The Broadband Report
The latest from the team at Broadband Now

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How to Choose Between Internet Service Providers

Consumer satisfaction with the broadband industry hit a seven-year low last year [1], leaving Internet users more confused than ever about how to choose an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Where do you even start? What are you comparing when you compare ISPs, and how do you decide which one is right for your needs?

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While 25 percent of US households still only have access to one provider [2], the rest of us have a laundry list of factors and features to consider before signing on the dotted line. Choice is a good thing, but you have to understand what you’re buying in order to get the best deal.

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Our goal in this post is to walk you through everything you need to know to choose an ISP for your home broadband connection.

Internet speeds

The first thing you’ll be considering when you compare ISPs is what speeds they offer.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the speed you need, the fewer options you’ll have, since low-speed broadband connections like generic DSL are more common than high-speed networks like fiber.

The important thing for you to understand as a consumer is how “speed” is measured, and how the advertised speeds relate to what you actually get on a daily basis.

Bits vs. bytes

Bits and bytes: the building blocks of everything on the Internet.

Bits and bytes: the building blocks of everything on the Internet.

Internet speed is usually measured in “bits,” or “bits per second.”

A bit is the smallest possible unit of digital data. Envision a string of zeros and ones: a bit is a single zero or one. Because they’re so small, prefixes are added to lump them into chunks:

  • Kilobit(kb) = one thousand bits
  • Megabit(mb) = one thousand kilobits
  • Gigabit(gb) = one thousand megabits

As if that wasn’t enough to keep track of, data is also measured in bytes, which are equivalent to eight bits. You’ll usually see bytes used to describe storage capacity or file size. ISPs prefer bits to bytes for describing speed because “8,000,000 bits per second” sounds more impressive than “1,000,000 bytes per second.”

Upload vs. download speed

Most home broadband connections are “asynchronous,” which means that you can download data faster than you can upload it. (Downloading means consuming content like websites or watching Netflix; uploading means sending files via email, video chat, or gaming.)

For most consumers, that’s fine, since most of us download much more content than we upload. Upload speed is more important if you participate in video chat, gaming, or upload a lot of photo and video content on a regular basis (for example, if you have an account on YouTube or Flickr).

If you have high upload needs, consider a more expensive “synchronous” broadband connection with equal upload and download speeds.

Otherwise, just be aware that the speed advertised refers to the higher download speed, and check to make sure the upload speeds offered by particular ISPs are sufficient.

Sustained vs. burstable speed

“Burstable bandwidth,” “burstable speeds,” and other “burstable” metrics are some of the most confusing terms thrown around in the broadband Internet market.

“Burstable” bandwidth essentially refers to the maximum speed your plan can deliver, with the caveat that you only get that speed for limited “bursts” of time. Delivering the highest possible speed to everyone at once isn’t practical for ISPs because it would overload their infrastructure. Delivering maximum speeds in “bursts” helps deliver overall faster speeds to users on an as-needed basis, lowering to the “sustained” speed after certain bandwidth thresholds are reached.

Like auto traffic, Internet speed is highly variable.

Like auto traffic, Internet speed is highly variable.

Critics will be quick to point out that “burstable” speeds are often used in ISP marketing material to inflate the advertised speed. For example, burstable speeds allow an ISP to advertise a plan with “speeds up to” a certain threshold, while the sustained speed you experience through the day is lower.

Some ISPs also sell specifically “burstable” Internet connections (particularly for business use) with the idea that it can be beneficial to users who use a predictable amount of bandwidth but are willing to pay “by the minute” overage fees to access higher bandwidth on an occasional basis.

To make sure the speed you’re getting quoted is a dependable sustained connection rather than a best-case-scenario burstable one, be sure to check the speeds your ISP promises against the speeds listed on BroadbandNow and other consumer advocacy data sources. At BroadbandNow, we only collect sustained connection statistics to avoid misleading broadband customers.

Ping vs. throughput

The quality of your Internet connection is governed by more than just the bandwidth or speed that you purchase from an ISP. What consumers experience as Internet “speed” is actually a combination of two primary measurements: throughput and ping.

Throughput refers to the amount of data that your Internet connection moves up or down in a given time frame. Ping is a measurement of the lag or “latency” between sending and receiving data requests, measured in the milliseconds it takes for a request to leave your computer, reach a website server, and return with the data you requested.

