The internet is seemingly everywhere, but choosing the best internet service can be a knotty undertaking. You’ll need to determine local availability and the right fit in speed and delivery method. Then you may have numerous providers, plans and deals to compare.
These steps will help you choose an optimal internet service.
1. What speed do you need?
First, understand what internet speed or — more precisely — bandwidth means so you can select the appropriate level of service.
Bandwidth, commonly measured in megabits per second, is the maximum rate at which you can download data from the internet to your computer. The more data-intensive activities you typically do and the more devices you have on the same connection, the more bandwidth you’ll need.
This chart gives you a rough idea of the bandwidth required to do common internet activities, assuming a single user at a time. But since your total bandwidth is shared among all connected devices, you’ll need enough to satisfy simultaneous activities.
What internet speed do you need?
|If you want ...||You'll need about...|
|General web surfing, email, social media||1 Mbps|
|Online gaming*||1-3 Mbps|
|Video conferencing**||1-4 Mbps|
|Standard-definition video streaming||3-4 Mbps|
|High-definition video streaming||5-8 Mbps|
|Frequent large file downloading||50 Mbps and up|
|*A connection with low latency, the time it takes your computer to talk to the game server, is more important than bandwidth for gaming.|
|**You'll want at least a 1 Mbps upload speed for quality video conferencing.|
2. What are the options in your area?
NerdWallet has no affiliation with these sites, and they might make money when you click on their recommendations. However, they offer a snapshot of local internet service providers. Note that they might not show every option available, so additional research could be helpful.
In most metro areas, you’ll likely have the option of internet service via either cable provider, phone company or satellite company — and maybe even fiber optic service. In a more rural area, you might not have access to such a variety of methods, though you’ll likely be covered by a satellite broadband provider.
3. What are the pros and cons of these options?
There’s a more detailed explanation here of each of these internet delivery methods.
For a quick hit: Internet service from your cable provider will probably provide the fastest and most reliable speeds, though this comes with a more expensive price tag. Internet from a phone company over digital subscriber lines, known as DSL, tends to be cheaper than cable, but slower as well. Satellite internet has the widest availability but can be expensive and slow.
Fiber optic internet delivery is reliable and very fast, but is a relatively uncommon method.
Depending on availability, you’ll want to select the service that fits your budget while reliably delivering your desired bandwidth.
4. How can you find a company and package that fits your style?
Now that you know what you’re looking at, you’ll need to sift through the different packages and offerings.
Your options will vary greatly depending on your location. That makes it hard to give general advice at this step, but here are few important considerations:
Many cable companies offer bundles with different combinations of phone, internet and television service. Think hard before signing up for these bulk deals; companies often try to upsell and lock in customers with more services.
Do you really need a landline? Can you get by with streaming television from your new internet service, rather than a whole cable package? In some situations bundling services might make sense, but weigh the cost and value before deciding.
Be wary of the upsell in general: Know exactly what you want before you sign up and don’t be tempted until you’ve done your research on a “deal.”
Often you’ll be able to find promotions to entice first-time customers, say one year of internet service at $30 per month rather than $50. You can find good prices with such deals, but make sure you’re ready to either pay full price or cancel your service at the end of the promotional period.
If you’re looking for excellent customer service, look hard. Consumer Reports found that several large cable companies, such as Comcast (which is under the Xfinity brand) and Time Warner Cable (which last year merged with Charter Communications, now called Spectrum), received bottom-of-the-barrel customer satisfaction ratings among bundled service providers.
The survey also found that consumers consistently rate cable bundles as a poor value; however, negotiating prices and services with your provider can pay off. Among consumers who attempted to negotiate a better deal, Consumer Reports found that 40% received a new promotional rate, 16% received extra channels, and 12% got faster internet speeds.
Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected].