For Americans, the option to choose between multiple broadband internet service providers (ISPs) is a luxury. Many people don’t get a choice because ISPs in the United States often hold regional monopolies or duopolies. When we are granted a choice, many of us simply opt for the cheapest package, or whichever can be conveniently bundled with our cable and phone subscriptions. Renters often just continue using the same plan as the previous tenants.

But you would be doing yourself a disservice by choosing an ISP solely on price and convenience. A number of variables should factor into your decision, including the type of service, speed, data limit, privacy policy, net neutrality stance, and required equipment. In this guide, we’ll review several key considerations you should make when deciding on a provider and plan. Once you’re familiar with these, you’ll be able to make an informed, responsible decision about which ISP is best for you.

Types of internet providers explained

ISPs can be categorized into different types by how you connect to them. Learning these will let you know what to expect in terms of service quality.

Cable

About half of broadband subscribers in the US use cable internet. Cable internet is usually offered by the same companies that offer cable TV, and bundled packages that include internet, TV, and phone service are very common. Unlike the analog cable TV signals of yesteryear, cable networks now mostly operate on digital networks, which allows for access to the internet. Fiber optic cable usually runs to a neighborhood node, where it is then split among households using coaxial cable.

Cable internet connection download speeds typically range between 20 and 100 Mbps.

DSL

DSL, short for Digital Subscriber Line, is the second-most popular type of internet service after cable in the US. It’s one of the oldest forms of consumer broadband internet and relies on the telephone network to deliver internet. DSL is also sometimes referred to as “ADSL”, the ‘A’ standing for “asymmetric”. This simply refers to the fact that the download bandwidth is larger than the upload bandwidth. The two abbreviations are more or less used interchangeably nowadays.

DSL lines are not shared like cable, so they’re less affected by network congestion (more on factors that affect speed below). It is typically much slower, however, with speed ranging from 768 Kbps to 7 Mbps. DSL speed is also limited by the distance a household is from a terminal, such as an access multiplexer or broadband exchange.

Fiber optic

Fiber optic cable internet, or just “fiber”, for short, is the fastest consumer internet service available in the United States. Fiber optic cable uses pulses of light instead of electronic signals over metal wire to transfer information. While fiber direct to the home makes up a small portion of internet subscriptions today, fiber infrastructure is expanding quickly. Fiber is often used to deliver internet to neighborhood nodes, where it is then split to individual households that subscribe to cable internet over optical coaxial cable. It is immune to the downfalls of ADSL and standard cable internet, such as electromagnetic interference and long distance signal degradation. In addition to internet, fiber is used to deliver cable TV and telephone (VoIP) services.

Fiber to the premises internet speeds vary widely, but download rates of up to 1 Gigabit are often available in areas where it is offered.

Satellite

Satellite internet transfers data to your home using a satellite dish that transmits data to communication satellites in space. Satellite internet service is most common in rural areas where other broadband services are not available.

Speeds can reach up to 50 Mbps. Satellite internet is heavily affected by weather. Latency (explained later in this article) is high. Despite these drawbacks, installation and subscription fees are relatively high. With little other choice in rural areas, however, satellite internet still has a substantial subscriber base in the US.

WISP

WISP stands for wireless internet service provider. These services are fairly new, only appearing in the US after the FCC opened the necessary frequencies to internet providers in 2005. WISPs use a variety of wireless broadcast technologies to deliver internet to homes, such as wifi mesh networks, dishes, and antennas. Initially limited to rural areas where laying down cable is unfeasible or cost-prohibitive, WISPs are now gaining traction in cities and suburban areas as well. WISPs are operated both by large cable and internet companies as well as local downstream providers and municipal governments.

Speeds can reach up to 100 Mbps, but actual speeds are closer to that of DSL. WISPs suffer from higher latency than wired networks and can be impacted by weather. They also require a direct line of site from the access point (dish or antennae) to the household, which can be troublesome in forested or mountainous areas.

Dial-up

Yes, even in 2017, millions of Americans still use dial-up internet. The reason? No other options are available in many rural parts of the country, with the exception of expensive and unreliable satellite internet. Dial-up uses your existing phone line to deliver a paltry speed of 56 Kbps. While you will have a hard time streaming video and other bandwidth-intensive media using dial-up, it’s still tolerable if all you do is send emails and read the news. Elderly people are likely the largest demographic of dial-up internet users for this reason.

Understanding internet speed

After price, speed is probably the next priority for many prospective subscribers. Generally speaking, internet speed governs how quickly you can download and upload files, how much latency or “lag” you experience, and the quality and time spent buffering streaming video.

