There are 5 basic steps to choosing an Internet, TV, and/or phone provider:
How to choose an Internet provider
- Figure out what providers are available
- Determine your needs
- Compare their offerings
- Check the fine print
- Sign up for installation
Let’s walk through these one by one:
How to figure out which providers are available to you
Most US households have two viable high-speed internet options. In most cases, you will have one cable provider and one DSL provider. If you’re lucky, you might have a fiber provider as well.
Other options like satellite and fixed wireless can work if you are in a rural area or for some reason do not have wired access, but we only recommend those options if you have no other choice since they tend to have higher price tags and lower data allowances.
Enter your ZIP code here to get a quick read out of options in your area.
Check Internet options in your zip code
How to determine what Internet speed you need
Estimating internet speed can be kind of tricky, particularly in a household with multiple family members or roommates. While you will commonly see it recommended to get a minimum of 3 Mbps (megabit per second) or so for basic access, this number is iffy if you’re sharing that connection with multiple people or devices.
Factor in the likelihood that every person using your connection has multiple devices including a laptop, iPad, cell phone, and etc., and you can see how this quickly adds up to a lot of bandwidth needs.
Here are some broad guidelines we use when recommending speed requirements for the average internet user or household:
|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|
Additionally, popular streaming services like Netflix maintain their own recommendations so far as what minimal conductivity you’ll need to use their services. Here are Netflix’s minimum streaming recommendations:
|Minimal reccomendation||0.5 Mbps|
|Recommended speed||1.5 Mbps|
|SD minimum||3 Mbps|
|HD minimum||5 Mbps|
|Ultra HD minimum||25 Mbps|
Should you bundle TV and phone service?
Internet providers will frequently offer to bundle Services into “Double Play” or “Triple Play” plans. These plans commonly include Internet and TV in a single bill in exchange for cost savings.
Bundle plans like this are a good deal for customers who will actually use the services… but aren’t worth the money if you only use your landline phone once in awhile or could get all of the shows you like to watch from a cheaper streaming service like Netflix rather than a traditional cable package.
If you want to dig into more details about bundle deals, we’ve written a detailed post about how to compare triple-play deals here.
Fiber vs Cable vs DSL: what’s the difference?
Okay, the third most important thing to understand about internet is that you have three basic options:
Fiber is generally considered to be the top-shelf option for internet access, and offers the fastest speeds and most consistent reliability. It delivers data over fiber-optic cables, which are the most advanced cables on the market. That said, it usually comes at a slightly higher price than other options.
Cable is the mid-level option for internet, and delivers data over coaxial cable lines from TV providers. The speeds are generally around a third of what fiber offers. that said, it’s generally more than enough speed and bandwidth for a family home and regular uses like streaming Netflix, talking on Skype, and even gaming on Twitch.
DSL is generally seen as the budget option, and delivers data using traditional telephone lines. Speeds aren’t as fast as cable or Fiber, but it comes at a much cheaper price in most cases and also offers more consistency so far as the speed you get.
How to Compare Internet plan offers
Once you’ve decided what speeds you need and what technology appeals to you, you’re basically just looking at the contract information to decide which makes most sense for your situation. Contract length and add-on features are the most important thing to consider at this point.
Long term vs short term contracts
Particularly with bundle deals, providers will often try to get you to sign up for a 1–2 year contract.
While these plans are generally cheaper than month-to-month deals, they can be a trap for short-term residents who will wind up paying an early termination fee if they break the contract early. They also make life difficult if you decide you don’t like the service and want to switch to another Internet or TV provider in your area.
Rule of thumb here: get a month-to-month plan if you’re a short-term resident.
If you’re a long-term resident, go ahead and sign on multi-year contract. long-term residents should also buy their own modem and or router to save the $5–10 monthly bill. We’ve written extensively about how to select a modem and router.
Add-ons that matter
A lot of cable and DSL providers will offer add-on features like antivirus software, hosted email addresses, cloud storage setups, And even home security.
In our opinion, smaller add ons like antivirus and email addresses generally aren’t a great value-add and shouldn’t factor into your decision. Antivirus software is a good idea in general, but it’s worth getting from a separate provider and doing your research about it rather than grabbing a bundled “off the shelf” option.
Services that tie you to a particular provider such as an email address also aren’t a great idea, especially since Gmail, Yahoo, and other popular email providers are free. If you’re worried about privacy, you can go ahead and use a third-party paid service like FastMail.
Home security has recently become a common offer, alongside integration with smart home setups. These aren’t necessarily a bad deal, but you should do extensive research into the specifics of anything a provider tries to offer you since home security is something you depend on for your physical safety — not just a “nice to have” feature.
Be sure to establish what the satisfaction guarantee on your plan is, as most cable, DSL, and fiber providers will offer a 30 day guarantee on your plan. If you are unsatisfied with them before that first month is up, it should be free to have service removed and all installation fees reimbursed. This varies from provider to provider however, with some offering more time to decide and others offering less or none.
Check the fine print
Last but not least, even if you’re signing up over the phone be sure to check the fine print of the contract emailed to you or provided via their web account creation portal.
Common issue: promotional pricing
One of the most common issues we see with broadband customers is people signing up for plans without realizing that the price is a “promotional price” that will change after the first 6–12 months.
This caveat is often included as a footnote under the “Sign Up” button, or something you can ask a phone rep if signing up over the phone. Promotional prices aren’t necessarily a bad thing, you just have to be aware of it when you sign up.
When you’re comparing prices, look at the average between the promotional price and final price. For example, if you pay $50 for the first year and $150 for the second, you’re paying a $100 per month average over two years. Not a bad deal for Internet, TV, and phone service, but not quite as appealing as $50 for life.
Common issue: Early Termination Fees
Early termination fees (ETFs) are a common problem customers have if they sign up for a 1–2 year contract and then decide they want to switch to another provider or have to move unexpectedly.
The easiest way to avoid ETFs is to simply not sign a long contract, if you have the option. If you do, you’ll have to factor that fee in when you price shop for alternatives down the road. While there have been cases of providers offering to pay your ETF to win your business, this isn’t the norm by any stretch of the imagination.
Sign up for installation
Finally, the last step of getting broadband service is signing up for installation. You have two options here: self installation or technician assistance.
Self-install vs technician install
Cable and DSL installation is pretty simple and can usually be done yourself with a self-install kit ordered from the provider. If you’re using your own modem and router, you might even be able to do it yourself over the phone same-day.
Customer who are less technically-inclined can have a technician come out and set up everything for a small fee. In some case, providers will offer to do this for free.
Much like when you get gas hookup from the city, a broadband provider will generally give you a half-day window during which you can expect them to come knocking. If you opt for technician installation, be sure to schedule at least half a day if not a full day to be available to answer the door.
Fiber installation is similar to cable and DSL, but since fiber wiring is newer in most neighborhoods you will likely be required to have a technician physically come to your house and do the installation and network setup. There’s usually a small fee associated with this, so be sure to ask about that fee so you aren’t surprised when it shows upon your first bill.
Double-check the first bill
Once your services have been activated, be sure to double-check the first bill and make sure the line items reflect exactly what you signed up for. Especially if you’re using your own equipment, there have been cases of billing being confused and including features not requested or provided. However, this isn’t a big deal so long as you notice it right away and let the provider know to fix the error.
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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.
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.