For email and web browsing, ping is usually much less important than throughput. However, it’s very important for any connection where real-time matters. For instance: video chat, streaming, and gaming.

Unfortunately, predicting ping is trickier than predicting throughput in reality. The same Internet plan could produce very different ping measurements depending on your neighborhood, network size, time of day, and a dozen other factors. Your best bet as a customer is to run a speed test on your neighbor’s network if possible, and try to pick a plan with a 30-day money back guarantee in case you need to switch.

Data caps

Broadband data caps: how low is your ceiling?

Broadband data caps: how low is your ceiling?

The shift from informal “unlimited” broadband plans to finite, “capped” data plans is one of the most hotly-debated issues in the broadband marketplace. For broadband consumers, the most important questions to ask are:

  • What is the cap on my plan?
  • What are the consequences for going over?

The data limit on your plan may not be clear from your ISP’s marketing materials. Be sure to check the fine print when you sign up, and double-check with verbal confirmation from your rep. We’ve also collected a comprehensive list of current broadband data caps, sorted by ISP.

Broadband data caps currently come in two flavors: “hard” caps, where going over your allowance results in high fees or service cutoff, and “soft” caps, where going over results in overage fees based on how much data you use (generally measured and billed in 1 GB or 50 GB increments).

While soft caps are an improvement on outright service cutoff, even a low “a la carte” fee like XFINITY’s $0.2/GB[3] can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars for consumers unaware of the limit.

Buying vs. renting a modem & router

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With Internet plans come hardware — and with hardware comes headaches.

On first glance, renting your modem and router from the ISP can look like an attractive option. (Especially on sign-up day while you sip a cold one and watch the ISP technician install and configure the connection for you free of charge.)

…It looks less attractive, however, when you add up the hundreds of dollars that $5–10/month in modem rental fees costs you over time.

Considering that buying your own mid-range modem and router combo upfront pays for itself within a year, most consumers are actually better off using their own equipment.

The only time it doesn’t make sense to buy your own is if you move frequently (not all modems are compatible with all ISPs), or don’t have the time or technical proficiency to install the hardware yourself. That said, ISP technicians will usually help you install a modem even if it’s your own, presuming they’re already there to establish the connection after you sign up.

ISP Contracts

Squint and read the fine print: that's where you'll find below-the-line fees.

Squint and read the fine print: that’s where you’ll find below-the-line fees.

Unless you’re a short-term resident or extremely frugal with your Internet use, your best deal for Internet service will involve a contract. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it theoretically protects your interests as well as the ISPs. The main things to be aware of with contracts are:

  • Promotional vs. regular rates
  • Contract length
  • Early termination fees (ETFs)

Promo vs regular price

Sign-up bonuses are common in the broadband industry, and they’re a great deal if you pick the right one. (See our Comcast deals page for examples) The trick is making sure there’s no “gotcha” when your monthly fee switches to the regular price. No one wants to lose all those savings to additional charges or early termination fees.

As a rule of thumb, always make sure you measure the final price — not the promotional price — against the competition, and don’t sign up for a promotional rate without a clear final figure and end date in writing.

Contract length

Whether you’re signing on for six months or six years, contract length is an important consideration, primarily in how it relates to fees for terminating if you need to move or switch providers.

Contract length also matters since monthly rates have a tendency to rise over time. Once you’ve signed on with an ISP, keep an eye on the monthly bill and don’t hesitate to call and request the removal of additional fees or price hikes. ISPs value your business (even if it’s hard to tell from the customer service experience), and they’ll usually bring the price down if you’re persistent.

Early termination fees

Early termination fees (ETFs) pose a serious problem if you unexpectedly need to move. Internet plans with contracts may offer better rates than contract-free plans, but ETFs can easily wind up costing you money in the long run if there’s a strong chance you’ll need to cut service midway.

Ask yourself: is there any chance that I’ll move in the next year or two? If the answer is “yes,” compare contract-free plans against contract plans with the ETF factored in before you make a decision.

As a rule of thumb, don’t sign a contract that’s longer than your lease, and always make sure the ETF is clearly defined in your contract. There should be no unclear language about what you’ll pay if you leave early.

Finally, if you’re considering early termination because of failure to resolve connection issues with the ISP, check your consumer rights with the FCC before you take action. Since broadband Internet is classified as a utility, taking the time to document the issue and send a detailed complaint could save you the ETF and get some of your lost monthly fees back — just be absolutely sure your complaint is legitimate (temporary slow speeds or a rude phone rep are not grounds for federal action).

