Choosing internet service is confusing and taxing, especially with all the technical jargon and marketing terms out there.

Make no mistake, ISPs do benefit from being vague, and the more confused you are as a potential customer the easier — and more likely — you are to end up paying more for less.

This article aims to work through this confusion and help you understand the marketing terminology so you know exactly what your options are.

The Importance of Speed

A highway as a metaphor for bandwidth.
Bandwidth: the number of lanes in the “highway.” Speed: the speed of cars within those lanes.

One of the first things to consider when looking for internet service is how you’ll actually use it. If you mainly use it to browse or watch the occasional YouTube video, you’ll need less speed than someone who’s really into online gaming.

Whatever speed you end up with will determine how fast you can access information and what quality of video and audio you’ll have.

Measuring speed can be confusing and complicated. Just know that it’s typically measured by the megabits downloaded per second, or Mbps for short, and that 1000 Mbps is equal to 1Gbps.

Internet packages will most likely offer you something in the Mbps range, but if you’re looking for the fastest service out there you might be able to find 1 Gbps through fiber optics (see below).

It’s also useful to know the difference between “bandwidth” and “speed.” Bandwidth refers to the speed capability of the network, while speed refers to how fast information travels through the bandwidth.

A good way to tell them apart might be to think about bandwidth as a highway with several lanes. In this example, speed would be the speed limit or the flow of traffic. A one-lane highway will be more limited than a five-lane highway, especially if you’re sharing the road with someone who’s not able to go the speed limit. Of course, there will always be speed limits of some kind.

Because of this inconsistent fluctuation in speeds, ISPs will usually offer a range of speeds to accommodate the peak times when everyone is using their internet at the same time — usually in the evening. This would be like having a traffic jam on the bandwidth highway (and this is most likely to happen if you have cable internet, which I’ll explain in a bit).

Upload vs Download Speeds

A populated location.
Just like a metro will have more escalators moving down than up during rush hour, Internet providers allot more bandwidth for downstream traffic than upstream.

The only difference between upload speed and download speed is the direction of data: downloaded files are taken from the internet, while uploaded file are transmitted to the internet.

ISPs usually only emphasize the download speeds when advertising their service, since they believe most users retrieve data online instead of posting information to the internet.

However, if you’re into the idea of posting your own YouTube videos, using video chat, or getting into gaming, plan on needing higher upload speeds.

If so, know that internet packages tend to be asymmetrical, and you’ll probably be looking for a more high-end package with a lot more download speed than you need just to get the upload speed you want.

It’s worth mentioning that upload speeds are becoming more important the more we use things like file storage, data backup, cloud services, and the more we upload music and video files. All of these depend on uploading capabilities, and all are becoming more normal activities for the casual internet user. [1]

Speed vs Need

While they’re great to have, most of us don’t need the high-end speeds that ISPs try to sell us.

For instance, you can get by with only 3 Mbps if you’re using internet for basic things like checking email, browsing the internet, and simple streaming. If you’re watching Netflix[2], plan to use anywhere from 3 Mbps for Standard definition and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD streaming. [3]

Of course, this only works if you have one computer in the house directly connected to your modem.

If you have more people using more devices in your household –and if these are wireless– then you’ll need more bandwidth. In this case, plan on needing somewhere between 30–40 Mbps. Anything higher is better, of course, but this range will help prevent things like waiting for videos to buffer or pages to load.

For more intense needs (like HD streaming, downloading games, etc), that number goes up.

Usage levelApplicationsDownload speedUpload speedLatency
Basic accessEmail, Facebook, general browsing1-5 Mbps0.5-2 Mbps200 ms+
Basic streamingSD video streaming, basic gaming, basic video conferencing5-10 Mbps2-4 Mbps150-200 ms
Heavy streamingHD video streaming, gaming10-30 Mbps4-10 Mbps100-150 ms
Premium connection4k streaming, gaming, and video communication30-80 Mbps10-20 Mbps80-100 ms
Platinum connectionMultiple intensive users, home office, professional gaming80-1,000 Mbps20-1,000 Mbps0-60 ms

Types of Broadband Connections:

Broadband is an umbrella term describing several types of high speed internet connections, requiring a minimum of 25 Mbps download/ 3 Mbps upload.[4] The most common types of broadband internet are digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, Satellite, and Fiber.

DSL

DSL is on the lower end of broadband connections.

The good thing about DSL is that it’s usually the cheapest internet and can offer reasonable speeds anywhere from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps. It’s also a good alternative to the slower peak time speeds that come with cable internet.

The downside to DSL is that the actual speed ends up being less than advertised the further away you live from the facilities sending the service. [5]

Cable

Cable internet uses the coaxial cables from cable TV and is generally faster than DSL, offering speeds above 100Mbps.

I say “generally” because there isn’t a huge gap between the two, and even this depends on a few factors (like how many people use it and when, and how the home network is set up).

One major downside to cable is that its bandwidth is shared by everyone in your neighborhood and will slow down noticeably during peak hours (usually in the evening).

Satellite

Satellite connects to your home wirelessly using–you guessed it–satellites. Satellites services tend to be slower than cable and DSL, usually offering speeds below 20 Mbps (but this is improving all the time). [6]

Satellite has extended internet access into more rural and underdeveloped areas–which is good–however, it has a few issues.

The major drawback to satellite is its issues with ping and latency.

Ping refers to the act of sending a message or data from one device to another, while latency refers to the amount of time it takes to receive the transmission.

Satellite tends to have high latency, which means a slower connection.

The big issue here is that ISPs will only advertise bandwidth or speed–not latency–which lowers the advertised speed for the user.

