What should I 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 contact 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.
Check the small print for cancellation fees and charges for exceeding your monthly download limit, these can be quite high, in particular for satellite internet.
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.
Usage caps or download limits: Some internet providers will impose a monthly download limit or data usage cap which, if exceeded will usually result in your connection being throttled (slowed down) and/or additional charges. This topic has been a cause of much frustration for consumers, you can read more about here about usage caps.
What are routers and modems and do I need both?
A router and modem are two important bits of kit both of which you will need for your internet connection. A modem connects you to your provider’s internet service, the modem in turn connects to a router which provides the local connection for your computer, smartphone or other device. Most modern routers provide a wireless connection allowing you to connect multiple devices to the same router. Many modern routers also incorporate a modem so there is no need to buy both; this is particularly common when your internet provider supplies this equipment which most do.
What are ping and latency?
Latency and ping are rarely used in advertising for internet connections yet the can have a huge impact on how fast your connection feels. Latency describes the delay from the desired input to a system to the output. In the case of your internet connection this is the delay in the data being sent down your internet connection to the time you receive it, so for example the time it takes for you to request a web page and the information to be returned (the webpage displayed). Latency differs from speed and bandwidth since if the data has to travel a long distance then even if the speed is fast and the bandwidth is large (the pipe wide), then it can will still take a longer time so have a higher latency than data traveling at the same speed over a shorter distance. One reason that a satellite internet connection that operates at a fast speed often feels slow is because the latency is larger since the data has further to travel. There are other factors that can impact latency such as:
- Dropped packets: Data is sent in packets. If the packet does not reach it’s intended target the requesting machine (e.g. your laptop or other device) needs to request the data again).
- Router delays and buffering: Your router will process data packets at a certain speed, if this speed is too slow is buffers so data packets get backed-up slowing down the time it takes the data to reach your device.
Ping is a command that allows your connected device to send packets of data to a chosen server which are immediately bounced back. The ping program measures the time it takes for these packets to be received and sent back.
Ping and latency are often overlooked since ISP advertising conditions consumers to look at download speeds as the measure of how fast your internet connection will feel. For activities such as online gaming and VoIP services such as Skype ping and latency can be even more important than having an amazing headline download speed.
What is the difference between bandwidth and speed?
!nternet service providers (ISPs) are often guilty of using these two terms interchangeably however they do have different meanings. In the context of an internet connection bandwidth describes the available throughput; think of this like the width of the pipe your internet provider makes available for your internet which will determine the amount of data that pipe can carry at any one time. Speed describes the speed at which the data is transferred (or travels down the pipe), for example the speed with which a file is downloaded. Increasing bandwidth means more data can travel along the pipe at the same time.
An often used analogy to describe the difference between speed and bandwidth is that of a road (your internet pipe) with 10 cars (10 data files) in 10 lanes (more lanes equals more bandwidth). If all 10 cars are operating at their maximum speed of 100mph in adjacent lanes adding more lanes won’t increase the top speed they can travel at in the same way that adding more bandwidth won’t always change the speed of your internet connection when there are other limiting factors. That’s not to say increasing bandwidth can’t increase your speed as a wider pipe means more data can travel down it at one time at a given speed. For example if lots of people in your family use the internet at the same time then more data needs to travel down the pipe at the same time so greater bandwidth will help stop speed being sacrificed.
What is the different between upload and download speed?
Both upload and download speed describe the rate at which data is transferred. The difference is that download speeds describes the speed which data is transferred from the internet to your connected device (such as your laptop, phone or tablet) and upload speed is describes data traveling the other way – from your device back to the internet. Download speed impacts everything from viewing a web page to downloading music or a movie in HD. The faster your download speed the quicker you will be able to perform such activities. When downloading large amounts of data, such as a TV program of Movie in HD, you will notice the download is significantly quicker with a speedy internet connection. You should also notice less interruptions and buffering when watching video content online.
Upload speed is important for activities which involved transferring information back from your device to the internet; for example uploading video or photos, sending emails and online gaming.
Almost all internet providers configure download speeds faster to be much greater than upload speeds as they want to give priority to downstream over upstream traffic. Downstream data and downloads are prioritized as most customers are more concerned with the speed they can download data than upload it (if you have ever tried watching Netflix using an internet connection with a slow download speed you will likely appreciate this)!
What speed should I be able to get?
This depends on a range of factors although where you live and which providers are available at your address are often the two most important. If you pick a DSL provider the distance you live form the exchange providing the connecting will often be the largest factor. Most providers will give you an indication of the speed you are likely to receive in your zip code. Other factors ranging from the type of router you use and where you position it to the weather can all play a part in how fast your connection will be. Our comparison tables will show you the providers and packages available in your area including the maximum speeds they quote. To test your current speed you can run a speed test here.
What is the difference between cable, DSL, fiber and satellite internet services?
The type of internet connection you have will play a big part in the broadband speeds you are able to achieve. Both cable and fiber services utilize the same fiber optic technology to provide a connection that covers your neighborhood. The difference is the final part of the connection running to your premises. True fiber connections such as Verizon’s FiOS will run the fiber optic cables all the way to your home whereas cable providers usually deliver the last part of their connection to your home through a copper DSL line. This is important since speed is lost as the distance data travels along the copper line increases. DSL services make use of these copper wires to run a connection all the way from the local exchange so suffer from a greater reduction in maximum speed dependent on how far you are from your local exchange. This means that if you live further from the exchange which provides your DSL internet connection then you will receive slower speeds than someone living closer and is the reason why location plays such a big part in connection speed.
Satellite internet is historically less reliable and suffers from slower speeds than other types of broadband although in recent years this is much improved and satellite is a popular option for many households, particularly when combined with TV services form the likes of Dish and DirectTV which are often priced very competitively. Some satellite providers, including DirectTV, partner with Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink and other providers who will supply your broadband connection so you don’t have to compromise on speed.