Shopping for internet service is right up there with doing your taxes, sitting in traffic or getting a root canal.
Sorting through hidden fees, price increases and data caps can make you wish you were doing anything else. It can almost seem as if the internet service providers, or ISPs, don’t want it to be an easy experience.
But it pays to spend some time digging into the details. Once you sign up, it’s a pain to switch providers. You might have to return equipment, pay early termination fees or go without internet for a few days while you get your new service set up. All of that is to say, this is a decision that’s worth getting right the first time around.
I’ve covered the broadband industry for five years and written hundreds of pages on the best internet options in specific cities. (Idaho Falls, I’m extremely jealous of your internet.) I’ve spent more hours on internet providers’ websites than I care to think about, and over the years, I’ve learned what’s essential to look for and what tricks companies use to obscure that information. Here’s everything you need to know about shopping for internet.
Find all the providers in your area
You should always cast a wide net when you’re fishing for internet providers in your neighborhood, and the best place to start is the the Federal Communications Commission’s website. Federal regulations require that ISPs disclose basic information like the addresses they cover and speeds they offer. The FCC then displays this information in its Broadband Map.
When you enter your address, you’ll see a map of your neighborhood, with all the internet providers available at your location listed on the right-hand side of the screen, along with their connection type and the maximum download and upload speed they offer.
Connection type is king
The type of internet connection each provider offers will tell you almost everything you need to know to make your decision. With a few exceptions, fiber is better than cable, which is better than fixed wireless. (You can cross DSL and satellite off your list now, unless you have no other options.)
Here’s a quick overview of each type of internet connection:
Fiber is the gold standard for internet. It refers to the fiber-optic cables that send internet to your home, which are made out of long, thin strands of glass or plastic. Data travels through them as light signals, and the result is the fastest and most reliable internet you can get.
Because it’s so desirable, ISPs like to claim their network is fiber as often as possible. Some providers have “fiber-to-the-node” connections, which rely on slower coaxial cables for the “last mile” to the home; others are true “fiber-to-the-home” connections. According to FCC data, 38% of the US has access to fiber-to-the-home internet.
The key advantage of fiber internet is its upload speeds. Fiber is the only internet connection that offers symmetrical upload and download speeds — a major plus if you’re into online gaming or work from home. If you aren’t sure whether the ISP you’re looking at offers fiber-to-the-node or fiber-to-the-home, look at the upload speeds. True fiber internet will have upload speeds that are just as fast as download.
Cable internet has been the default choice for internet since the dial-up days, and roughly 2 in 3 home internet connections in the US are still handled by cable providers. It’s also the most widely available connection type. According to FCC data, 83% of the country has access to at least one cable provider.
The “cable” in cable internet refers to the coaxial cables with copper cores that are used to transmit radio frequency signals. These can’t handle as much data as fiber-optic cables, which translates to slower speeds. This is almost entirely on the upstream side of the equation, though. (More on that below.) Upload speeds from cable ISPs typically top out at around 30Mbps, compared with more than 1,000Mbps from fiber providers.
Fixed wireless/5G home internet
Until a few years ago, fixed wireless internet was on par with DSL and satellite — a slower connection that primarily served rural areas with few other options. But with the rollout of faster 5G networks, cellphone providers have started to utilize this infrastructure for home internet, too. Instead of your phone picking up that internet connection, the cellular towers transmit data to a gateway device inside your home, which connects all your devices to the internet.
Fixed wireless speeds are slower than cable and fiber on average. T-Mobile says its download speeds average up to 245Mbps, while Verizon’s get as high as 1,000Mbps in some areas. Because the connection is wireless, fixed wireless is more vulnerable to network congestion and disruption than cable or fiber. Still, most people have been happy with 5G home internet: T-Mobile received the highest score of any nonfiber provider in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index survey.
DSL (short for “digital subscriber line”) is a wired connection that’s typically used in rural areas without access to cable or fiber internet. The connection goes through copper phone lines, and speeds are usually very slow. Only about half of the DSL connections in the country meet the FCC’s definition of broadband: 25Mbps of download speed and 3Mbps of upload speed. It’s enough to check your email or browse the internet, but things like streaming and videoconferencing might be tough.
Simply put, this connection type is the bottom of the barrel. Satellite internet is usually the slowest and most expensive option in any given area, and it often comes with bitter pills like stingy data caps, long-term contracts and expensive equipment. The one thing it has going for it is availability. You can use satellite internet at any home with a clear view of the southern sky — 99.9% of households, according to the FCC.
Most fiber providers also offer DSL
With the exception of Google Fiber, most fiber internet providers also offer DSL service. AT&T’s DSL service, for example, covers 24% of the country, compared with just 10% for fiber. ISPs don’t like to brag about their DSL service, so it might not be immediately obvious whether you’re looking at DSL or fiber plans.
The telltale sign will always be speed. You’ll see only one plan available when it’s DSL, and the speed will typically be well under 150Mbps. Fiber, on the other hand, will show multiple plans, with much faster upload and download speeds.