Download bandwidth

When ISPs advertise internet speed, they usually refer to their maximum download bandwidth in megabits per second (Mbps). That seems simple enough, but let’s unpack that statement to uncover what the ISP isn’t telling you. If an ISP offers you up to 20 Mbps, what’s that really mean?

First of all, always keep an eye out for the “up to” or “maximum” preceding the number in fine print. Depending on network congestion–how many other people are connected to the same cables as you and sucking up the shared bandwidth–you likely won’t get speeds that fast all of the time. If you’re on a particularly congested network, internet speeds can drop to just a fraction of the advertised download rate. It could well be that the only time you’ll get your full 20 Mbps is at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.

For this reason, it’s always important to check whether you will receive a dedicated connection or guaranteed minimum bandwidth. Sometimes the provider will list a minimum download rate somewhere in the fine print.

Secondly, ISPs count on most of their customers being ignorant of the difference between bits and bytes. Bits are denoted with a lower-case ‘b’, and bytes with an upper-case ‘B’. Without getting too technical, just know that a byte is made up of eight bits, so 1 MB is eight times the size of 1 Mb.

We usually measure file size in terms of bytes. For example, a photo might be five megabytes, or 5 MB, and an HD movie could be two gigabytes, or 2 GB. Whenever you look at the size of a file in your Finder or Explorer window, file sizes are almost always listed in bytes: kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes.

To inflate their perceived internet speeds, however, ISPs advertise in bits. Most people don’t realize the difference, so when they buy a 10 Mbps connection, they would assume that they can download a 10 MB file in one second. In reality, it will take eight seconds, because they are actually only getting a 1.25 MBps connection. It’s a dirty marketing tactic, but one that’s now ubiquitous among ISPs in the US.

How much download speed you need depends on your circumstances. If you have several people in your household who all have their own devices and like to stream video, you will need something faster than someone who lives alone and just checks Facebook once in a while. To give you some indication of what to look for, here are Netflix’s recommended broadband speeds:

  • 0.5 Megabits per second – Minimum required broadband connection speed
  • 1.5 Megabits per second – Recommended broadband connection speed
  • 3.0 Megabits per second – Recommended for SD quality
  • 5.0 Megabits per second – Recommended for HD quality
  • 25 Megabits per second – Recommended for Ultra HD quality

Finally, some ISPs will choke your bandwidth if you download something they don’t approve of (such as a pirated torrent file) or exceed your monthly data cap. More on data caps further down.

Upload bandwidth

Upload bandwidth governs how quickly files can be sent or stored online. If you use online backup, cloud storage (e.g. Google Drive or Dropbox), send of a lot of email attachments, operate a web server, game online, or seed torrents, then this metric will be important to you.

Upload bandwidth is typically only a fraction of download bandwidth. The reason for this is simple: the average user downloads much more than they upload, so the bulk of their total allotted bandwidth is reserved for downloading. However, too little upload bandwidth could mean it takes an impractical amount of time to back up your files or attach a file to an email.

Like download bandwidth, upload speed is usually advertised in megabits (not megabytes) per second, denoted as Mbps or Mb/s.

Latency

Latency refers to the delay that occurs between when you send a request over the internet and when that request is answered. For example, when you click a link, a web page request is sent to the website’s server. The server then responds by sending data back to your computer, which is loaded as a web page. Latency is measured in milliseconds.

Latency is not normally advertised by ISPs. This is because, unlike bandwidth, latency isn’t constant. Every subscriber’s internet traffic will take a slightly different route to reach its destination, so latency can widely vary from customer to customer. The average user probably won’t notice much of a difference unless their latency is extremely poor.

Latency is also referred to as “ping time” or “lag”. Online gamers and video chat users can be affected by latency, as there will be a delay between their actions and what they see or hear on screen.

Other factors

Here are a few other factors that might affect your internet speed:

  • Distance from nearest internet exchange point – Internet exchanges, also called broadband exchanges, are central points where ISPs and content delivery networks (CDNs) interconnect. Think of it as a central train station in a major city that acts as a hub. Your internet traffic travels on your ISP’s network until it reaches one of these central hubs. If you live far away from one of these hubs, your internet speed might be reduced. This is especially true for DSL customers, whose internet is affected by “noise”, or interference. DSL customers should be aware of their distance to the nearest broadband exchange and/or access multiplexer.
  • Network congestion – As we mentioned before, your internet speed likely varies depending on the time of day. This is usually due to network congestion. Other people using the same broadband infrastructure as you suck up bandwidth, which means a smaller cut for each person. Some ISPs disclose an important statistic called “contention ratio”, which is how many people share the total data capacity of the upstream line. Depending on how many people are on the line, what they’re using it for, the maximum bandwidth of the infrastructure, network congestion can severely limit your internet speed below the advertised rate.

