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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 can't 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: Brightspeed and Socket.net

  • Brightspeed: 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 was slowly deploying fiber to more neighborhoods. Time will tell what Brightspeed will do.
    Note: Was briefly known as Quantum, before that it was CenturyLink, and long before that CenturyTel.       Sheesh.
     

  • 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, and around mid-Mo. 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 burying cable (for TV service) 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 $5 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 aren't great. 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 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 Brightspeed as of Oct 2022, CenturyLink before that. 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 fiber or 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.

  • Brightspeed 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 few carriers serving Columbia. There's probably others.

  • iZones

  • Quantum Wireless

  • Tranquility Internet

Cellular Wireless

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 4G or better coverage at your rural location then this may possibly be a better option than DSL.

 

Some wireless carriers like T-Mobile are offering 4G wireless "home internet" service that could be a decent option for those who cannot get fiber, cable, or (fast) DSL. The downside is that such home internet options like this is usually derated (has 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 in any given instance in time.

 

They sometimes wireless plans advertise no data caps but somehow fail to mention that when you exceed a "soft cap" then your service is subject to significant throttling for a period of time, usually until the next billing cycle begins. You'll really never know the true performance of this solution until after the system is installed and you've had a chance to use it for a while.

Cellular "home internet" is not an equivalent replacement for a physical connection to the provider such as cable or fiber. The reason is simple. There's orders of magnitude less capacity* in the wireless radio spectrum than over a wired connection. T-Mobile especially has been heavily advertising this service. As more and more people sign-up, the service may slow down for everyone as the network becomes saturated with traffic. Data caps (soft or hard) will be enforced and speeds lowered.

In short, I only recommend this if a wired-solution is unavailable or if only DSL on the lower end of its range (less than 5 mbps) is available.

* Capacity doesn't mean how fast your individual performance metrics are. It refers to the ability to simultaneously provide that level of performance to a large number of subscribers.

Pirate Access

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

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 or even three delivery options to choose from. You might have fiber as a primary and a cable-based offering for the backup. If fiber isn't available, then your primary might be cable with DSL as a backup. Even cellular could be a backup.

Over the years we've seen increased deployment of fiber. But alas things don't move as fast as I'd like to see. There's a number of reasons for that including political interference, monopolistic practices, and good old-fashioned corporate greed.

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