Choosing the best Internet Service Provider (ISP) for your needs is a big decision.
The right choice means faster downloads and streaming, better reliability, and cheaper subscription rates.
In this article we’ll explore:
- How to choose the right internet speed
- How to choose the right connection type
- Which of the major ISPs is right for you — considering connection speeds, availability, and customer satisfaction
Choosing the Right Internet Speed
Not everyone requires an extremely fast internet connection. Certain activities use very little bandwidth.
First, we’re going to explain how internet speed works. Then we’ll consider what speeds are required for certain activities.
Kbps, Mbps, Gbps
We measure internet speed in bits per second (bps).
Bits are individual units of data — bps measures how many bits travel through an internet connection in the space of a second.
Generally, we use large denominations of bits when expressing internet speed:
- Kilobits per second (Kbps — one thousand bits)
- Megabits per second (Mbps — one million bits)
- Gigabits per second (Gbps — one billion bits)
Internet speeds are getting faster all the time as ISPs upgrade their infrastructure.
Download Speed, Upload Speed, Ping
There are three factors to consider when measuring internet speed:
- Download speed — the bps at which a connection sends data to a device
- Upload speed — the bps at which a connection receives data from a device
- Ping — the time in milliseconds (ms) taken to send a message to a host and receive a response
Bandwidth means the maximum amount of data that a connection can transmit over a certain period.
When an ISP offers a connection with a particular bandwidth, this doesn’t represent the typical speed a user will experience on that connection.
All sorts of things can consume bandwidth, including:
- The number of people using the connection at a given time or in a particular area (known as the “contention ratio”)
- Your distance from the ISP’s network equipment.
- The quality of your router or Wi-Fi signal
All these factors can slow down an internet connection.
What Internet Speed Do You Need?
In some areas, there’s a choice of ISPs offering a range of connection speeds. There’s little point paying for a super-fast broadband connection unless you actually need one.
Ookla suggests that the following activities require the following internet speeds:
- Sending/receiving emails, social networking, streaming radio/podcasts — Less than 2 Mbps
- Making video calls via Skype, WhatsApp, or FaceTime — 2 Mbps
- Streaming video
- 720p HD — 4 Mbps
- 1080p HD — 6-10 Mbps
- 4k HD — 25 Mbps
Families, or households with multiple residents, generally require higher speeds.
If more than one person is using an internet connection, they’ll share the available bandwidth. Two people, both simultaneously streaming 4k video on the same connection, would require an available bandwidth of at least 50 Mbps.
Most people will be primarily concerned with getting fast download speeds. Streaming video — probably the most bandwidth-hungry activity you’re likely to engage in at home — requires fast download speeds.
However, if — for whatever reason — you regularly upload a lot of files to Dropbox or other cloud services, you may want to seek out an ISP that can provide fast upload speeds.
Online gaming generally requires fast download and upload speeds. Gamers also might wish to seek out an ISP that can provide low ping — high ping means lag, which is a huge disadvantage in competitive gaming.
Choosing the Right Connection Type
Internet providers offer a number of different types of connections.
First, let’s answer a very common question: What is broadband?
The term “broadband” doesn’t refer exclusively to one type of internet technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) describes broadband as:
“high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access.”
According to the FCC’s latest standards, a broadband connection should be of providing at least 25 Mbps download speed, and 4 Mbps upload speed.
Fiber-optic broadband (or fiber-optic service — FiOS) is currently the fastest internet connection available.
The fastest commercially-available fiber-optic connections provide maximum speeds of around 1-2 Gbps. This is extremely fast — it would allow multiple people in one household to simultaneously watch ultra-high quality video streams, without any issues.
Not all fiber-optic connections are this fast — speeds of around 300 Mbps are more typical. This is still more than fast enough for most people’s purposes.
While the raw materials needed to make fiber-optic cables are cheap (it’s made of glass!), it can be expensive to install. It’s also not available everywhere — many rural areas lack any high-speed internet connection, let alone a fiber-optic service.
A Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection uses telephone lines. This is a very common type of internet connection.
There are two main types of DSL line, and they both usually offer speeds of around 8-52 Mpbs:
- Asymmetric (ADSL) — Faster download speeds, slower upload speeds. ADSL is the more common type of DSL, downloading is far more common than uploading among home users.
