When it comes to choosing a new broadband provider, it can be all too easy to feel overwhelmed. With so many different options available today, it can often feel like a losing battle trying to cut through the noise and find what you truly need.
It’s out of this same frustration that we’ve created this broadband shopping guide. I hope that by following the steps outlined below, you’ll be in a better position to evaluate and choose between the various options available in your area.
Step one: Understand your basic options
The first step to finding a broadband provider is determining what sort of technologies you need, as well as which ones are available in your area. In general, there are four different types of connections used in the US today: cable, fiber, DSL, and wireless. Choosing between these largely comes down to what you’d like to do with your connection, but for many Americans, it isn’t a choice at all.
That’s because high speed connections like fiber are only available to about 25 percent of the population at the moment, though this number is slowly beginning to grow. Below, we’ll break down each of these connection types, taking a look at their strengths, as well as their limitations.
CableOne of the most widely-used connections today, cable replaced dial-up in the early 2000’s because the coaxial cables it relies on were already installed in many of the homes and businesses across the country for legacy TV services.
Cable broadband is available in a variety of configurations and speeds, and is available in much of the US. You can typically expect speeds between 10 and 200 Mbps (megabits per second). The average cost is anywhere from $10 to $100 and up per month.
FiberFiber currently represents the gold standard of Internet connectivity. It supports the fastest speeds, and has enough room to grow that it should remain the connection type to beat for the foreseeable future. In short, if you have the ability to purchase fiber, we definitely recommend this technology.
Fiber usually offers speeds between 100–1,000 Mbps (1 Gigabit per second). That being said, the hypothetical limit for this type of connection is extremely high — higher, in fact, than most providers can currently offer. Service fees usually range anywhere from $85 per month on up, depending on speed and location.
DSLDigital subscriber line, or DSL technology, involves using standard telephone lines to deliver data to your home or business. This sort of method has been around for many years, and is available in about 90 percent of US households.
DSL typically offers speeds ranging from 1.5 Mbps to 10 Mbps, though newer technology may see the rise of these numbers in the coming months. You can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $120 or more for DSL, depending on where you are located.
WirelessRounding out our list is wireless Internet. In actuality, “wireless” is a blanket term that covers many different connection types, including those listed above. However, for our purposes today, we’ll be talking about wireless broadband.
This sort of service tops out around 1.5 Mbps in most areas of the country, and typical speeds usually sit slightly below DSL. This kind of service is typically found in the $40–$110 per month price range, and in the US usually includes strict caps on data usage.
Step two: Determine what your needs are
Now that we’ve been over the various connection types that you’ll be able to choose from, we next need to figure out what speed requirements you have before pairing you with an ideal broadband provider.
Determining what speeds you’ll need largely comes down to deciding what you’d like to do with your Internet connection. As an example, take a look at the chart below.
|Usage level||Applications||Download speed||Upload speed||Latency|
|Basic access||Email, Facebook, general browsing||1-5 Mbps||0.5-2 Mbps||200 ms+|
|Basic streaming||SD video streaming, basic gaming, basic video conferencing||5-10 Mbps||2-4 Mbps||150-200 ms|
|Heavy streaming||HD video streaming, gaming||10-30 Mbps||4-10 Mbps||100-150 ms|
|Premium connection||4k streaming, gaming, and video communication||30-80 Mbps||10-20 Mbps||80-100 ms|
|Platinum connection||Multiple intensive users, home office, professional gaming||80-1,000 Mbps||20-1,000 Mbps||0-60 ms|
As you can see, you can easily get by with the speeds offered by DSL and cable — fiber is more of a “nice to have” and makes like easier for streaming 4K content, video conferencing, and gaming on a competitive or professional basis. For most of us, something in the 10–30 Mbps range will be workable. (That said, if you have access to fiber, my two cents is: get it.)
What about upload speeds and latency? Again, for most users, these shouldn’t be a huge decision-making factor when it comes to finding the right provider. Upload speeds are mostly important to those who’d like to run a whole-home media server, and latency issues are largely confined to the world of gaming.
Step three: Find out what’s available in your hood
Check availability at your address
Using the tool above, you’ll be able to determine which options are available in your local area. Keep in mind, depending upon your location, pricing and speeds offered by certain companies can vary wildly.
If your preferred provider isn’t shown to be available in your area, you can always reach out to them via phone to confirm. Today’s top broadband providers are constantly expanding their coverage areas, and occasionally, online tools won’t reflect these changes right away. Regardless, it never hurts to confirm this before moving on to the steps below.
Step four: Compare pricing
This is one of the most crucial steps of the entire process, primarily because it will affect how much you end up paying month after month for your service. When shopping around, be sure to look for information on early termination (ETF) fees where applicable. This is especially relevant for providers that require a one or two-year commitment.
You’ll also want to be on the lookout for promotional pricing offers. In many cases, broadband providers will offer a discounted rate for the first six months of service in order to get you hooked in. In certain scenarios, you can even get these rates extended after the initial six-month period by calling in and simply asking for it.
Step five: Signing up over the phone vs online
In general, we recommend signing up over the phone, as this often means you’ll have the option of negotiating any installation or startup fees with another real human being. In some cases, reps will also be able to offer more budget-friendly deals that might not be listed on their website. Signing up online, you’re usually left with no choice but to submit to these sorts of fees.
On the other hand, signing up for service online is probably the most hands-off approach, allowing you to take care of the essentials while leaving the rest up to your provider.
Choosing a broadband provider can feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
By following the steps listed above, you should be able to determine what you really need from a broadband provider, as well as get a firm grasp on which ones are available in your area.
Remember that at the end of the day, you’re looking for the right service for your specific needs. Don’t let a particularly skilled salesman or woman talk you into something you won’t be able to make use of regularly. Arm yourself with the knowledge above, and go get connected.
References and Footnotes
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Jameson Zimmer is a technology and telecom expert hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia. His work with data-driven companies like BroadbandNow has helped bring attention to consumer issues like municipal broadband.
James Webb is a tech and gadgets expert with a focus on educational content development. He draws on his background in the startup world to make complicated technologies and topics easy to understand for normal folks.