caps starting at 250 GB. For some context, 1 GB is needed for about one hour of Netflix SD streaming and 3 GB per hour for HD streaming. If you’re just using the internet for light emailing and web browsing, you can stay near 50 GB. Heavy users should look for a plan with around 500 GB of data or more. If you happen to go over your data limit, providers will issue a warning and eventually charge a fee for more data.
Compare customer service ratings.
If you have multiple cable internet providers servicing your address and you’ve identified the plans you’re considering, it’s time to weigh the customer service. The telecommunications industry is notorious for its mediocre customer service. From faulty equipment, surprise fees, incorrect bills, and endless phone trees, cable internet providers are tough to deal with. With that reputation in mind, providers with better-than-awful customer service scores could save you from some frustrating phone calls.
J.D. Power and the American Customer Satisfaction Index rate providers and survey customers on factors like performance, cost, communication, and billing. Comparing these is a good way to measure which providers are more likely to tell you exactly what’s on your bill, promptly schedule installations, and provide promised speeds — all while less likely to forward your call to three different departments. AT&T and Verizon both comparatively excel, while Mediacom and Comcast settle at the bottom.
Consider extras like fees and bundling options.
If price is an especially significant component of your purchase, take a close look at your contract for any additional installation or equipment fees. Comcast, for instance, has a self-installation fee of $15. There are also potential fees for surpassing your data cap too many times, typically around $10 for every 50 GB.
On the other hand, it’s possible to save money by adding another service like cable TV. For example, one Charter Spectrum plan gives you 125+ channels, 100 Mbps of internet, and an unlimited voice plan at $30 for each service per month. The same 100 Mbps on its own costs $45 per month. On average, you save about $15 to $30 on each service when you bundle, so providers with bundling deals may be a good place to start if you’re particularly keen on savings or already interested in TV or phone services.
Our picks below offer a balance of fast speeds, decent customer service, and chances to save on your monthly bill. Once you've decided your priorities and found out what's available in your area, any of these options should seamlessly fit into your life.
Our Picks for the Best Cable Internet
Charter Spectrum is the only one of our top picks to offer no data caps. Mediacom comes close to offering a deal as generous, with data caps that reach 6,000 GB, but internet junkies and workaholics will rejoice in an unlimited supply of uploading, downloading, and streaming. And while average households likely won’t reach the caps placed by other companies, Consumer Reports claims that as entertainment trends continue to advance and technology like 4K streaming normalizes, data demands will increase. Charter’s lack of data cap will ensure your plan can keep up.
Wondering where this provider has been all your life? In 2016, Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable and rebranded the collective service as Spectrum. Part of that rebrand was a focus on simplifying its services. The result? Just two speed options: 60 Mbps and 100 Mbps. If your internet usages falls near either of these speeds, it’s an easy purchasing process, eliminating the debate between plans that differ by just 10 Mbps. Both come with a free internet modem, and pricing usually starts at $30 per month.
For those looking to change providers, Charter Spectrum also offers a unique contract buyout promotion for qualifying Triple Play packages. After you’ve installed the service, Charter will cover any early termination fees from your current provider, up to $500. That bundle comes with a free modem, free installation, and free DVR service — items for which other providers typically charge around $10-$15 per month.
When it comes to customer service, Spectrum trends optimistically. It received an overall 5/5 from J.D. Power and a 65/100 from the ACSI. Both scores are improvements from Time Warner and Charter Communications’ separate scores in years past.
Comcast is one of the biggest names in the industry, offering widespread coverage and lots of plan options. Plans start at 10 Mbps and incrementally increase to 400 Mbps in some locations. Whether you’re doing basic web browsing or spending hours on Fortnite, you’ll find a plan that fits your needs. This customization extends to Xfinity’s bundling options: In most locations, you’ll have the opportunity to add basic TV for just $5 more per month.
When it comes to data, Xfinity offers a generous cap of 1 TB (1,000 GB) on all plans, and it reports that 99 percent of its customers never even graze that limit. For context, it would take more than 200 hours of 4K video streaming to meet 1 TB — enough time to watch every episode of Law & Order: SVU. If you happen to have a household full of heavy internet users, the overage penalty is a $10 fee for every 50 GB over (after the third infraction).
Though its customer service ratings are fairly poor in comparison to AT&T and Verizon — with a notorious reputation for pushy reps and long wait times — Comcast’s rankings have improved over the past few years. Its ASCI ratings have trended upward, with a 56/100 in 2015, a 59/100 in 2016, and a 60/100 in 2017, an indication that the company is making an effort to improve its reputation. For some context, in 2017 AT&T scored a 69/100 and Verizon a 71/100. Comcast’s improvement isn’t sheer luck; the VP of Customer Service, Tom Karinshak, is actively working to overhaul its customer service. Two specific initiatives include a callback feature that enables customers to schedule a time for Comcast to call them (instead of waiting on hold) and an expansion on its digital care team.