- Symmetric (SDSL) — Equally fast download and upload speeds. SDSL is more suitable among people running a small business or a web server. Gamers may also see some benefit from an SDSL connection. SDSL is typically more expensive than ADSL.
A newer form of DSL connection called VDSL2 can even reach 100 Mbps.
Cable broadband is delivered via cable TV wires. Cable internet speeds can vary significantly — typically from 30-100 Mbps, but sometimes even up to 1 Gbps.
Cable broadband is cheap and relatively fast — but it’s badly affected by high contention ratios, which slow speeds when a lot of people are online. So your speeds may suffer if many people on your street enjoy watching NetFlix after dinner.
Cable providers, such as AT&T, usually bundle cable TV and internet plans.
Satellite internet is the only option for around 19 million people in the US, who live in rural areas and lack access to a fixed broadband connection.
Satellite internet typically delivers speeds of around 4-11 Mbps — this is enough for single-person households that don’t care about streaming high-quality video but will likely get frustrating for anything more than this.
However, satellite internet speeds are improving, with some providers offering speeds from 25 Mbps, even up to 100 Mbps.
Fixed wireless internet uses radio signals. Fixed wireless internet speeds are generally lower than most other types of internet, but certain providers can supply adequate speeds of over 30 Mbps.
Fixed wireless broadband is widely available, but connection quality is badly affected by obstructions — if there’s a hill or a large building between the user and the radio tower then the speeds can become very slow.
Choosing an ISP
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ISPs in the United States.
Verizon Fios is a super-fast fiber-optic network available in just nine states.
Verizon offers three internet packages, offering speeds of up to 100 Mbps, 300 Mbps, and 940 Mbps (“Verizon Fios Gigabit”) respectively.
Most people will find that even the cheapest of these packages are suitable for their needs. But if you want the best of the best, Verizon’s “Fios Gigabit” package will power a smart home — while still leaving plenty of bandwidth for online gaming and 4k video streaming.
Verizon Fios ranked number 1 for customer satisfaction in the American Customer Satisfaction Index report on ISPs in 2019.
AT&T is the most highly-subscribed broadband provider in the US, mostly due to bundling TV, phone, and internet services together.
AT&T users should be cautious about data limits, which aren’t all that generous on certain internet plans. For example, AT&T’s standard DSL broadband package restricts data to 150 GB per month, after which subscribers will incur a fee for additional usage.
Despite its popularity, AT&T is not the most widely-available internet provider, being offered in just 21 states.
AT&T Internet ranked number 2 for customer satisfaction in the American Customer Satisfaction Index report on ISPs in 2019.
Xfinity (the trading name of Comcast) offers all types of connections, including satellite in rural areas and high-speed internet service (up to 2 Gbps) in certain cities.
Xfinity offers several internet options, including some with data caps. The Terabyte Internet Data Usage Plan limits downloads to 1 TB (that’s a lot of data — approximately 10 hours of HD video streaming every day for a month). Xfinity also has an Unlimited Data Option for a higher fee.
Xfinity is one of the most widespread ISPs, being available in 39 states.
Xfinity ranked number 4 for customer satisfaction in the American Customer Satisfaction Index report on ISPs in 2019.
HughesNet provides satellite internet, bringing connections to rural areas across all 50 states (including Alaska and Hawaii). In certain places, HughesNet might be the only option.
With speeds of up to 25 Mbps on all plans, HughesNet “Gen5” is a big improvement on the slow satellite connections rural consumers are used to. However, it’s not likely to be fast enough for more than one person to watch Netflix simultaneously.
HughesNet offers no “hard data limits.” Subscribers have monthly data allocation. They can exceed it — but if they do, their connection will be throttled to an excruciating 1-3 Mbps until the beginning of the next cycle.
Finding an ISP in Your Area
The Federal Communications Commission (FFC) provides a Broadband Map, which lets consumers in the United States check broadband availability in their area, and compare the speeds offered by various providers.
For example, clicking on a random block located in Santa Clara, California shows that coverage is available:
- From several different ISPS, including Xfinity (Comcast), AT&T, and Sonic Telecom
- Using a variety of connection types, including cable, ASDL, and satellite
- At varying speeds, from 2 Mbps satellite (VSAT Systems) to 937 Mbps cable broadband (Xfinity)
By contrast, a random area of Fountain, Colorado showed coverage from only three providers, offering satellite broadband and fixed wireless connections with maximum speeds of just 35 Mbps.