The Best Internet Service Provider
The best internet service provider for you will depend on which companies are available in your area and how you’ll be using the internet connection. The unfortunate truth of internet providers is that regional monopolies and natural topography prevent providers from being available everywhere. We’ve done individual reviews of the various internet types and priorities that you can navigate to for a specific deep dive. If you aren’t sure what’s best for you yet, we’ve rounded up our favorites in each category.
Our Picks for the Best Internet Service Provider
No matter the service type, AT&T is an all-around solid choice. If you have access to AT&T service in your area, we recommend it. (We also preferred the company in our review of the Best TV Providers.) A lot of this love can be attributed to its customer satisfaction ratings. AT&T consistently tops the charts for how it interacts with its customers: The company won J.D. Power’s US Residential Internet Service Provider Satisfaction Study award for the North Central region in 2016 and 2017. More impressively, it was the only provider to score a 5/5 rating in all rating factors: overall satisfaction, performance and reliability, cost of service, billing, communication, and customer service.
AT&T offers both DSL and fiber-optic internet service, which means your options are on either end of the speed spetrum. DSL speeds range between 1-10 Mbps, catered to lighter internet usage and smaller households. Its fiber-optic networks offer internet speeds between 50 Mbps and 1,000 Mbps. This connection type is best for larger households and more heavy internet activity, streamers especially. And AT&T’s fiber network is the most far-reaching of any fiber-optic provider, which is good news for anyone who needs those higher speeds. Its data limits are generous too, with up to 1TB (1,000 GB) on all plans. You’re only likely to exceed that cap if you often have many users streaming and online gaming most days — in that case we recommend a a provider like Charter Spectrum that offers unlimited data limits. Otherwise, AT&T is generally the best internet provider you can find.
Verizon FiOS, though only available in nine states, provides fiber-optic internet to 33 million people. And those 33 million are happy customers: Verizon outranks all providers with a 71/100 from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) and a 70/100 Reader Score from Consumer Reports.
Verizon’s fiber service offers speeds from 50 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. And the FCC’s 2016 report showed that Verizon’s actual speeds average more than what the company advertises — 109.47% of advertised speeds, to be exact. Fiber-optic technology will attract people who use the internet for more data-intensive activities like video streaming, video conferencing, and online gaming. Verizon FiOS in particular excels at service for gamers: After collecting latency and jitter data from over 1,000 registered readers, PCMag found that Verizon had faster, more consistent speeds than any of the providers on our list, and named it one of the the top gaming ISPs of 2017.
If you can see yourself sticking with this provider for more than a year, we recommend signing up for the two-year contract. Your rate will be $10 cheaper per month for the first year, and you’ll get an extra year of promo prices before its rates hike to “standard prices.” Depending on pricing in your area, that can save you up to $30 per month.
Available in all 50 states, satellite internet is the most widespread internet service option. Though satellite is inherently slower than other types of internet, HughesNet offers 25 Mbps with every plan. That’s enough for streaming video content and other high-demand activities, as long as you don’t have too many devices tuned in.
Data caps tend to be the bigger limiting factor when it comes to satellite internet. Rather than choosing speed tiers, you’ll have to purchase your plan based on data usage. Most customers can choose from 10, 20, 30, or 50 GB of data per month. You’ll need to choose wisely: Once your data allotment is up your speeds will dip to 1-3 Mbps until the next billing cycle. The upside: If your needs change, you can switch your data plan at any time. There’s also a free data zone, between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., where your internet usage isn’t counted against your monthly allotment. HughesNet also offers an app to help you track how much data you’ve used, so you’re never in the dark about how close you are to your cap.
The slow and fickle nature of satellite technology doesn’t help internet providers’ already low customer satisfaction scores. HughesNet rated a 52/100 on Consumer Reports, with readers issuing complaints about: value, reliability, speed, tech support, and customer service. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of motivation for satellite internet companies to improve, as they’re often the only options for rural customers. But HughesNet does offer an Express Repair plan that basically guarantees repairs within one to two business days and 24/7 technical support.
Among DSL providers, we like Frontier because it comes without any limits on data usage. You’ll have to commit to a two-year contract, but that means your promotional prices won’t immediately skyrocket. We also appreciated that Frontier’s contracts come without a phone plan requirement, typically a DSL staple.