Net neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally no matter its source or the person consuming it. You’ve probably heard the phrase tossed around in the media, as net neutrality is the internet’s most politicized debate. In the US, that debate primarily revolves around whether ISPs should be classified as utility companies or normal consumer services.

As of time of writing, net neutrality is enforced by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which means ISPs cannot in any way favor certain websites, apps, streaming services, search engines and other content. If Comcast creates a video streaming site that competes with a Netflix show, for example, it cannot slow down your connection to Netflix and create a fast lane for its own content.

This regulation might not last long, however, as the chairman of the FCC that took power since the Trump administration won the White House has vowed to end the Open Internet Order. This will require a lengthy process to repeal the rules, but in due time the FCC under Trump ultimately has that authority.

Large American ISPs are generally in favor of rolling back net neutrality restrictions, while small ISPs want to keep them in place. Whether an ISP will actually honor net neutrality when regulations are lifted is yet to be seen.

Zero rating

Another, less well-defined practice relating to net neutrality is called zero rating. Zero rating generally means that an ISP won’t count the data used by a certain service against their customers’ data limit. For example, if Verizon creates or acquires a Skype competitor, zero rating would allow customers to use its own service without racking up data, whereas Skype users would still have to keep an eye on how much data they use.

Zero rating seems harmless enough on the surface, and can even appear to benefit customers. But it has major consequences, primarily that it stifles competition and makes ISPs into gatekeepers that get to choose winners and losers.

Zero rating isn’t that prevalent in the US… yet, but it’s not without precedent. The legality isn’t totally clear just yet, and the debate is still evolving as the future of net neutrality hangs in the balance.

Data limits

Data limits, also called data caps, determine the amount of data you can transfer over the internet before running up against some sort of penalty implemented by your ISP. Data limits are usually set on a per-month basis. For American ISPs, somewhere between 100 GB and 300 GB is normal for a household, give or take depending on your ISP.

When deciding on an ISP and plan, it’s important to read the fine print carefully and make an educated estimate of how much data your household will use each month. Sometimes data limits restrict all data transferred–both uploaded and downloaded–while other times it might just refer to the amount of data you download.

Once you hit your limit, what happens next depends on your ISP. These days, few providers will cut you off outright. Instead, they may add fees onto your monthly bill. Others will throttle your bandwidth to a fraction of your normal bandwidth for the remainder of the month. Sometimes you may not be penalized for a first or second offense, but multiple consecutive months of exceeding your data cap will prompt your ISP to bump you up to the next subscription tier, resulting in a higher bill.

Take into consideration what you do online in an average month. Do you binge watch Netflix in high definition? Do you torrent files? Do you download video games, software, or other large files? Do you frequently video chat on Skype or FaceTime? All of these activities eat up data quickly.

Internet providers and your privacy

Privacy, like net neutrality, is another hotly debated issue among internet advocates today. When it comes to ISPs, customers need to ask a few basic questions:

  1. Does the ISP keep any record of what I do online?
  2. If so, what do those records contain?
  3. What are those records used for?
  4. Who are those records shared with?
  5. Can I access those records and request they be deleted?

1. Does the ISP keep any record of what I do online?

When it comes to large American ISPs, the answer to that first question is almost undoubtedly: Yes. Your ISP keeps a record of your internet activity. Smaller ISPs also likely keep a record. These records are sometimes referred to as “logs”.

2. What do the records contain?

The information contained in traffic logs stored by your ISP can vary quite a bit, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll split them into three categories: diagnostics, metadata, and traffic content.

Diagnostics is the least intrusive and normally just contains some information about when you use the internet, how much data you transfer, and the type of device you use.

Metadata includes diagnostic data plus other information about what you do online, but not the actual contents of what you do online. This might include who you sent messages to or emailed, but not the contents of those messages or emails. It might also include your location, information about your device configuration, what you use your internet connection for (torrenting, streaming video, web surfing, VoIP), and other information.

Traffic content is the most intrusive type of record and the one customers should be most concerned about. ISPs can record and store the contents of any unencrypted web traffic. This might include the contents of emails and messages, websites visited, social media activity, purchases, videos watched, search queries, medical records … the list goes on. Anything you do or look at online that isn’t encrypted (sites like this one that have a valid HTTPS certificate are encrypted) can be recorded.

3. What are those records used for?

Diagnostic information is normally used to improve and maintain your internet service, and to diagnose problems should they arise.

Other metadata and traffic content is collected for marketing and advertising. Similar to sites like Facebook and Google, your ISP uses the data it collects to build a profile about you that it can then use to make advertisements more relevant.

