Ask Stacy: What’s the Best Internet Provider?

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“Hate” is a word I try to use sparingly. We should all be able to get through life without using this negative term to describe our feelings about certain people, or pretty much anything else.

That being said, it’s sometimes hard not to hate the cable company.

There’s a lot to dislike about pay TV, including the subject of this recent email:

I find the CBS blackout an inconvenience, and I’m trying to figure out how I can get secured Internet access with the same speed as cable so I can cut the Time Warner Cable. — Raul

For those of you not familiar with the blackout Raul is referring to, millions of cable customers in major markets were recently left without CBS programming due to — what else — money: CBS wants more; Time Warner Cable doesn’t want to cough it up.

But we don’t have to put up with shenanigans like this. Nor do we have to pay for hundreds of stations we don’t watch or endure customer service experiences that can turn any Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Because, as it has with industries from newspapers to music, the Internet is disrupting the status quo. 

From a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Younger people watch what they want online, making the idea of cable TV less appealing. The percentage of people age 13 to 33 subscribing to pay TV fell to 76 percent this June from 85 percent in June 2010, a new study by research firm GfK found.

Want to join the the cable-cutting revolution? We’ve done lots of how-to articles that can help, like “3 Steps to Cut Your Cable Bill 90 Percent,” but the basic idea is to get the major networks locally for free with a digital antenna, then watch movies and other TV shows online.

Which brings us to something ironic about cable-cutting: We need a good Internet connection to make it work, and getting one often means remaining with the cable company we’re trying to leave.

So if you’re ditching traditional pay TV, you’ll have to learn where to turn for the best deal on an Internet service provider or ISP. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer to which company is best, because that depends on both pricing and availability in your area. But it will help to understand some basics: 

  • Forget dial-up. It’s generally not fast enough for streaming video. What you want is broadband.
  • The faster the better. Internet providers talk in terms of fastest possible download (receiving information from the Internet) and uploading (sending information). Speeds are expressed as megabits per second, or Mbps. Often the speeds they quote are much higher than you’ll actually get, but when it comes to speed, it’s the only way to compare. 
  • But value is important too. Beware of overkill. For most people, download speeds of 10 to 25 megabits per second are enough. Paying top dollar for top speeds may be a waste of money.

Now let’s explore a few common choices.

FiOS

FiOS stands for fiber optic, which means your Internet is delivered via light streaming down a glass cable smaller than a human hair. Fiber optic offers some of the fastest commonly available speeds: up to 300 Mbps when downloading and up to 65 Mbps uploading.

Chief disadvantage of fiber: It’s not widely available. It’s also commonly more expensive than other choices.

Verizon is the largest provider. You can see if it’s available where you live and check prices here.

DSL

DSL stands for digital subscriber line. It uses the same copper wire as traditional telephones. You can get up to 25 Mbps download speeds, and it may be getting much faster soon. Upload speeds, however, can be very slow, often less than 2 Mbps. This isn’t a big deal if you’re just sending email, but could be a bottleneck if you’re sending video or backing up big files online. Another potential problem: The farther you are from the central office, the slower DSL becomes.

On the plus side, DSL is often less expensive than cable.

Until recently, I used the most popular provider of DSL, AT&T UVerse. Their service providing 18 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up is about $40 a month where I live. It was fine, but I had to give it up because I needed faster upload speeds.

Cable

Cable comes across regular cable TV lines and for most people is probably the best combination of price, availability and speed. You can get download speeds of up to 100 Mbps and upload speeds up to 20 Mbps.

I recently switched to Comcast for my Internet service. The service I’m getting is more than you’ll probably need: 50 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Where I live, packages currently start at less than $30 — $50 for the speed I have — for six-month promotional deals.

Unlike DSL, cable speed isn’t affected by distance from the central office. It can, however, degrade based on other users in your area. In other words, if everyone in your neighborhood is watching Netflix at the same time, everyone’s service could slow down.

Satellite

Unless you have no other options — and you might not if you live in a rural area — don’t bother. Satellite is typically slower (max 15 Mbps down, 3 up) and more expensive for the speed you’ll get.

