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 with a recognition of a universal truth of nature: No one really likes their ISP -- they all suck in myriad ways. They suck in ways that you're not even aware of. ISPs are greedy, monopolistic, customer-hostile oligarchs that lobby for corporate-friendly (and consumer unfriendly) laws. They 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. But 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. Here's how it all works:

logos of various internet service providers

Cable TV Provider
This includes companies such as Comcast, Time-Warner, Brighthouse, Mediacom, Charter, and others. There may be 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.

This is the most common delivery method and is generally pretty good. Speed options 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, there may be fiber 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. Pathetic.

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 coaxial cable-based provider then DSL, crappy though it may be, is the next best choice.

Fiber Provider -- FTTP/H (Fiber To The Premises/Home)
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 coaxial cable-based internet. 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 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, lowering their prices, all while lobbying to legislatively frustrate Google and other would-be entrants any way they can. Google Fiber is so popular that homes for sale that are in a Google Fiber coverage area can command upward 5% higher selling price!

Comcast offers gigabit downlink-only in some areas for $140 a month on average. The uplink is a tiny fraction of that -- less than 5% of the downlink speed.

Many small fiber ISPs are whole-neighborhood-based. They'll only lay fiber if they get the entire neighborhood on a contract, such as an HOA. That's the only way a small fiber ISP can finance the huge 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 numbers. Otherwise they won't lay fiber in that area.

Cellular -- LTE (Long Term Evolution)
If cable-based internet and DSL simply aren't available in your immediate area, but you still aren't 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 considerable. 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 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 cities in an otherwise rural setting that might not have a traditional cable or DSL offering. e.g. 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. My sister lives in an ultra-rural area of south Texas and has a 10 mbps wireless connection to the WISP located in the town about seven miles away. No data caps. 10 mbps certainly isn't fast but it's serviceable and not very expensive.

This really is a last-resort. The only thing worse than satellite is dial-up which I'm not even discussing. Satellite is slow, has quite literally sky high latency (lag), and is usually oversubscribed (too many users sharing a limited resource). A complete double round-trip is about 100,000 miles. Radio waves max out at 186,000 miles per second (because physics) in a vacuum. So that's a bit over half a second for a complete two-way round trip for a datagram and its reply -- an eternity that is agonizingly noticeable. You can't comfortably use satellite for any real time communication like Skype or Facetime. And, like LTE, there are monthly data caps to contend with. So streaming is pretty much out of the question.

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

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 country 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 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. The two lines can also be bonded for increased speed.

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. Slower yes, but far better than nothing at all.

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 one gbps data rate or anything close to it. e.g. I have 250 mbps service with my community fiber provider and frequently see sub-100 mbps transfers because the websites I'm connected to just can't push any faster. Yet when I test using various speedtest servers, I do get the 250 mbps that I'm promised.

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

So to answer the original question, "who is the best?", you'll probably have very little choice. Who you choose is based on the 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, et al)

  • DSL (AT&T, et al)

  • 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 in the boonies with literally no other options)

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