Ask Stacy: What’s the Best Internet Provider?

Photo (cc) by mczonk

“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.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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