Wireless

With your wireless phone now able to provide fast Internet service, stretching it to cover your home computer may seem like a viable option.

If you live in a rural area with few choices, wireless may be the way to go. But if you have access to either cable or DSL, you’ll probably find less expensive and more reliable service. Many wireless carriers put relatively low caps on the amount you can download without extra cost. In addition, wireless service is often spottier than cable or DSL.

That being said, if you’re a very light Web surfer, you might get away with wireless. In a popular story a few months back called “You Can Now Get Free Internet at Home and Away,” we described how FreedomPop and NetZero are giving away limited amounts of free data every month, then charging reasonable rates for excess usage. While these plans are great relative to the big wireless providers, they’ll still be too expensive to replace more traditional ISPs.

How to shop

In researching this story, I looked at several sites promising to compare the availability and cost of various services based on address. None were very good. Of the ones I looked at, WhiteFence was probably best, but I had trouble finding the Comcast deal I’m actually using, and the sheer number of available plans from each provider made the deals hard to decipher. Ditto with AllConnect.com. Another recommended site I tried, ISP Reviews, was tough to navigate.

Part of the problem with comparing services, as I alluded to above, is that there are so many packages, plans and promotions from each of the major providers, seeing them side by side is more confusing than clarifying. In addition, many of the providers themselves don’t offer enough information regarding speed. Most trumpet download speeds, but some don’t offer their upload speeds.

The best way to compare plans: See what’s available in your area, get the lowest download and upload speeds you can live with, then pit providers against each other to get the best possible deal.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Kelvin Wilkes

    You forgot to mention fiber optic service. EPB, the company I work for, offers its customers a minimum of 50Mbps upload/download speed, for a reasonable price, up to 1Gbps, which is their top-of-the-line offering.

    • Cindy Kadinger

      Kelvin,
      Where does your service extend to? I live in Washington State near Seattle and none of the zip codes I plug in seem to work get EPB. I looked at your company website and would be excited to have you in our area, we are locked into Comcast, Verizon and if lucky, Clearwire. Maybe there are plans to expand???

      • Kelvin Wilkes

        Unfortunately Cindy, EPB is our local power utility company, so its service only extends to its electrical customers.

        • Cindy Kadinger

          Well, package it and market it! You’ve sold me and with all the techies out here you’d think we’d have something this good, but I think the other internet/cable companies have a lock on it all here. Sucks! Free market for all!!

    • James Soules

      Hey Kevin, Stacy did mention fiber optics. He referred to it as “FiOS “. Love to have it for speed and claimed reliability, but it’s not yet offered in our area and it’s pretty darned expensive.

      • Kelvin Wilkes

        You are right James. I completely missed that one. My bad Stacy!! Here, 50Mbps costs me about $65/month, so it’s pretty reasonable, especially considering I don’t have to carry an expensive cable bill for the very reason Stacy gave. I stream over Amazon Prime and Netflix and couldn’t be happier.

        • James Soules

          I’ve looked into FiOS and I’m impressed with what I see. There are two roadblocks stopping me from getting it: 1. The only service in our area is Verizon FiOS and 2. The cost is higher than I pay for my internet from Mega-Comcast-Opoly. I either need to move to where the service is provided or wait for them to get off their duff and get it in here.

          However I appreciate you taking your time to give me some more information.

      • Kelvin Wilkes

        The service we offer is very reliable, James. Our whole GPON is a mesh work with redundant feeds, so even if we lose a fiber hut, it automatically re-routes itself, which generally allows us enough time to make repairs to whatever is wrong and re-establish redundancy. Also, unlike cable, we have fiber run all the way up to the residence and its independent of what anyone else is doing, so I get 50+Mbps no matter when I get on. I can stream HDTV to my television while each of my 3 kids streams Netflix or Hulu to their tablets and my wife listens to Pandora without a drop in speed. It is extremely reliable and heads above anything I’ve used before.