Frontier consistently scores below average in overall service. Though it outperforms Mediacom, it still falls short of Comcast. (Despite its notorious reputation, Comcast’s consumer ratings are entirely average — we use them as a benchmark for discussion other providers.) Frontier scored a 56/100 from the ACSI, while Comcast rated 60/100. And J.D. Power gave Frontier a 2/5 rating in all four regions, whereas Comcast was rated 3/5. Frontier does best in the “Cost of Service” and “Billing” metrics, which indicates it offers a decent value for its service and does better than most providers when it comes to communicating price.
Frontier’s DSL service maxes out at 25 Mbps, perfect for a smaller household with heavy internet activity. For something a little slower, or for users on a budget, speeds start at 12 Mbps for $15.
Charter Spectrum is a promising cable internet provider, with high speeds, unlimited data, and several perks to bundle your services. In 2016, it purchased Time Warner and Bright House Networks, expanding its service to 45 states.
If you’re looking to leave your current internet provider, Spectrum offers a contract buyout promotion for qualifying Triple Play packages. If you pair your service with TV and phone, Charter will help cover early termination fees up to $500. That Triple Play package also promises a free installation (normally $35), free DVR service ($13 per month), and free WiFi setup (typically $10). Frontier also offers a free installation, but it’s rare to find a promotional deal with this many discounts.
Much of Spectrum’s rebranding focused on simplifying its services. As a result, the company only offers two internet speeds options: 60 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Both cater to more heavy internet usage, but come at a good value (usually $30-$45, depending on your location).
Spectrum’s customer service ratings fall above average, with a 65/100 from the ACSI, 66/100 Reader Score from Consumer Reports, and a 5/5 from J.D. Power. These are vast improvements from scores given to Charter Communications, Time Warner, and Bright House when they were separate entities. The rebranding came with a refocus on customer service, and while it can’t compete with AT&T and Verizon for customer service, Charter Spectrum is unlikely to disappoint.
Purchasing business internet comes with some unique considerations, most notably a Service Level Agreement (SLA). This contract states any compensation and solutions for times when your internet goes down. For businesses, loss of internet can mean serious money and productivity loss, so an SLA should state satisfactory solutions for when the technology fails. CenturyLink offers the most transparent SLA, detailing generous compensation for downtimes. For every 30 minutes your service is down, CenturyLink will credit you with one full day of internet service — that’s double the compensation of most other companies.
As far as customer satisfaction, CenturyLink’s scores are pretty average. It received a 3/5 from J.D. Power and a 59/100 from the ACSI. Again, though these scores may look disappointing, they’re pretty standard for the industry: CenturyLink’s ratings fall near Comcast's, but far exceed Mediacom and Frontier.
CenturyLink’s offers two options for its contracts: either a two-year agreement or a month-to-month plan. More established businesses that aren’t expecting hiring sprees will benefit from the stability of the two-year plan. Smaller operations and companies that plan to expand should consider the month-to-month plan, which gives you the flexibility to scale up your internet service as you grow. You can also choose to bundle your service with TV, phone, voice, or home security— a one stop shop to outfit your office.
If you’re looking to stay on budget, there’s a good chance you can find a friendly price from Comcast — though you may sacrifice speed as a result. One of the most widely available providers, Comcast has a wide range of options for both its internet and TV packages.
Cable internet plans start at 10 Mbps (usually for around $30), which is great for users who just need their connection for email and web browsing. In many places, you can add a basic cable package for just $5. XFINITY offers internet in incremental speeds up to 250 Mbps — much more than the average household would need. So whether you’re doing some basic web browsing or spending hours playing competitive Overwatch, you’ll find a plan that fits your needs.
Comcast’s plans come with a data cap of 1 TB, but the company reports that 99 percent of its customers never near that limit. If you do manage to exceed that cap (perhaps by streaming more than 200 hours of 4K video), you’ll receive a warning the first two times. After a third infraction, a $10 fee will be charged for every 50 GB over (not exceeding $200). If you’re consistently overusing your data, you can pay an extra $50 per month for an unlimited data allotment.
Speaking of fees, Comcast will charge you a self-installation fee. You’ll have to pay $15 to to DIY, which we think is pretty ridiculous, but that’s still cheaper than professional installation. This isn’t a rarity, Cox Communications charges the same fee and hosts similar data rates. Despite the similarity in extra fees, Comcast is still a better value: Cox’s lowest plan, 10 Mbps, will cost your $30 per month — for the same $30, you can buy six times the speed with Comcast.
