Internet Service Providers -- Who is the Best?

That question might be more properly asked as who is the least worst?

​Let's begin this article recognizing a universal truth of nature: No one really likes their ISP. They are greedy, monopolistic, customer-hostile oligarchs that lobby for corporate-friendly (and consumer unfriendly) laws. They hike rates at every opportunity, misbill and often refuse to fix it, they give their customers vulgar nicknames, break their promises, lie, refuse to cancel services, and more -- oh, so much more.

 

Of the 4,362 business types listed in a BBB report in 2018, ISPs rank #8 and Cable TV ranks #3 in complaints, both in the top 10. That's pretty bad, yes? Unfortunately, they are a necessary evil in today's internet-connected world.

​There are lots of ways to get internet into your home or office, some better than others. So let's review them all here, in no particular order:

numerous i s p logos

Cable TV Provider

This includes companies such as Comcast, Time-Warner, Brighthouse, Mediacom, Charter, and others. They may use some fiber-based distribution to your area. But the subscriber loop, sometimes called the "last mile" (the cable that actually comes to your home or business) is coaxial. The connector has the familiar hexagonal "nut" on the end that looks like you'd need a small wrench to loosen.

This is the most common delivery method and is generally pretty good. Speeds of 100 mbps is fairly common these days and even 500 mbps to 1 gbps is possible in some areas, although at considerable cost.

Telephone Provider -- DSL (Digital Subscriber Line)

This includes companies such as AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, and the old Bell operating companies like BellSouth, Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, Mountain Bell, and others -- even if they don't go by those names any longer. Like the cable TV providers above, they may use fiber for delivery to the area, but in this case the subscriber loops are all twisted-pair -- the same decades-old wires that Alexander Graham Bell himself probably buried.

 

Twisted pair doesn't have the bandwidth that coax has and line loss is far greater. The distance between your home or business and the local node highly dictates the maximum speed you can get. DSL tops out around 25 mbps if you're very lucky and happen to be sitting literally right next to the node. Speeds under 10 mbps is all too common if you're several thousand cable-feet away from the node, which isn't very far. I have clients that top out at 1.5 mbps and they are thankful to get it. How unfortunate.

Most anyone who actually has cable-based internet as an option is probably already using it -- or should be. DSL service is crappy and slow. But if you don't have a proper cable-based provider then DSL, however crappy, is the next best choice.

Fiber Provider -- FTTP (Fiber To The Premises)

This is the gold standard. If you can choose an FTTP provider for your internet service then consider yourself lucky -- very lucky indeed. Precious few Americans can get fiber to their home or business. Most of the big phone companies (AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, etc.) are slowly deploying fiber (and only in the most profitable areas) because they know their DSL sucks and it's the only way they can compete against cable. That much is good.

Not surprisingly, the telcos aren't deploying fiber very aggressively, or at all, in areas that lack cable-based internet. From a purely capitalistic viewpoint, why should they? If an area only has DSL (and no cable-based ISP) then they likely already have that business so why spend money building out fiber? Nevermind that DSL sucks. All that matters from the telco point of view is that area customers have no better choice. Ain't competition grand? /snark

Google Fiber is (was*) the hero in fiber deployment, offering bidirectional gigabit service for $70 a month on average as of this writing (early 2017). When Google Fiber comes to town, everyone else starts upping their game by improving their services and lowering their prices. Google Fiber is so popular that homes for sale in a Google Fiber coverage area can command upward 5% higher selling price!

* Sadly, Google is no longer expanding fiber service due in part to the legislative roadblocks put in place by Republican lawmakers, mostly at the state level, at the behest of the entrenched ISPs. But they are maintaining their existing fiber network.

Comcast offers gigabit download-only in some areas for $140 a month on average. The upload speed is a tiny fraction of that, usually topping out at 30 mbps. Pretty sorry if you depend on hosted (cloud-based) backup services or other internet-heavy activity.

Some smaller fiber ISPs are neighborhood-based. They'll deploy fiber only if they get the entire neighborhood on a contract, such as through an HOA. That's the only way a small fiber ISP can finance the cost of fiber deployment. Huge ISPs like Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink offer fiber at retail but only in areas where the demographics support and predict high subscription rates with lots of expensive added services.

Cellular -- LTE (Long Term Evolution)

If cable and DSL internet aren't available in your immediate area, but you still aren't too far in the boonies, then you might be able to use cellular LTE service. Properly setup with a small outdoor antenna, LTE can be faster than DSL, often hitting 25 mbits -- maybe even upwards 50 mbits if an uncrowded (low traffic) tower is nearby. But be warned! This is a metered service. Gigabyte limits per month are low and overage charges are steep. You'd never use a cellular connection for any kind of TV streaming such as Netflix. The monthly data plans are essentially the same as for your smart phone. While you might not suck down that much data on your phone, your regular computer will suck down data -- and lots of it.