Enter your address on ISP sites
Once you’ve pulled up the FCC list of internet providers at your address, it’s time to start comparing the plans each provider offers. Because the available plans can change from street to street, you’ll need to enter your address on each ISP’s website individually to see what prices and speeds you can get. Unfortunately, internet providers don’t always make it easy to find basic information about their plans. Here’s what you should look for.
Upload vs. download speed
When you see internet providers talking about their speed, they’re almost always referring to download speed. And that’s for good reason — most people download far more than they upload. Things like streaming TV, scrolling Instagram and installing an app all use download speed, while online gaming, videoconferencing and live streaming require you to send data in the other, upstream direction.
As recently as 2019, downstream traffic was 14 times higher than upstream traffic. That’s why you usually see such lopsided internet plans. According to Ookla speed test data, the average household in the US gets 214Mbps of download speed but just 24Mbps of upload speed. That means it would take you about 15 seconds to download a movie in HD, but two minutes to upload it.
If there are going to be multiple people in the house taking video meetings or gaming at the same time, you’ll need higher upload speeds. Fiber is the only connection type that gives you “symmetrical” upload and download speeds.
Anyone who’s paid an internet bill for long enough has probably had to deal with price increases at some point. How painful they are depends on the company. Fiber providers tend to be the most straightforward: AT&T, Frontier and Verizon Fios don’t automatically increase their prices after a “promotional period” ends. T-Mobile Home Internet even gives you a price-lock guarantee.
The ones you need to look out for are the cable providers. ISPs like Xfinity, Cox and Spectrum all increase prices significantly after a year or two, and they don’t exactly make it easy to find out by how much — or when — your bill will increase.
Spectrum, for example, shows that its 300Mbps plan costs $49.99 per month for 12 months, but there’s no indication what the price will be after that. You have to go to Spectrum’s rate card page to see that the standard price is $85. It’s not always that complicated — you can often find what you’re looking for by clicking a “view details” link — but if you’re unsure about it at all, it’s a good idea to call or chat with a customer service representative to ask about price increases directly.
Unlimited data is a given for most internet providers these days, but some still impose data caps on their plans. This isn’t always a deal-breaker, though. Cox and Xfinity both have 1.2TB data caps on some plans. The average US household uses 534GB of data each month — less than half the amount allowed by Cox and Xfinity. With 1.2TB, you’d be able to stream Netflix in HD for 13 hours a day and still have some data left over. DSL and satellite providers usually have much stingier data caps than cable or fiber.
Like data caps, contracts are largely a thing of the past in the broadband world, but some companies still have them. The most stringent are the satellite providers — HughesNet and Viasat both require two-year contracts on all plans — but cable companies like Xfinity sometimes require you to sign on to a contract to get the lowest price.
If you do get stuck in a contract you want to get out of, some ISPs offer contract buyouts as an enticement when you switch to them. Spectrum, Optimum, T-Mobile Home Internet and Verizon Fios give you a bill credit or a check to help cover early termination fees, usually up to $500.
Many internet providers charge a fee of around $10 to rent their modem and/or Wi-Fi router, but you can almost always use your own equipment and skip the equipment fee. Some providers, like AT&T Fiber and T-Mobile Home Internet, include equipment at no extra charge.
Internet providers are a notoriously unpopular bunch, but some are more unpopular than others. If you want to get a sense of what it’s like to have service with an ISP, the American Customer Satisfaction Index and J.D. Power both conduct annual surveys on customer satisfaction with ISPs. Consumer Reports also gives out detailed scores based on reader surveys, but you’ll need a subscription to access them. And it never hurts to do a web search on “internet [your city] reddit” or ask your neighbors and friends for some on-the-ground recon on ISPs in your area.
How to think about internet speeds
We all want fast internet, but what does that really mean? Internet speed is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps, which tells you the rate at which information is downloaded or uploaded to or from the internet.
A higher number means faster speed, but most activities don’t actually require high speeds. You need only 15Mbps to stream Netflix in 4K, 3Mbps to take a Zoom meeting and less than 1Mbps to listen to Spotify. So for most activities, 1,000Mbps won’t feel any faster than 100Mbps.
But your internet speed is like a pie: each of those activities will take a slice out of your available bandwidth. Higher speeds are more about the amount of devices you can use at once than how quickly you can load a web page.
There are some situations where “fast” and “slow” apply. It would take you about three seconds to download a two-hour movie with a 1,000Mbps connection; with 100Mbps, that would increase to around 30 seconds.
Wi-Fi is always slower
When you see internet speeds advertised by providers, that number always refers to the speeds you’d get through a wired connection, or Ethernet cable. While newer Wi-Fi 6 routers have helped narrow the gap, accessing the internet through Wi-Fi is still significantly slower than plugging directly in to your modem.
How much slower depends on your router model, its placement in your home and obstacles like walls and shelves, but a good rule of thumb is to expect about half the speed through Wi-Fi that you’re advertised with your internet plan.
The bottom line
Shopping for internet is confusing — intentionally confusing in some ways. That’s one of the reasons the FCC is requiring providers to display clear information on their plans in the vein of nutrition labels on food products. Until that happens, you’ll have to do some of the legwork yourself. Though there’s a lot of information to consider, most people will be able to find an internet plan they’re happy with. For more help with choosing an internet provider, check out CNET’s list of the best internet providers nationwide.