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How to Determine Which Internet Plan Is Right for You

Getting a broadband connection to your house can be a frustrating process.

Choosing an Internet plan used to be a simple question of comparing prices and speeds.

But these days, the quickly-changing tech marketplace has introduced a number of other factors consumers need to be aware of before they sign on the dotted line.

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For starters, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) recently began implementing data caps (limits to the amount of data you can use in a month), which can have a big effect on your monthly bill if you go over.

At the same time, the growing popularity of high-definition video streaming via services like Netflix is poised to eat up data like never before — meaning that your bandwidth needs could skyrocket well beyond what you originally budgeted.

With Internet plans, the differences are in the details.

Comparing apples and oranges: with Internet plans, the differences are in the details. Image source: Shifting Pixel

In this post we’ll walk you through all the factors you should be informed about when you’re shopping for a broadband plan that fits your home Internet needs.

Understanding types of Internet service

Most of the time when you think of home Internet service, you think of broadband. Broadband refers to wired Internet connections via DSL, cable, or fiber networks.

Unlike the older dial-up Internet you might remember from the 90s, true broadband offers an “always on” connection, meaning that you can connect to the Internet without disrupting your other wired devices like cable TV and landline phones.

Broadband is almost always the best choice for home Internet connections because it offers fast speeds at a generally affordable price point. The majority of home Internet connections come over cable and DSL. Chances are, so will yours.

Broadband does come with some caveats, the biggest being that it’s not universally available; 53 percent of rural areas in the US don’t have access to anything faster than 25Mbps up/3Mbps down [1], and if you only have one Internet Service Provider (ISP) in your area you might be stuck with unaffordable rates for a sub-par connection.

That being said, with the average consumer’s bandwidth needs hovering around 29GB per month as of 2014 [2], slower solutions like dial-up or wireless can present a logistical nightmare.

Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons for each type of Internet service available:

Broadband

1. DSL

Broadband Internet delivered via your phone line.

  • Pros: Sufficient for common uses like Skype, video streaming, and web browsing.
  • Cons: Often slower than other broadband technologies, service quality deteriorates for homes farther from the ISP.

2. Cable

Broadband Internet delivered via coaxial television cables.

  • Pros: More bandwidth than DSL, often comes bundled with TV plans.
  • Cons: Pricier, connection often shared with neighbors resulting in slower speeds during “peak” use times (7pm-9pm).

3. Fiber

Broadband Internet delivered via specialized fiber-optic wires.

  • Pros: Extremely fast (up to 1Gbps up/down), specialized for stable Internet connections.
  • Cons: Not widely available, high price.

Broadband alternatives:

1. Dial-up Internet

Internet connection via landline cable, on the same frequency as voice calls.

  • Pros: Cheap, available anywhere with landline phones.
  • Cons: Extremely slow (around 50kbps average), cuts off landline when in use.

2. Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs)

Internet connection delivered via tower-mounted antennas, similar to the 3G wireless connection on your smartphone.

  • Pros: Affordable for low-bandwidth use like web browsing, comparable speed with DSL (1-15Mbps depending on plan/provider), less installation hassle.
  • Cons: Slower speeds than true broadband on average, insufficient data for daily video streaming.

Finding ISPs in your area

The first step to selecting a broadband plan is to shop around and determine exactly which ISPs provide service to your area.

Figuring out your options is straightforward: just type your zip code into the plan comparison tool at BroadbandNow. That should bring you to a results page displaying prices, speeds, and consumer reviews for all the ISPs in your area.

Here are the results for Nashville, Tennessee as an example:

BroadbandNow ISP comparison results for Nashville, Tennessee.

If you watch cable television on a daily basis it’s worth considering bundling your services. For example, ISPs will often offer you a cheaper deal if you get telephone, cable, and broadband Internet all in the same plan.

The trick here is to keep an eye on your monthly bill to make sure it doesn’t start rising a few months down the road. If it does, call your ISP and request your original rate. Usually, if they think you will cancel your service, they will bring the price back down to your original agreement. Sign-up deals are also commonly used to entice new users; just be sure you have the final price in writing, and consider that final price when deciding if a particular plan is worth it. After all, breaking a contract can cost hundreds of dollars.

Understanding broadband data caps

The broadband market is quickly changing as ISPs switch from the old unlimited data system to plans with limited “data caps” similar to those on your phone.

Traditionally, consumers who used more data than they paid for were simply slowed down to make sure other everyone got their fair share of bandwidth.

Data caps are an update to that informal “throttling” system, setting concrete limits and charging fees to customers who exceed their caps.

Broadband data caps: get ready to prune your unlimited download habits

Broadband data caps: get ready to prune your unlimited Netflix habit. Image source: Wikipedia

Whether data caps are a reaction to consumers cutting the cord from cable television or simply a new way to maintain and scale infrastructure, the effect on you and your broadband plan is the same: go over you monthly allowance and you could wind up with huge overage charges — or worse, cut off from service entirely.

We have a full list of ISPs with data caps on our blog, including specific limits and overage fee details. Ensure that the exact limits for your plan and the repercussions for going over are clear when you sign up.

How to measure your bandwidth needs

In light of broadband data caps, monitoring your data usage and understanding how much your household actually uses is vitally important.

Unfortunately, getting usage readings isn’t exactly straightforward. A few ISPs will offer usage statistics on request, but usually the only way to get accurate measurements is to install specialized software on your router, called “firmware.”

The prevalent firmware options for equipping your router to measure data use are DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato. They’re all available for free with instructions at their respective sites. It might take an hour of your time, but the effort is worth it to gain control of your network and see how much data you’re actually using.

How your bandwidth needs might change

Predicting your bandwidth needs can be tricky, since Internet usage has a tendency to creep up year after year.

YouTube alone claims that users consume 50% more video content every year. [3] Add that on top of the slow background data drain from all your smartphones and tablets and that 300GB data cap doesn’t look so distant.

Here are some of the growth factors to plan for when you decide where to set your data limit:

1. Zombie devices

In 2000 you had a computer. In 2005 you had a computer and a laptop. In 2015 you had a laptop, a smartphone, a desktop computer, a smartwatch, a smart security system, a Roku…

How many devices are on your network?

How many devices are on your network? Image source: Dailymotion

…You can see where this is going.

Background data isn’t something most of us think about. Regardless, the cost of all those app updates and email check-ins can seriously add up when you have a dozen or more devices on a single network.

Unless you plan to start cutting down your devices (not to mention your roommate’s) go ahead and budget for a few more data-consuming gadgets to join the family over the next couple years.

2. Video communication

The likes of Skype and Google Hangout used to be strictly for talking to family and the occasional job interview, but these days video check-ins have become commonplace.

Streaming video data isn’t limited to Netflix, and video chatting can easily eat up around 350KB per minute. Therefore, if you plan to use video chat regularly for work or family communications, estimate how many minutes you need, multiply that figure by 350KB, and make sure it’s feasible within your data limit.

3. The elephant in the room: 4K TV

As of 2014, the average video streamer consumed around 212GB of data a month. [2]

While 212GB per month is by no means modest, most broadband ISPs offer plans that make it doable. Most of us only watch a couple hours of Netflix a day at most. Streaming the average 1080p video resolution on Netflix only uses a conservative 4.7GB per hour.

4K streams: the future is now

4K streams: the future is now. Image source: ShopOnLess

4K streaming throws a wrench into that. As you might expect based on the name, you can expect 4k data to use up about 4 times the bandwidth while delivering four times the video clarity. Improved hardware is expected to bring that number down, but you’re still looking at using at least twice as much data for the same amount of video.

There isn’t much 4K content currently available to make 4K streaming a big issue, but the assumption is that within a year or two 4K video will be like HD video is today; a revolutionary improvement that quickly became “standard.”

While consumers are hopeful that ISPs will change their caps to reflect 4K as a norm, ISP reactions to video streaming services like Netflix haven’t historically been friendly. Both ISPs and video streaming companies have been in court for years fighting over how exactly video will get to your TV, and who will pay for it.

For the time being, it’s important to allow substantial wiggle room in your Internet plan if you want to experiment with 4K TV. For the rest of us, just make sure you select a middle-of-the-road resolution setting, even if it makes the latest episode of Game of Thrones a little fuzzy.

The big picture: know your network

Image source: OpenInternet

The factors in play when it comes to picking a broadband plan get a little more complicated every year. It’s no fun being locked into a plan that’s too big or small for your Internet needs, so having a big-picture understanding of your household’s data needs is more important in 2016 than ever before.

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We can’t predict the future of video streaming technology or web-based communications, but predicting our own needs as Internet consumers doesn’t have to be a mystery.

Picking the right plan is simply a question of understanding our own data footprints — and how that footprint might change as new devices and technologies enter our home networks.

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