Until recently, these ads were limited to ISPs’ internal advertising networks. Both the ISP itself and third parties display ads on web services owned by the ISP, such as the ISP’s website, based on the information they collect. They can also send you targeted promotions or advertisements in emails.

ISPs sometimes work with third-party ad networks, for which they will place an advertising beacon or cookie on their own website that can be used by third parties. These cookies and beacons collect information and allow third parties to target you on their own websites using that info.

Finally, US ISPs recently rolled back privacy regulations that prevented them from selling your browsing data to third parties. Despite an outcry from consumer and privacy advocates, ISPs can now sell users’ traffic content and metadata to whomever it wishes, typically third-party advertising networks.

It’s important to note, however, that even though many media outlets have framed this repeal of regulation as a means for your ISP to sell an individual’s browsing history to the highest bidder, that’s not exactly how it works. Your personally identifiable information (PII) is still protected under the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. Personally identifiable information includes any information that someone could use to identify or contact you. Instead, information from your browsing history is “de-identified” so it is not directly tied to you. It is then supplied to advertising networks to target users with interest-based ads.

But even though that data might not identify you as a person, personally-identifiable information can still target your specific device through the use of an IP or MAC address. These identifiers and others are not considered PII. Concerns also arise if a data breach occurs and hackers gain access to users’ browsing histories, or if law enforcement and intelligence agencies monitor those databases.

The repeal of this regulation only occurred in 2017, so we’ve yet to see how ISPs will take advantage and how far they will actually go when it comes to invading their users’ privacy. Some ISPs have pledged not to sell customers’ individual browsing data that includes PII, but this is somewhat of an empty promise since they are still lawfully barred from doing so according to the Cable Communications Policy Act.

ISPs you can trust with your privacy

To give you a broad view of how American ISPs approach their users’ privacy, we’ve put together a table comparing about 20 different ISPs. We delved through each of their subscriber privacy policies (note these are typically separate from their website privacy policies) and examined five key criteria:

  • Collection of metadata other than diagnostics: this data could include your location, browser type, source and destination of emails and messages, etc
  • Collects browsing data: your browsing history, apps used, websites visited, contents of emails, purchases, etc
  • Internal advertising: whether the data collected is used to target customers with marketing materials or advertisements on the ISP’s properties, such as its website
  • Shares non-PII with third parties: whether or not the ISP sells or shares non-personally identifiable information with third-party advertisers. Again, note that even though this information does not identify you as a person, it can identify your device
  • Opt-out available: the ISP offers a reasonable mechanism by which customers can opt out of all or most of the data collection and sharing activities of the ISP


Disclaimer: the information presented in this chart is based on the author’s interpretation of the subscriber privacy policies of each ISP’s privacy policy and should not be taken as legal advice or proof that an ISP behaves accordingly.

Routers and modems

Many ISPs in the US offer their customers a router, modem, or combination of the two upon first getting set up. A modem is necessary to communicate with the ISP and get internet flowing into your home. A router’s job is to distribute that internet to all the devices that use it within the home, typically over a wifi signal. These devices are often combined into a single unit.

There are several reasons to consider buying and installing your own modem and router rather than using your ISP’s unit. Your ISP might be charging you a rental fee for these devices. Using your own setup will give you more control and flexibility when it comes to configuration. You may need stronger signal strength, a more reliable connection, or faster speeds than what your ISP’s router or modem allow. Using your own devices can give you greater privacy and help prevent ISP snooping. Finally, some ISPs allow customers to use each others’ wifi networks, which mean strangers could eat up your bandwidth and introduce security issues onto your network.

Another option is to cascade your routers. This essentially means connecting one router to another. You can then use your own router’s wifi network while also keeping the ISP’s setup.

Fees to look out for in the contract

  • Introductory offers: Be wary of deals that tempt you in at a low price and rise steeply after the initial discounted period; it’s a common marketing ploy that allows companies to advertise at a lower headline price. That’s not to say that some of these offers are not good deals, just that you should be conscious of the rate the service reverts to once you are out of the introductory period.
  • Cancellation fees: Most internet companies will ask you to sign a contract committing you to paying for their service for a certain length of time. If you choose to terminate the contract early, there will usually be a cancellation fee which will vary between providers.
  • Moving fees: If you move and want to take your internet, phone and TV services with you, you will often be charged a fee for the privilege. Your contract should detail what this fee is.
  • Set-up fees: Some companies will charge set-up fees. Check if there are any such fees and add them to the cost for the overall length of the contract to get a true idea of how one provider or package compares to another.
  • Bundle price changes: If you bought internet as part of a bundle with TV or phone service, and you remove one of those services, there’s a good chance that the price of the remaining service(s) will increase.