By Marie Flanagan October 19, 2021
Summary: When you’re in the market for a new internet service provider, it can be hard to know where to start. What questions should you ask? How do you know what to look for? We’ve got you covered with the most important building blocks, plus we dive into what to look for if you’re a streaming fanatic, gamer, or student.
Picture this: your internet service frequently goes out during important meetings, in the middle of class, or on a video call with the parents. On top of that, you feel like you’re paying too much — your monthly bill keeps climbing up and up from that great promotional deal you signed up with. It feels like there’s nothing you can do about it, even though that plan isn’t the best fit for your life anymore.
If that sounds familiar, it’s time to switch high-speed internet providers! The thought of researching new providers, comparing benefits, and then calling your current provider to cancel your service can sound overwhelming. But you deserve the right connection — a high-speed internet plan that fits your life and budget.
We’ll break down the main things to look for in an internet service provider, and go into specifics about what to consider if you’re a streamer, gamer, or student.
There are lots of ways to find a new internet service provider (ISP), but we suggest starting with the answers to a few basic questions.
First, are there contracts? Depending on the type of internet connection available to you, there could be lengthy contracts involved. For most services, a one-year contract is standard. But if you tend to move more often than that, be sure to factor in early termination fees before signing up.
Second, is there transparent pricing? Some ISPs entice new customers with low intro rates. But, as you stick with your provider, your rate increases (and increases) and you wind up paying significantly more for the exact same service. Not cool. Instead, look for a provider who doesn’t use teaser rates (and pro tip: avoid unnecessary bundling). That way, you’re paying for what you need and nothing more — and no surprises.
Third, are there data caps? A data cap is a restriction on how much information you can send and receive online. Activities like sending emails don’t require a high amount of data, but streaming or gaming do — particularly if you enjoy the best available graphics. If you go over your limit, you can experience much slower speeds for the rest of your billing cycle (known as speed throttling) or be hit with large fees. If possible, look for an ISP with no internet data caps. That way, you never have to worry.
Once you’ve got the right answers to those three questions, you’ll want to find out which one has the right speed. A lot of providers will tell you that more speed is automatically better. That can be true, but it can also leave you stuck with a bill for more than you really need.
There’s a better way.
If mental math isn’t your cup of tea, use a bandwidth calculator. You’ll just answer a few simple questions and receive a recommendation for what speed your household needs. Easy!
If you prefer to do the math, consider how you use the internet.
A speed of 25 Mbps might work if your household…
Need more speed? 100 Mbps or more might be for you if your household…
For more connected households, 500 Mbps might be the right speed. This is ideal for households that…
The more devices you have, the more speed you’ll need to avoid any bottlenecks or breakdowns in your network. If you’re a tech fanatic, or have a household of people who love their devices, you could play it safe and opt for 1 Gbps (or 1,000 Mbps). As the gold standard in internet speed, 1 Gbps gives you the power to do virtually anything on any number of devices without a problem. The only downside? It’s not available everywhere yet.
Now that you know your ideal speed, you can compare plans. Just remember one thing: if you’re planning to add any devices in the next year or so (or anticipate increasing the amount of time you’re spending streaming or gaming), it’s a good idea to give yourself some growing room. For example, if you tested for a recommendation of 25 Mbps, but know that in the next 6 months you’ll be going back to school and needing to watch videos and make conference calls more frequently, choosing a 100 Mbps plan will help ensure you don’t have to make another rapid upgrade.
While these rules of thumb will work for just about anyone comparing ISPs, if you’re a streamer, gamer, or student, you’ll want to consider a few other specific features.
If you’re a heavy streamer, you’ll need to take that into consideration when choosing your next internet plan. Whether you’re streaming Netflix, HBO Max, YouTube, or a combination of multiple platforms, seamless compatibility is likely important. You’ll want to take the number of streaming devices (TVs, gaming systems, streaming sticks like Roku or Amazon’s Firestick) into account. Be sure to find the download speed that works for you.
You’ll also need to consider what definition you’re streaming in. Standard definition (SD) streaming requires considerably less bandwidth than streaming in 4K or even high definition (HD). If you tend to stream in 4K and/or across multiple devices at the same time, finding an internet service provider with no data caps will be vitally important. Video streaming is a high-data consuming activity and can quickly get you to your data limit, resulting in speeds so slow you can’t stream.
In addition to increased emphasis on speed and data caps, you’ll need equipment that can keep up. Your modem and router can actually have an impact on the internet speed you experience. You’ll need hardware that’s new enough to handle the plan that works best for you, and you’ll want to place it in a central location (away from brick, concrete, other electronic devices, and stacks of books) to have the best experience. We suggest finding an ISP who rents your modem and router – that way, you never have to worry about compatibility with your plan. And, if you upgrade your high-speed internet, you don’t have to go buy a new router. Win-win.
Looking for high-speed internet, no data caps, and rentable equipment will let you get back to binge-watching your favorite show from any room in your house.
As a gamer, you probably already know that internet speed is important. But, unlike streaming, you need to worry about two types of internet speed.
Download speed is how fast you can receive data like seeing the moves your teammates have made. But upload speed is how fast you can send data. In other words, how long it takes for the action you did to upload to the server and register.
Historically, upload speeds didn’t really matter. Most people weren’t sending a large amount of data on a regular basis and waiting a few extra seconds for an email attachment to upload wasn’t a problem. Gaming has changed that. Slow upload times can be the difference between a victory and a bitter defeat that has you promising your teammates it’s your internet connection, not you.
Lag, or ping, time also factors into this. Ping time is how much time your device requires to send signals to a server and receive the response. You want this number to be as low as possible. And, just like with streaming, you’ll want to consider the graphics resolution that you prefer when choosing an internet plan. Better graphics require faster speeds and more data.
To achieve the best of all possible worlds, opt for high-speed fiber internet. Fiber internet has symmetrical speeds, meaning that your upload and download speeds are the same. This offers much faster upload speeds than older types of internet like cable.
Students have unique needs – and their internet plan should reflect that.
As a student, consider what you’re using the internet for. Homework? Online classes? Video conferencing and group projects? That will help determine what speeds you need. You should also pay special attention to contract lengths. College students tend to move every school year (or more frequently!) and often have roommates. You could also ask:
Oh, and remember to ask your roommates how they tend to use the internet, too. If you’re all heavy internet users, you’ll need faster speeds than if most people in your household will be working from campus or a university and only scrolling social media while at home. We suggest gathering everyone up and taking a bandwidth test to get a realistic estimate of how much speed you need.
Finally, ask if your ISP offers any student discounts on your internet service or on additional services (like a VPN to keep you safe while working at coffee shops). Choosing the right ISP is key to having the internet connection that will allow you to complete group work, attend class, and submit homework on time – even if it’s the last second.
No matter if you’re a student, streamer, or gamer, it’s essential to carefully consider your internet service provider options before choosing one to meet your needs. From speeds to data caps to fine print, you deserve the right connection. Get in touch with one of our Internet Experts today (or call 866-383-3080) to find the plan that’s right for you.
Marie Flanagan is a contributing writer for EarthLink. She’s a life-long Atlantan with a passion for SaaS, IoT, AI, fintech, and everything technology. Her ideal offline situation is volunteering in STEM education for girls or on her front porch with a book.
See all posts from Marie Flanagan.