The search for a great internet service provider (ISP) can either be extremely simple, or ridiculously complicated. If you live in the United States and you’re reading this, there’s a 50 percent chance you only have one real option for high speed internet. There’s a lot to unpack in that last sentence, so let’s break it down.
“High speed” internet is generally considered to be 25Mbps or faster. In 2016, 50 percent of U.S. households had either one or zero broadband provider in their area. This is at the heart of the net neutrality war that has waged here since 2015. If you count wireless broadband providers — you really shouldn’t, but sometimes that’s just what we’ve got to work with — the number is a slightly better 40 percent of households with one or less providers. The numbers have no doubt changed in the past two years, but probably not that much.
If you’re in that other 50 to 60 percent of households with a choice, what then? First, let’s break down what you should be looking for in order to pick the best internet provider. Then we’ll list a few to give you an idea of what they offer and what it means for you.
Who to use?
In the search to find the best internet provider, it can be hard to figure out which ISP to use if you don’t know where to look. Sites like highspeedinternet.com and ispprovidersinmyarea.com can be a good starting spot, though I should mention that the second website doesn’t even list my ISP when I put in my zip code.
Speaking of recommendations, talk to your friends and neighbors. Neighbors are the people that live next door who you don’t talk to under any circumstances if you live in the suburbs. Turns out some of them are decent people and they can tell you what internet provider they use and whether or not they’re happy with it. A good (or bad) recommendation can go a long way when trying to figure out who will be streaming your Netflix in the future.
Wired or wireless?
In looking for the best internet provider, one should always opt for one with wired internet, and the reason is very simple. Electricity travels much better through copper (or fiber) than it does through air. When you rely on a wireless internet signal, any number of factors can seriously mess with your bandwidth. Obstructions like new buildings, billboards, and even tree growth can have effects on the long term. Even environmental factors like temperature and humidity can play a role.
Some of these problems are unlikely, and will probably only cause minor fluctuations if they pop up, but wired internet will avoid them almost entirely. Wired internet provides a much more consistent and reliable signal to your home. It is hands down the better of the two options.
What type of connection?
There are several different kinds of internet connections, with varying degrees availability. Wired connections usually start out with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), which is a pretty generic term these days, but it’s an internet connection that comes through your telephone network. Cable internet access is exactly what it sounds like — internet provided via your cable network. This is generally a higher broadband connection to DSL. Fiber internet is an internet connection delivered via fiber optic cable, rather than coaxial cable. It’s typically the fastest option.
Wireless options include satellite broadband (aka internet from the stars), which is available pretty much anywhere you have a clear view of the sky, and mobile broadband, which is probably what we’re most familiar with. This is internet delivered via cell tower — like what you get for your phone.
You might see other types of internet connections, but these are the most common.
When dealing with an ISP, you need to take into consideration how fast your internet is and how much bandwidth it can handle. A family of four cord cutters will require more data and bandwidth than a bachelor living by himself. If you live alone and just like to take in some Netflix occasionally, rather than some heavy gaming, something in the neighborhood of 10Mbps will probably work well for you. If there are more of you, generally 25 Mbps is what you’re going to need.
Often, the best internet provider will offer far faster speeds — if you’re into gaming or are full-on cutting the cord and streaming all of your TV in 4K, then you will want to explore these. Speaking of cord cutting, that leads us to our next point.
Many ISPs come with data caps, and often in the range of 1TB. You might be thinking, “But that’s a terabyte. I’ll never use that!” But for a family of four who streams all of their TV, that can go by awfully fast — often in less than two weeks. Most ISPs offer a way to buy your way out of that data cap — for an extra $20 or so you can probably be unlimited. Other ISPs offer to remove the data cap if you also have a TV plan, which sort of defeats the purpose of cord cutting.
When choosing the best internet provider, it’s better to have no data cap for obvious reasons, but 1TB might work for you, depending on your circumstances. Another thing — most ISPs offer you a way to monitor your data usage, so if you currently have an internet provider, look back over your history and see how much you typically use in a month. Then you can make an informed decision, as long as you’re not also planning on upgrading to a 4K TV.
Many ISPs are still reliant on contracts, and offer lower pricing for on-contract subscribers. This makes a lot of sense, since switching internet providers is not exactly a small thing. We’re not exactly swapping SIM cards here. Setting up internet involves laying cables, drilling into walls, and sometimes even hopping fences just to get a signal. It can be a lot of work, so ISPs don’t want you to just try things out on a whim.