A high-speed cable option with an impressive range, Mediacom’s plans start at 60 Mbps and rocket up to 1,000 Mbps. While it doesn’t offer Charter’s unlimited data, the range is still impressive: 400 GB-6,000 GB. For internet-obsessed users, speed is the most important factor; and while Mediacom’s max offerings are astronomically excessive for the majority of households, these high speed options and large data limits mean that heavy internet users will never have to worry about maxing out or culling back.
Unfortunately, Mediacom hits the lowest of the low for customer service. It falls behind Comcast with a 58/100 from ACSI, and its scores were so low that it only ranked with J.D. Power in the West region and with a 2/5 in all categories. In online forums and comment boxes, customers complain that issues are rarely resolved and that they experience frequent outages. Customers also note that they’re often double billed and spend long periods of time waiting for customer service to respond. If high speeds are worth a few phone calls or some occasional internet downtime, Mediacom is still a solid bet. It does offer a 90-day money-back guarantee, so if you experience any of these common grievances within the first three months, you can cancel your service without contract penalties.
Bundling your TV and internet service starts at just $40 per month in most locations. The base plan comes with 60 Mbps and 100+ channels, though Mediacom’s packages allow for easy customization. You aren’t limited to specific channel numbers or internet speeds if you want to bundle: Within each channel tier, you can choose any of the available internet speeds, so it’s simple to cater your plan to your needs.
As one of the few internet service providers that offer plans with speeds below 10 Mbps, Cox may appeal to ultra-light internet users. Those plans don’t come at great value: In most cities, that speed will cost $20-$30, but for only $10 more you can leap to 50 Mbps. Charter’s most popular promotional deal, by comparison, is $30 for 100 Mbps. But 100 Mbps is major overkill for smaller households with few devices and basic internet activity. Cox Communications’ low-speed plans eliminate excess and cater to light users, and its good customer service may just sway you in its direction.
Cox fares well when it comes to servicing its customers, winning the J.D. Power customer satisfaction award for the West region. Its worst score comes from the Cost of Service metric, aligning with what we found on its poorly valued plans. But, overall, customers are generally more satisfied with Cox than Comcast or Mediacom. The company tends to have reliable service and decent customer interaction, a rarity within the cable internet space.
Cox also strives to break out of the pack with its Panoramic WiFi, a router upgrade that is basically Cox Communication’s version of a WiFi Mesh system. This system extends its wireless farther, eliminates dead zones, and covers your whole home with fast connections. It comes with a free professional install but will cost you $10 per month. If you live in a large home with many areas that struggle to maintain a strong signal, this could be a convenient solution, although it may not be worth the cost if you’ve never had issues with your WiFi’s reach.
Know Your Cable Internet Plan
Buy your own router to boost your internet connection.
There’s a fair chance that all of your neighbors are renting the same stock equipment from your local internet provider, and you’ll have more network issues because of it. These routers are on the same frequency, and that’ll slow traffic down for everyone during prime surfing hours. By purchasing your own unique router, you could jump into a faster lane.
You can also save about $10-$15 (the typical rental fee) each month by buying your own equipment. A wireless router will typically cost you between $60 and $200 upfront, but without the provider’s monthly fees, it will start paying for itself after a year or so. Just check with your internet provider to be sure it’s compatible.
Many cable providers are beginning to roll out fiber-optic internet.
Though fiber-optic internet is run with literal cables, it’s quite different from traditional cable internet. Fiber transmits the internet through strands of glass rather than copper, making it completely unaffected by environmental conditions and multiplying typical internet speeds.
Fiber providers are few and far between, with very minimal availability. Traditional cable providers like Comcast are beginning to introduce fiber service, but it has a long way to go before reaching the same nationwide availability as other internet types.
If you’ve got the option, Verizon FiOS is an all-around winner for fiber service. At its peak, you can get around 1,000 Mbps for less than $100. That’s far more than any household would need, but a nice reassurance that you’ll never be suffering or buffering. Verizon is also best-in-class for customer service. It’s earned the highest scores from ASCI, and it won the J.D. Power customer satisfaction award in the East.
Our Cable Internet Review: Summed Up
More Internet Reviews
We've been digging into a variety of internet providers and have published additional reviews for other types of internet. If cable internet isn't available in your area, check out our other reviews below: