Guide to Internet Service Providers
How to Find the Right Internet Service Provider for You
Shopping for the internet can be a complicated process. After years of research and expert consultation, we have some key tips to help walk you through acquiring internet service. Once you know which providers serve your area, you’ll need to calculate what you need from the internet. Speed and data caps will dictate the plan you choose. You’ll also want to be savvy about pricing and deals, and keep an eye on fees. Once you’re ready to look at individual providers, check out our review of the best internet service providers.
Check What’s Available in Your ZIP Code
The first step in finding the best internet provider for you is to check which ones actually provide service to your address. The list is likely to be small.
The various types of internet technology also come with limitations that can affect availability. Satellite internet is the most widely available and often the only option for more remote locations. But even that has technological 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 and covers about 90% of the U.S.
Cable, on the other hand, is pretty hit or miss. Some providers, like Comcast, serve 40 states. Others, like Cox Communications, only serve 10. Fiber technology is limited, too, but expanding more each year.
You can enter your address directly into each company’s site to check for availability. If you have more than one option, you’ll want to compare them on two important features: speed and data caps.
Decide How Much Speed You Need
The speed at which an internet connection uploads and downloads information is measured in Mbps (megabits per second). The more devices and the more demanding the activity, the higher the required Mbps. 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 2,000 Mbps
To figure out how much speed you’ll need, consider the things you use the internet for and account for the number of devices that will be connected. Activities like streaming video and downloading files will require higher speeds than simply sending an email.
The FCC provides a broadband guide with some basic recommendations. The guide claims 3 to 8 Mbps is sufficient for basic service and light use, while 12 to 25 Mbps will work for medium service, and 25 Mbps for advanced. In our experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find an internet provider offering speeds slower than 10 Mbps. The FCC’s guidelines feel a little outdated in general, considering it also reported the median household internet speed is 72 Mbps. (Though the FCC says it “updated/reviewed” the guide in August of 2019, it’s remained unchanged since we first started reviewing internet years ago.) That median speed is quite a jump over the FCC’s “advanced” recommendation of 25+ Mbps. The FCC’s recommendation also doesn’t account for the fact that streaming video makes up over 70% of internet traffic.
You’ll encounter many online recommendations when trying to figure out how much speed you need, and we generally advise you round up.
Count Your Devices
Also keep in mind that devices can add up quickly. There’s more than just your computer connecting to the Wi-Fi: Phones, tablets, TVs, video game consoles, and even smart thermostats can eat up precious bandwidth.
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 heavy use, then match that to the number of connected devices in your home.
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.
Heavy use: multiple devices streaming HD video simultaneously, real-time gaming, video conferencing.
Very heavy use: Mmultiple devices streaming HD or 4K video simultaneously, large file downloading, real-time gaming, video conferencing.
Look for Higher Data Caps on High-Speed Plans
Measured in gigabytes (GB), data usage speaks to the amount of information you’re uploading and downloading (rather than the speed at which that happens). 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.
Streaming content tends to consume the most data. Netflix says, “Watching movies or TV shows on Netflix uses about 1 GB of data per hour for each stream of standard definition video, and up to 3 GB 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 binged one season of Netflix originals each weekend, you’d need at least 84 GB of data, plus whatever you use in other tasks.
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 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 be slowed until the next billing cycle.
When it comes to internet service, price is often much higher than what providers advertise. Make sure you take into account things like taxes, equipment rental fees, and installation fees before you make a final decision. Additionally, promotional prices often expire at the end of your contract, so make sure you’re aware of what your non-discounted price will be.