Fixed Wireless -- WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider)

WISPs use fixed-point beam (directional) antennas to bring the internet to your premises in areas that lack cable and DSL options and often lack LTE as well. WISPs have far higher monthly data allotments than cellular LTE and some plans may be unlimited. WISPs are popular in smaller towns in an otherwise rural setting that might not have a traditional cable or DSL offering.

A town of a couple of thousand people or the immediately surrounding area might not have cable, DSL, or LTE options available. But these towns may have a WISP. There are many dozens of WISPs around the US. Most are local or regional.

Click Here to find one near you.

My sister lives in an ultra-rural area of south Texas and has a decent 10 mbps wireless connection to the WISP located in the town about seven miles away. No data caps, either. 10 mbps isn't super fast but it's serviceable, enough for a single streaming TV, and not very expensive.

Geosynchronous Satellite

The two nationwide providers are Hughesnet and Viasat. This is the same type of satellite used for years for DirecTV and really is a last-resort. The only thing worse than geosynchronous satellite is dial-up which I'm not even discussing. "Geosynchronous" means the satellite stays in the same spot in the sky -- it doesn't move relative to the earth. That's why you can have a DirecTV dish on a pole or your home pointed at the sky and never have to adjust it.

 

This type of satellite internet is slow, has quite literally sky high latency (lag), and is usually oversubscribed (too many users sharing a severely limited resource). A complete double round-trip between earth and the satellite is about 100,000 miles. Radio waves max out at 186,000 miles per second (because physics). So that's a bit over half a second for a complete two-way round trip for a datagram and its reply -- an eternity. You can't comfortably use satellite for any real time communication like Skype, Zoom, or Facetime. And like LTE there are monthly data caps to contend with. So streaming is not a good idea.

Geosynchronous Satellite internet is indicated only if there is absolutely no other option. Yes, it's that bad.

VLEO Satellite

Elon Musk of Tesla fame is creating a new satellite service called Starlink which will consist of a mesh constellation of tens of thousands of satellites. These orbit at much lower altitudes (VLEO - Very Low Earth Orbit) of just a few hundred miles instead of 23,000 miles -- nearly 100 times closer. That means far less signal travel distance resulting in far less latency. It'll have latency comparable to earth-based internet like from your cable company.

I'm super excited about Starlink because it promises to provide decent high speed internet access to rural areas that today have only crappy internet service like Hughesnet. Starlink expects to be fully operational by the end of 2022.

Pirate Access

This is a setup where you use a wireless bridge (similar to what WISPs use) to get internet access from a collaborator/friend who does have decent access. Perhaps your home/business is on the wrong side of a county road or just outside the coverage map of the only provider in your area. By setting up a wireless bridge, 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 is 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 simply cannot tolerate any loss of internet access whatsoever. Several hours or a full day without internet 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 then 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.

Fiber DIA -- Dedicated Internet Access

For businesses, another option for higher reliability is fiber DIA. Unlke shared "Best Effort" internet service, DIA service bandwidth isn't shared with neighboring businesses so you are guaranteed the speed you subscribe to. And most DIA circuits are symmetrical. That just means the upload and download speeds are the same, say, 100/100.

Another advantage to DIA is reliability. Uptime is usually guaranteed at 99.99% (known in the biz as "four 9's"). If service does go down, DIA subscribers are at the front of the line for repair. All this is backed by an SLA (Service Level Agreement), a contract that stipulates the performance specs, uptime, and monetary compensation to the subscriber in the event the SLA is violated.

But all that comes at a pretty big cost. I recently helped a client get a 100/100 fiber DIA circuit that costs about $1,000 per month. But he owns a multi-million dollar business that critically relies on solid internet service -- the opportunity loss he suffered during the numerous outages with regular internet was substantial.

Feeling the Need for Speed

While it sounds exciting to consider the prospect of getting one gigabit (1,000 megabits) service, it's generally pointless at this time, indeed, if it's even available to you. Most websites and services can't feed you at 1 gbps data rate or anything close to it. If you have numerous users doing internet intensive activities such as HD or 4K streaming or gaming, then 1 gbps might be worth it.

In my experience, I've found that 100-250 mbps is the sweet spot right now. For now, anything faster is just a waste of money unless you have many concurrent users that are all simultaneously streaming.

Closing

So to answer the original question, "who is the best?", you'll probably have very little choice. Who you choose is based on the limited choices available in your area. Here's a quick list of delivery technologies from best to worst, considering all the various pros and cons of each.

  • FTTP (if you can get it, good luck with that)

  • Cable (Comcast, Mediacom, etc.)

  • Starlink (not fully available)

  • DSL (AT&T, CenturyLink, etc.)

  • WISP (may actually be better than DSL, depends on many factors)

  • LTE (Decent speeds usually, but scored low mainly due to very low data caps and high overage charges)

  • Pirate Access (if you can arrange it and understand the downsides)

  • Satellite (only if you are deep in the boonies with no other options)

  • Dial-up (Hello? The 1990s called, they want their 56k fax modem back. Forget it, dial-up is not an option)