Customer service

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Based on the reviews online, you’d think ISP call centers are based in the third circle of the inferno. Are they really that bad? In my experience, not usually. Writing reviews online takes time and effort, meaning most of us don’t bother writing them unless it’s a form of revenge. (It’s called the “Yelp Effect.”)

That doesn’t mean you should ignore reviews online, but it does mean that you should take them with a grain of salt. (Did this customer have a bad experience, or do all customers have bad experiences with this particular ISP?)

If you’re looking to get an idea of customer service quality at an ISP, consumer satisfaction quotients like ours at BroadbandNow can be helpful — particularly for smaller local ISPs who might not have many detailed reviews online in the first place. Just look for the Customer Rating report on any BroadbandNow ISP page:

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Screenshot from the BroadbandNow Xfinity report.

Plan types

Finally, consider the various types of plans on offer from ISPs in your area. Most ISPs offer some combination of the following:

  • Broadband Internet
  • Broadcast TV
  • Home phone

It’s possible to order a single service or even mix-and-match your providers, but you’ll generally get a better deal if you “bundle” services from a single provider. The terminology you’ll see in ISP marketing is “double play” for two services and “triple play” for three.

Each variety of plan comes with their own considerations and fees, but one thing they all have in common is “below-the-line” fees, meaning costs on your final bill that aren’t advertised with the plan. Phone and TV service have a lot of these compared to Internet (broadcast TV surcharges, sports content fees, etc.), and it’s crucial that you understand what they are before confirming your plan.

If you see fees on your bill that weren’t in the fine print when you signed up, don’t hesitate to call the company and contest them. On a related note, it’s also sometimes possible to negotiate the removal of channels you don’t use in exchange for a lower monthly rate.

Single serve

Definition: broadband Internet service, without broadcast TV or phone connection.
Fees to be aware of: Internet-only plans can be more expensive than bundled plans in rare instances. You may have to argue your price down once the promotional sign-up price ends, so be sure to set a reminder in your phone or calander.
Pros and cons: Affordable if you only use Internet and don’t stream enough video to hit your data cap, expensive if you purchase phone and TV services separately.

Double play

Definition: Internet bundled with TV service (usually through a cable company).
Fees to be aware of: Be aware of the difference between the streamed content you watch via a sit-top box like the Roku vs. the broadcast TV you watch on traditional TV channels. Broadcast TV content is unlimited, while streamed content is not.
Pros and cons: Double play is a good deal for heavy TV consumers. If you only watch occasionally, Internet-based OTT content services like Netflix on a single serve plan might be cheaper.

Triple play

Definition: Internet, TV, and phone service as a bundled deal from a single telecom or cable ISP.
Fees to be aware of: Because the ISP offers much lower rates for triple-play customers, it’s important to keep an eye on below-the-line fees that can bring up overall cost over time.
Pros and cons: Triple play is a great deal if you watch TV and use your landline every day. However, it also means that you’re stuck with a single company in cases of service failure, making switching providers more difficult.

Hybrid plans

Definition: Hybrid plans offer a combination of services over the Internet including VOIP (Internet phone service) and IPTV (Internet TV service).
Fees to be aware of: On the whole, hybrid plans have fewer below-the-line fees. They give consumers what they want (cut the TV and landline cables) while retaining business for the ISPs.
Pros and cons: The main con of hybrid plans are that IPTV and VOIP are subject to some of the same problems as general Internet service (slowed speeds during peak times, etc.). Additionally, prioritizing connections for streamed TV direct from the ISP raises red flags for net neutrality by favoring ISP media services over third parties like Netflix.

The big picture for consumers

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2016 promises to be a tumultuous year for the Internet industry as the major ISPs battle for your business in all three sectors: Internet, phone, and TV connection.

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While industry changes like data caps and streamed TV can be confusing for consumers, the move towards a more competitive ISP marketplace is overall a good thing.

Stay informed about your options as a consumer, and you stand to get significantly more bang for your buck in the years to come.

One Comment, Add Yours Below.

My son has been complaining that our internet is too slow, and we have decided to try and find another provider. I had no idea that with most broadband connections, you can download data faster than you can upload. It always seemed like they went at the same speed. I will have to remember that.

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