That being said, not every ISP requires a contract. Not every ISP makes you pay more to not have a contract, either. A lot of the time, it’s a regional decision, so it’s hard to say definitely in a guide like this who requires a contract, and how much. Nonetheless, it’s definitely something to take into consideration while shopping around for the best internet provider.
Add ons, fine print, and all that jazz
Finally, take a look at what the whole package on an ISP actually entails. Look at things like modem rental — most ISPs charge $10 or more per month for equipment rental. Most also offer introductory deals that last for a given amount of time (usually one year) and then change to a higher price — we may be having this conversation again a year from now. Some offer bundle deals, like getting internet for $20 if you also get a landline phone (in 2018?!). ISPs have lots of different ways to get more money out of you, even if it means offering a service nobody really wants or needs.
There are a ton of ISPs out there. When you include local providers, the list goes from dozens to hundreds. To keep things tidy, we’re going to narrow our search for the best internet provider to ISPs available in 20 states or more that can service more than 10,000,000 people (not actual customers, but has coverage for) and offer speeds of 25 Mbps or greater.
Best Internet Providers – Our top picks
Without further ado, here are some of the major ISPs out there you can choose from so you can pick the best internet provider for you.
AT&T is one of the oldest telecom companies in the U.S.. It offers DSL broadband internet and can achieve some good speeds. AT&T’s bread and butter is bundling, which allows you to get discounts on internet, or even drop the 1TB data cap, if you also use its TV service. AT&T provides generally reliable internet, even if the price is higher at comparable speeds than other providers out there.
If you have a choice between two ISPs, chances are Xfinity is one of them. It services 41 states in the Union. Xfinity offers good internet speeds for the price, though it also caps its data at 1TB (you can buy that out for an extra fee). Xfinity also loves to bundle its services together, offering TV and phone along with internet. You also won’t have to Google very long to find out about Xfinity’s notoriously bad customer service, though your mileage may vary.
Charter Spectrum Internet really makes shopping quite easy, since it only offers a single Internet-only package. For $44.99, you can get a connection of up to 60Mbps. The rest of the pricing varies with introductory offers and internet and TV packages. If you’re only looking for internet, that’s what you’ll be paying for. It’s kind of refreshing. Plus, Charter Spectrum does not have a data cap, which is an added bonus.
CenturyLink is one of the less expensive options around. Like others, it relies a lot on bundling with a TV subscription to offer tempting packages. One nice thing about CenturyLink is the no-fee pricing — if your bill is $39.95, that’s what you pay (unless you rent a modem from them). It really cuts down on the confusion. CenturyLink’s service seems a little inconsistent, depending on your location, and on the whole a little slower than others. This may be a situation where a little small talk with your neighbors will go a long way.
The aptly-named Frontier Internet is bravely foraging into rural America. It offers DSL, Cable, and fiber optic internet connections to its customers. It covers regions which typically have few good options. That said, what you actually get for your money varies greatly. The further you get from urban areas, the harder it is to deliver and maintain a strong connection consistently. That seems to be one of Frontier’s major drawbacks. This is also one of those situations where you’ll want to chat up your neighbors to see how their experience has been.
HugesNet (and satellite-powered Internet in general) is and always should be considered a last resort. The reason is quite simple — HughesNet not only has a data cap, it bases its charges on that data cap. $50 per month gets you a measly 10GB per month. For comparison, T-Mobile offers 10GB of tethered data from your phone at $10/month.
Satellite Internet is awfully expensive. In many ways it’s better than dial-up internet, just don’t plan to cut the cord, or you know, stream anything longer than the average cat video.
Honorable mention – Wide Open West
Wide Open West Internet, or WOW gets on the list despite minimal coverage, mostly because it’s my current ISP, and has some intriguing offerings. WOW internet packages start at $30 per month with no contract at 10Mbps. That’s not impressive, but the next packages are 100 Mbps, 500 Mbps, and 1 Gbps, for $40, $60, and $80 respectively. Plus, WOW has no data cap — so you can stream until your heart’s content — and no hidden fees beyond modem rental (if you need one). When it says its service is $29.95, you pay $29.95. WOW is one of those plucky little startups trying to cut into the market with much lower prices. We’ll see how that works out for them in the years to come.
Best Internet providers – Conclusion
That’s our roundup of the best internet providers in the U.S.. Chances are you’re using one if you’re home and reading this, so what do you think of your service? Are there any on here that you thinks is the best internet provider? Let us know down in the comments. We’ll be sure to update this post with more providers in the future.