1. Do they serve your geographic area?
As we hinted in the intro, the first thing you need to know when shopping for ISPs is whether they serve your area. There are more than 2,800 ISPs in the U.S., but only five (AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, HughesNet, and ViaSat) have a presence in every state and only 20 offer coverage to more than 10 million people, according to the BroadbandNow database of internet service providers.
The Federal Communications Commission website has a free tool where you can see which providers serve your address. Most of the big providers also have search tools on their website where you can check which plans, speeds, and features are available to you. For medium-sized ISPs that don’t operate nationwide, third-party reviews are another good source for finding out if they operate in your state.
2. What type of infrastructure is used?
There are five main types of broadband internet infrastructure: fiber-optic, cable, DSL, satellite, and fixed wireless. Some providers may offer a choice of two or more infrastructure types, with each priced differently based on speed and reliability.
Around two in five Americans living mainly in urban areas currently have access to high-speed fiber broadband, with more being added all the time. Cable and satellite are the most widely available, with cable usually the quickest and most reliable option in urban areas where fiber has not yet arrived and satellite dominating in rural areas where other infrastructure does not exist.
3. How fast are the download speeds?
Download speeds are the most important thing about any internet plan because they determine what you can do on the internet and how fast it will work. However, beware of paying for more than you need. If you have a ‘smart household’ with multiple interconnected devices or you regularly view live streams in 4K Ultra HD, then by all means pay the maximum price for a superfast 1 GIG connection. But if you just want to use email, watch a bit of Netflix or YouTube, and make video calls, then there’s probably no need to pay for more than a basic plan.
Here’s a rough guide to recommended download speeds.
4. How fast are the upload speeds?
Upload speeds tend to get overlooked by consumers, but these are actually important for basic activities like participating in video calls (where you essentially upload video and audio of yourself). Note that upload speeds do tend to correspond to download speeds, so the faster your download speeds the faster your upload speeds are likely to be.
Here’s a rough guide to upload speeds.
5. How much does it cost?
The cost of a broadband internet plan depends largely on speed. Other contributing factors include the type of infrastructure used, the number of providers in your area, and whether any added features are built into the plan. Router rental, anti-virus protection and certain other features may carry additional charges.
From a survey of top ISPs, here’s a rough estimate of what you can expect to pay for an internet connection:
6. Is bundling offered?
Depending where you live, the larger companies may offer to bundle together internet, cable and telephone into one package. The main benefits of bunding your internet with other services are: 1) it might (but isn’t guaranteed to) save you money; and 2) it makes your bills less complicated.
When considering a bundle, be aware of falling into the trap of automatically paying one company for services that could potentially be cheaper by purchasing from two or three providers. Also, be careful not to commit to things you don’t need, such as taking a landline you might never use.
7. Is there a fee for using your own router?
This question sounds ridiculous, but for years ISPs had a habit of slipping a mandatory router rental charge into bills – even when the router belonged to the customer! This fee became illegal in December 2020 and for the most part ISPs appear to be compliant. However, some ISPs have been exposed for dirty tricks like sending out routers to new customers, which puts the onus back on the customer to return the router (or otherwise be charged for “renting” it).
As a general rule, a new router shouldn’t cost you any more than about a year’s worth of rental fees. Plus, having your own router gives you the opportunity to pick one you can count on rather than having to make do with a potentially unreliable rental. Just remember: if you do bring your own router, double check that the ISP doesn’t try to charge you for rental.
8. Can the Wi-Fi be controlled remotely?
Several top ISPs now offer free mobile apps where you can control your home Wi-Fi from your phone. These apps let you edit your Wi-Fi password, check which devices are connected, pause access for one or more devices, monitor bandwidth, schedule daily downtime, manage parental controls, and a whole lot more.
Remote Wi-Fi management is typically, so be aware of any ISPs trying to upsell you into purchasing such a service.
9. Can the internet be used remotely as a hotspot?
It’s well-known that you can use your phone’s 4G or 5G as a hotspot to provide internet connection to other devices when there’s no Wi-Fi around. But did you know that some ISPs give you the capability to use your home internet account to connect any Wi-Fi enabled device to the internet when away from home?
Wi-Fi hotspot networks are still limited to a handful of larger ISPs, but could spread to other internet service providers in time. This is another typically free service, so again we provide a word of caution against anyone trying to upsell you.
10. How is the customer service?
When signing up to an ISP, it’s important to know you can rely on customer support and know that a technician will be available if and when you need one. Before making your final decision, read plenty of customer reviews to find out if the provider really does what they say.
Competition among internet service providers is a good thing, because it lets each consumer choose which is the right fit for them. With this choice comes a responsibility to properly compare the different options. We hope that the 10 steps above help you find the right ISP for you.