While XFINITY’s consumer satisfaction scores are poor in comparison to AT&T and Verizon, it represents an average among all providers. There’s also evidence that XFINITY has made steady improvement. Comcast’s ACSI scores improved from 56/100 in 2015, to 59/100 in 2016, and 60/100 in 2017. This progression is no fluke. Tom Karinshak, the VP of Comcast’s customer service, detailed steps that the company is taking to overhaul its customer service. Some specific initiatives include expanding digital care teams, and a callback feature that allows you to schedule a time for Comcast to call you (rather than wait on hold).
How to Find Your Best Internet Service Provider
The first step in finding the best internet provider for you is to check which ones actually provide service to your address. Unfortunately, that list will likely be much smaller than it should be, which means your search for internet may be over as soon as it begins: According to the FCC’s Broadband Progress Report, about 70% of Americans have fewer than three provider options. And 30% don’t have any choice at all.
Why do so many people have so few options? Because internet providers intentionally avoid competition with each other. Building out the infrastructure and wiring to service new areas is an expensive investment — one that may not pay off in an area where a large provider already dominates the regional market. And when providers avoid competition, regional monopolies develop.
Don’t count out the little guy. Smaller local internet providers are always better rated for their customer service. If there’s one available to you, we recommend you consider the packages they offer.
The various types of internet technology also come with limitations that can affect their availability. Satellite internet is the most widely available and often the only option for more remote locations, although it still has its own restrictions. The satellite on your roof must have a clear path to the satellite in the sky, so if you’re tucked in the mountains or set deep in a forest, it may not work.
DSL is also widely available, covering about 90 percent of the United States. Cable internet, on the other hand, is pretty hit-or-miss: Comcast serves 40 states, while Cox Communications only hits 10. Fiber internet is even more limited, with AT&T and Verizon only serving 21 and nine states, respectively.
You can use our tool above to locate the internet service providers available in your area, or enter your address directly into providers’ sites. If you have more than one option, you’ll want to compare them on two important features: speed and data caps.
More activity and more devices mean higher speed needs.
Internet speed describes how quickly you can upload and download information, measured in Mbps (megabits per second). Different types of internet have different speed capabilities based on their technology.
- DSL: Up to 24 Mbps
- Satellite: Up to 25 Mbps
- Cable: 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps
- Fiber-Optic: 50 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps
How fast do you need your internet to be? While it might be tempting to just go for the fastest speeds available, you might end up overpaying for your actual needs. Instead, we recommend taking note of the type of activity you tend to do on the internet, and counting up the number of devices you have connected — both things factor into your speed needs.
Determining the right speed for you can be a frustrating process filled with guesswork, so we consulted networking experts, compared online tools from ISPs, and used HighSpeedInternet.com to build a guide that will help you find the right internet speed for your household. Determine where you are on the range of light use to very high use, then match that to the number of connected devices in your home.
Internet Provider Speed Guide
|Light Use||Moderate Use||High Use||Very High Use|
|1-3 devices||5-10 Mbps||15 Mbps||25 Mbps||50 Mbps|
|4-8 devices||15 Mbps||25 Mbps||50 Mbps||100 Mbps|
|8-10 devices||25 Mbps||50 Mbps||100 Mbps||150 Mbps|
|10+ devices||50 Mbps||100 Mbps||150 Mbps||200+ Mbps|
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.
Can’t decide between two usage tiers? We recommend erring on the side of more speed. Partly, that’s because the number of devices adds up quickly: Your computer isn’t the only thing connected to the internet — phones, tablets, TVs, video game consoles, and even smart thermostats all pull data from your connection. All these connected devices create a bandwidth issue. Bandwidth speaks to how much data can travel at that speed, dependent on how many devices are connecting, the demand of the activities, etc. It’s like being on a highway — even if the speed limit is 60 mph, too many cars will cause traffic to slow to a crawl. That’s why light users with a lot of devices need as much speed as a heavy user with just a few.
Business internet shoppers will want to play close attention to bandwidth, as you’ll likely have lots of devices connecting. When you purchase business internet, you receive a dedicated bandwidth— which means the internet goes only and directly to your business. Translation: no neighborhood traffic jams, fast speeds, and less latency. Residential internet operates on a shared bandwidth that delivers to hundreds of neighbors.
The other thing to keep in mind is that no internet provider delivers 100% of advertised speeds 100% of the time. Reliability varies by connection type. The FCC measured the actual vs. advertised speeds of providers across different connection types, represented in the chart below. Blue shows the percentage of time you’re likely to receive advertised speeds, and red is the time you’re receiving less than 80% of what you paid for. In other words: The more blue, the more reliable; the more red, the less reliable.
DSL suffers the most consistently, while cable is more reliable across the board. The reliability of both fiber and satellite internet varies by provider, with Verizon gaining the edge for fiber, and HughesNet being the clear winner in terms of satellite speed.
So, to recap: Use our speed table to get a rough estimate of how fast you need your internet to be. If you’re on the fence, go for the faster speed. Then check to see which types of internet connections offer that speed, and look for providers in your area. If you have more than one option, use the colorful bar chart above to compare reliability.
If you opt for faster speeds, you should look for higher data caps, too.
Measured in gigabytes (GB), data usage speaks to the amount of information you’re uploading and downloading (rather than the speed that happens at). Just like your phone plan, there are limits for your home internet data usage. Data caps range by provider, from satellite internet’s 10 GB to unlimited data from some cable providers.
As with speed, the type of activity will define your data needs. Streaming video tends to consume the most data. Netflix says, “Watching movies or TV shows on Netflix uses about 1GB of data per hour for each stream of standard definition video, and up to 3GB per hour for each stream of HD video.” For some context, binging the first season of Stranger Things in high definition would take about 21 GB of data. So if you planned on binging one season of Netflix originals each weekend, you’d need at least 84 GB of data per month, plus whatever you use in other tasks.
Our guideline: For basic web browsing and emailing, you won’t need more than 50 GB at a maximum. But if your household frequently streams, downloads, or plays online games — you’ll want a plan that offers closer to 500 GB.
If you go over your data limit, your internet access won’t be completely cut off. You’ll either be charged for exceeding the limit, or your speeds will slowed until the next billing cycle. Either way, it’s better to have a little more than you need rather than go over your limit.
Be prepared for bad customer service.
The telecommunications industry has a reputation for being consumer un-friendly. It’s plagued by frustrating phone calls, surprise price hikes, and a desperate insistence on keeping you from cancelling your service. This reputation is backed by record-low ratings from third-party resources like Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, and ACSI.
Of the 43 industries and hundreds of companies tracked by the ACSI, the telecommunications space consistently ranks near the bottom. Mediacom, with a score of 58/100, has managed to rate the worst of them all. But providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Charter Spectrum trend towards the top of the industry and are more likely to resolve issues, communicate billing changes, and offer a reasonable price. If these things are of higher value to you, pay close attention to how consumers rate providers. You may have to sacrifice a cheap price, but often the best value and equipment folds into a customer’s satisfaction.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Internet Provider
You can hotspot your home.
Internet is internet, and you can use 4G mobile broadband just the same as you do traditional internet. Hotspots aren’t just for a quick connection when you need to send an email in a place with no WiFi, you can use them for at-home internet needs too. This option best suits smaller households with fewer connected devices, as you’ll have more limited data capacity than with traditional ISPs. It's also more expensive than traditional internet, especially to get a reasonable data usage. We wouldn’t recommend this option unless you’re only using the internet for light web browsing and emailing. You can use your current phone provider, but in our review of mobile internet we recommend Verizon Wireless for its top-of-class customer service and coverage.
Buying your own router can save money and optimize speeds.
A router is the devices that communicates wirelessly from the modem to your device. Most ISPs will charge around $10 each month to rent a router from them. And that same router is likely being rented to all your neighbors. This can cause spatial traffic as all these devices are communicating on the same frequencies. Even your microwave is on the same wavelength. We reviewed wireless routers for home use, and your purchasing decision will depend on how big your home is and how many devices are tuning in. Buying your own router is a lot like hopping into the carpool lane, you’ll see faster speeds.
Some need-to-knows of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the idea that access to any internet page or website is treated the same. Without it, internet providers can interfere by slowing, charging, or blocking access to certain websites. This means that broadband providers can charge websites for faster and more reliable delivery of its content, and create tiered packages that charge the consumer to access more popular and premium online content. This would also give leverage to sites associated with ISPs under the same company, and stifle the competition (an already prominent issues within broadband services). For example, Comcast may gives better quality and faster speeds to their own streaming service, while throttling Netflix. The FCC recently voted to end net neutrality, but politicians are moving to fight it — legal and legislative challenges will take years to resolve and for consumers to see change.