  • bigpinch

    Good and welcomed article. I’ve been trying to figure out my situation. I live out in the country with no cable options for TV or Internet. I finally bought a small digital antenna to use with my converted analog TV set and was startled with the clarity of the picture on my 28″ Sony Trinitron as well as all of the channels I’d never seen before.
    I have been a Netflix customer for a long time and when I had to buy an RF converter box for the TV set up, I found that I could use the S-video input on my old Compaq lap top connected to my home network to stream video to the TV and stereo audio to my 1960’s Zenith amplifier that outputs 600 watts per channel. Movies are fun in my small house.
    The only fly in this ointment is my ISP provider. It is a broadband server, fifteen miles away, that sends a signal to a radio on a pole some thirty feet above my house. Speeds are puny but adequate. Service, however, is unreliable. So, in addition to the fifty-five dollars a month they charge, I also pay for a People PC dial-up at ten dollars a month so I can read my email when the broadband connection is out
    I’ve decided to let Netflix go and I got Amazon Prime instead. That will be a substantial savings. I had considered a satellite connection and was glad to read this article before I did. DSL isn’t an option. I live too far out. Cellular signals fall off a mile or so from here. I’d be willing to pay for a single, reliable, ISP but it looks like I don’t have that option.

  • James Soules

    @Stacy,
    I live in a suburban area of New Haven,Ct. I’ve seen all the
    ads and the hype from various cable providers and some of the paackage
    deals look mighty tempting. Of course, it’s only during the “promational
    period”. However, that’s only part of the problem. the other part is
    that they typically don’t offer service in our area. How nice! So we’re
    pretty much “STUCK” with only one provider, that being the,
    “MEGA-SUCK-YOUR-MONEY-BECAUSE-YOU-HAVE-NO-CHOICE” … Comcast!!!

    I
    recently stopped my Basic TV service to help save money only to find
    out that because I no longer had a “package” I’d only be saving about
    $10-$15 per month. Well, I had to look at it with the idea that I am
    still “saving” money. Yeah, RIGHT!! I still pay to watch my Netflix.
    Still, it’s a “savings”. And now, almost half of the things I like
    watching are being taken off!! There are others such as HULU and Amazon
    Video, etc., but who’s to say that the shows I get to watch now will be
    available tomorrow? and I can still watch some of my favorite on the
    Network websites. Some of them you still have to pay a subsription to
    watch, so guess what…I don’t watch. I miss the networks that show the
    old series and older movies, such as This TV, MeTV, and Antenna TV, but
    I’m sure me and my sanity will survive.

    So for now, until
    something better comes along, that is available in my area, this is
    about the best there is. I can get some of the older (B&W) movies
    from the library and my wife’s dvd swap and my local weather from the
    internet. As for the old series (Dennis the Menis, Burns and Allen, et
    cetera, et cetera, et cetera, I’ll just have to search and find some
    other way to feed my addiction.

    Hey, thanks for letting me spew.
    Have a great day and thanks for all you rinformative article.

    Jim from Connecticut

  • Cindy Kadinger

    We pay $197 for a bundle of phone, internet and cable! This all snuck up on us over the last couple of years from
    $119. I’m so ready for internet TV but my husband (and me too) want to watch NFL games and they haven’t joined the 21st Century like MLB has. Anybody have any ideas? We have Comcast or Verizon internet.

  • http://www.debtroundup.com/ Grayson @ Debt Roundup

    I was my CBS on an over the air antenna. It was only $30 and it saves me each and every month. I don’t need the TV, so it is just another expense. I do need the internet in order to do my job, so Time Warner is my provider. There is not much around here for competition, so you have to make the decision to pay the higher price.

  • Amma

    I have Comcast “High Speed” internet and I only get 22.19 download and 5.96 upload speeds (they actually gave me a program to measure it!) – Are you paying extra for their “Business Internet”? My speeds aren’t too much better than dial up and no where near what you are getting from them!!!

  • Joe Septa

    I have Clear 4G service unlimited data for $45 a month, this is much cheaper than fios and dsl in my area. I have free TV. Very happy with this setup.

  • Bob Lee

    I also have Comcast internet(only)no anything extra, and pay $68 for 22mbps speed, it must be cheaper in your area, Stacy, the only good prices are only temporary(6months, 1year).