Internet Providers in Columbia, MO

Internet access -- something everyone needs. But who should you choose? And do you really have all that much of a choice?

Columbia actually has a pretty decent selection of internet service providers, or "ISP" for short. And we have many different distribution models including fiber, cable, DSL, satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular wireless. Compared to many similarly-sized cities, we kinda have it pretty good here, all-in-all.

But that doesn't mean you can just pick whoever you want. Most of these companies serve only a portion of Columbia and surrounding areas. Your choices are limited by accident of where you live. There is some overlap and to the extent you live on a street with such overlap then your choices will be greater.

So let's discuss each distribution model, starting with the best, and the companies that offer said model. I won't discuss specific coverage areas because that is subject to change and, besides, I don't have access to comprehensive GIS coverage maps. Those data are closely held by the providers. Yes, you can find out if your street is covered. But you cannot just download a bulk GIS coverage database for the entire city.

Fiber to the Premises (FTTP)

We (should) all know by now that fiber is the gold standard. If you have the choice to get FTTP then there's your answer, full-stop. There are two fiber carriers in Columbia: CenturyLink/Quantum and Socket.net

  • CenturyLink/Quantum: Offers symmetric gigabit (well, 940/940) fiber to the premises. As of this writing, there are no data caps, no modem rental fee, no contract, and no installation fee. Cost is quite reasonable at around $65 per month. Quantum is (slowly?) deploying new neighborhoods.

  • Socket.net: This is a locally owned internet provider. And being local, Socket is (likely) more responsive to local needs. They are actively deploying fiber to neighborhoods in and near Columbia. If you presently cannot get any fiber, then Socket is likely your best bet. If you can get a certain (large) percentage of your neighbors to commit to signing-up for Socket fiber then that'll increase the chances of them deploying to your neighborhood. So put on your best walking shoes, grab a clipboard, and go meet your neighbors!

 

Cable-based

This is next-to-best for internet service. Cable is much more widely available because the cable companies have been deploying cable since the 1980s. The vast majority of addresses in Columbia have cable-based internet as an option from one or both of the major cable TV providers here.

Both local cable companies offer internet, TV, and phone service. But today, it's mainly the internet that you want. You might want cable TV. There are still advantages to old-school cable TV if you're a couch potato, but those advantages are waning. Forget the phone service. In the event you do want a landline, there are better solutions than getting it from your cable company. I mean, unless they offer it for $10 or something.

The biggest disadvantage to cable-based internet is speed and data caps. Even though they both offer decent download speeds, their upload speeds are pathetic. I mean, it's fine for most traditional residential use-cases. But if you're a tech geek, online gamer, or a WFH user, then those slow uploads can sometimes be painful.

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  • Mediacom has the larger foot print of two major cable TV companies.

  • Charter/Spectrum is the other provider. There's some overlap between these two but not much.

 

DSL

DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line and is the oldest "high speed" internet option around. I quoted the words "high speed" because it's really an abuse of the language to use those words to describe DSL performance. Most people stuck with DSL are getting maybe 10 to 15 mbps download (very often worse) and 0.5 to 3 mbps upload speed.

DSL is a product of "the telephone company". In Columbia, that is CenturyLink (née CenturyTel). The DSL signal rides on the same decades-old copper phone wires that, as I like to joke, Alexander Graham Bell himself personally buried sometime before WWI.

People with DSL (and no cable option) often live outside the city limits in sparsely populated areas where the cable companies don't want to invest in deploying cable. And without the cable companies providing a competitive imperative, then the telephone company is in no hurry to deploy fiber. Isn't competition grand? The only reason these poorly served areas even got DSL in the first place was because the phone lines were already buried for landline telephone service so adding a DSL signal on top wasn't a huge effort -- and they could charge a princely sum for it.

If you can't get fiber or cable internet, there may be better options for you than DSL.

  • CenturyLink is the main DSL provider in Columbia.

  • Socket.net also offers DSL. Socket was founded in 1994 before cable-based internet become a thing. They offered telephone service and DSL. They still do today. But to remain relevant they wisely realized they needed to become a big (local) fiber player.

 

Satellite (Geosynchronous)

The traditional satellite carriers, HughesNet and ViaSat, offer service pretty much everywhere as long as you have a clear view of the southern sky -- no trees or other obstruction. That's their admittedly big (but only) advantage.

These geosynchronous satellites have plenty of downsides.

 

  • Very High Latency: Latency is how long it takes a data packet to travel from your computer to the internet. Lower is better. e.g. Fiber latency is typically 1 ms. Cable latency can be 20-30 ms. But geosynchronous satellite latency is around 240 milliseconds, single-hop (up and down). Twice that if you include the return packet. That's because the satellite is orbiting some 22,000 miles above the earth and the radio waves take that long to reach it. This can negatively impact real time communications like Facetime, Zoom, etc. by introducing lag.

  • Oversubscribed: This is when there's more users (and traffic) trying to flow through the satellite than what it can handle. This can result in dropped packets, queuing, and other delays.

  • Low data caps: Because the satellite is a very limited shared resource, satellite operators severely limit how many gigabytes of data you're allowed before your speed is throttled (even more). Limits of 50 to 100 gigabytes per month aren't uncommon. Compare that with 1,000 gigabytes that most cable internet providers give you and the unlimited gigabytes of most fiber providers.

Satellite (Low Earth Orbit)

There's a new satellite player that you may have heard of. Starlink, developed by SpaceX, is a constellation of thousands of LEO (low earth orbit) satellites. Starlink satellites orbit at around 340 miles, instead of 22,000 miles. That's about 65 times closer to earth which dramatically reduces latency closer to terrestrial cable-based levels.

Starlink is initially intended for rural users who have no other good options for internet access. Mid-Mo users that are too far away from Columbia or other towns to have decent internet options may be able to subscribe to Starlink. SpaceX is taking orders but equipment delivery is seriously delayed due in part to the supply chain issues brought about by COVID.

Once it becomes easily available then Starlink promises to be a game-changer for rural users.

Fixed Wireless

A WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) provides "fixed wireless" services. This is a long distance, point-to-point wireless connection to deliver a signal to a small antenna on your roof. Typically the WISP will have their main antenna on a tall mast that can broadcast a signal for many miles in the surrounding area.

WISPs are indicated only when you have no fiber or cable internet options.

Here's a couple of carriers serving Mid-Mo. There's probably others.

  • Quantum Wireless

  • Wisper Internet

Cellular Wireless

Sort of similar to WISPs, cellular wireless providers deliver internet via a wireless signal to your (usually) rural home or office. There are some important differences in the service specifics such as data caps, speeds, and costs. If you have 5G coverage at your rural location then this may possibly be a better option than DSL.

 

Some wireless carriers like T-Mobile are offering 4G/5G wireless "home internet" service with no data caps for around $50/month. If that's true (no data caps or throttling), it could be a decent option for those who cannot get fiber or cable internet. The downside is that such "home internet" options like this usually have lower priority on the cellular network than do mobile devices. That means it gets whatever bandwidth is left-over after any mobile devices connected to the nearby tower are serviced. That could result in crappy DSL-level speeds during times of high mobile traffic.

This is highly location dependent and how many mobile devices are generally in the area. You'll really never know the true performance over time until after the system is installed.

 

Pirate Access

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This is an non-endorsed, ad-hoc way to get internet access from a collaborator/friend who does have decent internet access. Perhaps your home or business is on the wrong side of a county road or just outside the coverage of the providers in your area.

By setting up a wireless bridge (a type of point-to-point wi-fi), your lucky internet-having friend can beam a signal to your premises. Hardware is not that expensive, distances can be considerable (several miles) and performance can be pretty good. There's no extra cost beyond the hardware itself. There are some downsides and considerations to account for -- but it is an option for the adventurous and desperately disconnected.

Redundancy with Two Providers

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Some businesses and WFH users simply cannot tolerate any loss of internet access whatsoever. Several hours or a full day(s) without internet access may cost such businesses thousands of dollars in lost opportunity, paying employees who cannot do their jobs, and upsetting customers.

 

A fairly cheap insurance policy would be subscribing to two different ISPs and using an auto-failover router to switch between them depending on availability. If one goes down, the other picks up the load almost immediately.

Most developed areas have two ISPs to choose from: A cable-based offering and a telco-based DSL offering, making such redundancy possible. The DSL ISP would likely be the backup due to the slower speeds.

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