Personally, I would avoid Satellite unless you have no other option.

Fiber Optics

Fiber Optic Service was specifically designed for internet and is the fastest with speeds anywhere from 500 Mbps to 1 Gbps.

While a fiber connection offers the best speeds available, there are lesser versions that might compromise this service.

Fiber to the Home (FTTH) is considered the service connection, bringing the fiber directly to the user’s home and offering the lowest latency and the highest speeds.

Most likely, customers receive a “hybrid fiber coaxial” connection already installed in the home using cable coaxial. The term “fiber” allows ISPs and cable providers to suggest the high quality of a fiber network without having to go through the headache of actually connecting the “Fiber to the Home.”

Instead, they provide “Fiber to the Node” (FTTN) which connects the fiber network somewhere nearby (and often miles away).

Don’t get me wrong, the hybrid fiber coaxial connection still has impressive download speeds ranging upwards of 200 Mbps, but its upload speeds suffer. [7]

It’s important here to know what you’re purchasing–especially if you’re counting on the 1Gbps download speed that FTTH offers.

Shopping Around

When shopping around, don’t jump at the first option. Keep your needs in mind, call around, and gather information. Make a list of and have a pen or pencil nearby when you finally do call.

Unfortunately, choices vary based on your location. If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are you’ll be able to find fast, reliable internet for whatever your needs. For those living in more rural areas, you might find yourselves depending on slower satellite service.

You can check what services are available to you here:

Things to Consider

Contracts and Fees

It should go without saying that you will sign a contract to receive service.

Like most service contracts, this will include various fees, all of which should be explained to you before you sign up. Some of these are unavoidable and official taxes, while others can be somewhat sneaky.

Expect to pay an installation fee, even if you have your own equipment and connect everything yourself. It’s rare, but sometimes you can get these waived if you ask.

It’s also useful to know that Internet-only services aren’t subject to the miscellaneous taxes and charges that phone and cable services are.

Common (and Misleading) Marketing Terms

Promotional Pricing

Promotional pricing is the discount a new customer gets for the first year before having it switch to a higher price the second year.

Promotional pricing is great as long as you know it ends. You can usually call before the promotional period is up, and try to negotiate a lower monthly bill for the second year.


Gigabit Service

Gigabit Service is a fairly new marketing term that sounds great, but providers usually only offer “up to” a gigabyte, and this usually averages between 750 Mbps and 940 Mbps. This is still fast, but not a gigabit and depends on the provider’s latency. [8]

That said, most of us don’t need this anyway.


Data Plans

Data plans are the same as a “data cap,” which limits the customer’s internet downloads.

Many times, providers offer “unlimited” data, but slow down the service if you pass a certain limit.

My advice is to avoid any provider pushing a data plan. If you can’t avoid it, then keep a vigilant eye on how much data you use. Those overage fees are no fun.

Be Aware of Unnecessary Add-ons

Add-ons are services added on that appear useful but are mostly unnecessary (if not completely useless).

A common add-on is email service through the provider, but there’s really no need to get this with all the free sources out there like Gmail or Outlook.

Not only this, but if the service provider were to go out of business (or if you switch providers) you’d lose access to your email and contacts.

Another common add-on is Anti-virus. The ISP’s anti-virus software might work fine, but I guarantee there are better ones out there.

Home Security is another unnecessary add-on, and, just like anti-virus, this should probably be more than an afterthought tacked on to your internet service.

Home Networking Add-ons

When thinking about your home network, it’s good to know that renting a modem and/or router can cost customers $5–10/month, or $60–120/year. This makes little sense in the long run when quality modems and routers cost around $100.

Buying a new modem or router will give you more control over the speed, too. The right router allows you to network using a “gigabit ethernet,” extending high speeds throughout your home.

You might even look into purchasing a Powerline Adapter as a cheap but effective alternative to enhancing the signal in your home.

Again, the point here is to know what you want and need, and not to get sucked into any unnecessary services.

Rating ISPs

It’s always a good idea to compare service providers before settling. A simple google search will bring up an endless stream of personal experiences and anonymous tips – some more valid than others.

When looking for trustworthy, quality ratings, you’ll want to check out the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). [9] The ACSI interviews hundreds of consumers on a quarterly basis to gauge their satisfaction from services such as speed reliability and bill comprehension.

Netflix also has a scoreboard for rating their own performance on ISP networks: https://ispspeedindex.netflix.com/country/us/

Another good place for personal reviews is dslreports.com, although these trend towards the negative since there’s little incentive for satisfied customers to bother.

Conclusion

Shopping for the right internet service is tedious, but it’s a choice you’ll have to live with for a long time.

Once you’ve selected a service and gotten it set up, here are some resources that take deeper dives on how to maximize your Internet connection:

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Experts

James Webb

James Webb

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

Jameson Zimmer

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.

Questions & Answers

1 ANSWERED QUESTIONS

I own and operate a business out of my home. Do I need business Internet? Why not just use normal residential Internet?

Practically speaking, the main problems with using residential Internet for business purposes are:

  • Poor SLA (Service Level Agreement)
  • Not designed for intensive use

The SLA matters because if you rely on Internet for your livelihood, being out of service a few hours or even days can wreck your business. Business Internet plans usually come with a service level agreement or even a redundant connection system so you’re guaranteed a certain minimum of downtime.

Legally speaking, residential Internet plans usually have clauses in the contract that it won’t be used for “business purposes.” In practice, many freelancers use residential Internet for work-at-home. But if you have a team or some complex setup/processes being run off your network, the ISP might notice the unusual behavior and call you out on it.

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