An ISP is the gateway between you and the World Wide Web. But are all ISPs equal? Here are some things to look for.
What Is An Internet Service Provider?
An internet service provider, or ISP, is an organization that provides services to enable people to use the internet. They come in different forms, like commercial, community-owned, non-profit or privately owned. Services that ISPs provide include internet access/transit, domain name registration and web hosting.
Whether you’re choosing one for the first time or switching to a different one, there are plenty of ISPs to go around. In many cases, picking an ISP depends on what kind of internet connection you need/want. It also depends on where you live. People living in rural areas don’t have as many choices as urban dwellers.
First, let’s explore what constitutes “broadband.” It’s an umbrella term that refers to always-on internet connections: cable, satellite, DSL, and fiber optics (FiOS). The other option is dial-up. Dial-up is a form of internet access that uses a public switched telephone network (PSTN) to connect to an ISP. Dial-up is generally more affordable, but also slower than broadband.
Types of Broadband
In 2015 in its Broadband Progress Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the definition of broadband to have a minimum download speed of 25Mbps.
Standing for digital subscriber line, DSL runs over the phone lines like dial-up. But DSL is faster and unlike dial-up you can still use the phone at the same time as the computer. DSL comes in two types: asymmetric DSL (ADSL) and symmetric DSL (SDSL). ADSL is generally cheaper, and usually has faster download speeds than upload speeds. On the other hand, SDSL may be a bit more expensive, but gives you equally fast upload/download speeds.
An advantage of DSL is that it’s relatively cheaper than broadband. Also, there are typically more DSL providers than broadband providers. A disadvantage of DSL has to do with distance. DSL speed tends to slow down the further you live from the provider’s central office.
Cable broadband means internet that you buy from your cable TV provider. This technology uses coaxial cables [PDF] and usually has download speeds anywhere from 3Mbps – 100+Mbps. Unlike DSL, cable speed doesn’t depend on distance. However, cable providers usually allocate the amount of bandwidth you get with other people in your neighborhood. The more people that use cable nearby, the slower gets.
As the name implies, using this type of broadband means that satellites beam down your internet from space. You just need a satellite dish. According to Ars Technica, no matter where you are in the US, satellite vendors maintain speeds up to 15Mbps down and 3Mbps up.
An advantage of satellite internet is that it can cover areas where other types of broadband aren’t available. This is often the only type of internet access available for rural Americans. A disadvantage is that satellite internet is slower and typically more expensive. Weather can also affect weak connections.
Fiber optic service (FiOS)
Fiber optics is the newest and fastest broadband service. It works by transmitting light signals over very thin glass fiber lines. You can get internet speeds as fast as 300Mbps down and 65Mbps up. Some providers even offer gigabit speeds.
The obvious advantage to fiber is the fast speeds. Photons traveling down a glass cable are faster than electrons traveling over a copper wire. Two disadvantages of fiber optics are price and availability. The technology is only available in certain areas.
Choosing An ISP
Now that we’ve covered the types of internet connections available, let’s move on to the actual providers. Location is the biggest factor. A good website to check out is DSLReports. Just enter your zip code and you’ll instantly get a list of ISPs in your area.
The website breaks down the internet options into categories. You also get a short advantage and disadvantage of each provider.
- Cable providers
- Cheapest broadband
- Top rated ISPs
- Residential DSLs by price
Another great website is AllConnect. It provides you with a one-stop solution for finding internet, electricity, gas and other utilities in your area. A good website to use for satellite providers is ISPProvidersinMyArea. It includes on other types of broadband too.
Once you have picked out a provider in your area, you’ll want to visit its website for the fine details. Pay attention to these aspects:
- Download/Upload speeds: You’ll want to compare ISPs when it comes to speed. Speedtest has a tool to find providers that have won awards for fast speeds.
- Price and Contract: Some providers make you rent a modem; others let you buy your own. Others – like cable providers – bundle internet services with television and/or phone service. If you choose to bundle you’ll probably get a discount. Read the fine print to find out how long this discount lasts.
- Extras: Some ISPs throw in extra features to make it seem like you’re getting a good deal. These can be subscriptions to antivirus software, a branded email address, or your own web page. You can ignore these. You can get free antivirus software, free email, and even a free web page from other companies. But a good thing to watch for is free Wi-Fi hotspot access.
- Customer Service: Find out how easy it is to get support, and see if others have written reviews about the provider’s support. Does the ISP offer phone, email or online chat support?