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What to consider when choosing an internet provider

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Researched by
Bridie BowerbankContributing Writer
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Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 2/9/23

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A man looking at internet related iconography that represent different ISP options

There are pros and cons to every internet service provider (ISP), so you should thoroughly research your options before making the switch to someone new.

Though similar in many ways, each provider has different plans and packages to appeal to a variety of consumers and each prioritizes specific needs over others. Some providers focus on being available nationwide, while others want to be known for having plans with the fastest internet speeds.

Understanding your needs and what each provider does best will help you select a new ISP that’s compatible with your internet goals.

Consider these top eight criteria for choosing a new internet provider.

1. Availability

Whether you’re moving to a new location or are simply dissatisfied with the plan options your current provider offers, your search to choose a new internet provider should always begin by checking the availability in your area. Coverage can vary dramatically from one city to another—sometimes even between neighborhoods—so it’s important to know what your options are before digging any deeper.

Knowing who the local internet service providers are can be especially important in helping you decide where to live when moving to a new location. I recently made an off-hand comment to my husband about how much I loved our current plan with Google Fiber. He told me to enjoy it while we have it since, due to limited availability, we’ll likely have to switch to a new provider when we eventually move.

By finding out what providers are available in your area first, you’ll save yourself research and help narrow down your list to only those ISPs that are viable candidates for internet services.

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We’ve picked CenturyLink as the best rural internet provider. CenturyLink has good DSL availability in remote areas, so you can still get a reliable, wired internet connection even where cable and fiber don’t reach. It offers low prices, no contracts, and unlimited data. All of this makes it an attractive option compared to satellite internet or fixed wireless.

2. Connection type

Going hand in hand with number one, the second factor to consider when selecting a new ISP is the internet connection type. Make sure you thoroughly research these two questions:

  1. What type of internet connection can your residence support?
  2. What type of internet connection do you need or prefer?

There’s no point in getting your heart set on fiber internet if the infrastructure doesn’t exist yet in your area. Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of research time by first verifying your house has been wired for a telephone landline before digging into local DSL providers.

However, if your residence isn’t currently wired for a specific connection type, it doesn’t mean that it’s off the table entirely. In some locations, you can pay a technician to come wire your house so that it supports a specific type of internet connection. Just keep in mind that there may be an additional cost associated with this installation, so be sure to factor that into your final decision.

There are several different internet connection types. Here are some of the most common and a few pros and cons about each:

Fiber internet

Fiber internet uses its own network of fiber-optic cables, usually made of glass, and pulses of light to transmit data back and forth.


  • Fastest internet speeds
  • Most reliable connection
  • Symmetrical download/upload speeds

  • Limited availability
  • Generally higher prices

Cable internet

Cable internet uses the same wiring that delivers your cable TV.


  • Wide availability
  • Bundled TV/internet service packages
  • Frequent first-year discounts

  • Slower speeds at peak hours
  • Price increases after first year

Fixed wireless

Fixed wireless uses cell phone signals (like 5G) to bring internet to homes and offices.


  • No cable installation necessary
  • Decent speeds
  • Inexpensive

  • Vulnerable to signal interference
  • High latency

DSL internet

DSL stands for “Digital Subscriber Line.” This type of internet sends data via landline wires.


  • Wide availability
  • No shared bandwidth
  • Generally cheaper prices than cable or fiber

  • Much slower speeds than cable or fiber internet
  • Speed variation based on distance from the telephone company office

Satellite internet

Satellite internet uses a satellite in space to direct data signals.


  • Availability even in rural areas

  • Slower speeds than cable or fiber internet
  • Restrictive data caps
  • Higher cost per Mbps

Looking at the pros and cons for each type of internet, you may be able to rule a few options out right off the bat. (For example, we don’t recommend satellite internet unless it’s the only option in your area.) This will help you filter your list of available providers in your area down to just the local ones that offer the internet connection type you need.

3. Download and upload speed

As you start to look through each provider’s plans, a major consideration should be your internet speed. This is by far the most important part of a plan because inadequate bandwidth will cause all of your digital activities to screech to an abrupt, buffering halt.

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The most important factor in how much internet speed you need at home is how many devices are connecting at once. Most apps don’t use very much
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Our team of speed hounds analyzed max internet speeds from providers in the US, and we found the fastest (and most reliably fast) options out there. These internet plans can handle dozens of simultaneous streams, VR chat, live gaming, and even massive video conference calls.

Internet speed is broken down into two types:

Upload speed

This measures how long it takes for your device to send data to the internet. In simple terms, think of uploading as anytime you are sending something of yours out into the larger digital world. This includes activities like sending an email you’ve written, posting photos on social media, or using your webcam to share your video feed with another person.

  • Standard = 3–5 Mbps
  • High-speed = 5+ Mbps

Download speed

This measures how long it takes for data to move from the internet network to your device. Think of this as anytime you’re watching, reading, or enjoying something on the internet that was created by someone else. This includes activities like streaming a popular TV show, playing online video games, or receiving an email. Download speed is almost always faster than upload speed because most users tend to download data more than they upload.

  • Standard = 3–25 Mbps
  • High-speed = 25+ Mbps

If you don’t already know how much speed you need to keep your online devices running smoothly, you can start by doing a speed test to find out what internet speed you’re currently living with. Once you know your current speed, you’ll have a benchmark for what kind of speed you’ll need to meet your current internet needs. Ask yourself, are your videos choppy? Is there frequent buffering? Do you anticipate adding more internet devices than what you currently have in the near future? (i.e. replacing old devices with smart devices)

If the answer is yes, then it might be time to look at upgrading your plan to higher speeds. Speed requirements will vary based on the activity you’re doing. Here are some of the most common minimum speed requirements:

  • Streaming HD content: 5–25 Mbps
  • Online gaming: 3–6 Mbps, but more competitive games often require more
  • Downloading large files: 100–200 Mbps
  • Video conferencing: at least 5 Mbps, but anything higher will provide better video quality
A woman has a plan with enough internet speed to perform online activities.

Keep in mind that these minimum speeds apply to a single user or device at a time, so if you have multiple people trying to stream or do video calls at the same time, your minimum speed will increase.

4. Plan costs and provider contracts

The next criteria to consider when choosing a new internet provider is plan costs, including whether it requires contracts.

If you’ve successfully used the previous criteria to screen comapnies, you’ll now be left with a list of only the plans that can support your current internet habits from providers who actually service your area. This will make it much easier and faster to do a straight cost-to-cost comparison to see who offers the best rates.

As you compare costs, keep in mind that many internet providers require an annual contract with extra fees for early cancellations. It’s also common for providers to increase the monthly rate after your first year of service. Make sure you know which plans require a contract and if the advertised cost is a fixed rate or subject to regular price increases. You can also take a look at our best cheap internet providers.

5. Reputation and reliability

As you narrow down the list of viable internet providers, one of the best things you can do is check the reputation of the options on your list by doing these things:

  • Browse online reviews
  • Join a forum discussion about the provider (we like Reddit)
  • Watch YouTube video reviews about other customers’ experiences
  • Read answers from their support team
  • Ask your friends and followers on social media what they think about the provider

No one will give you a more honest review than a current subscriber who has nothing to gain or lose by sharing their opinion. Keep in mind that consumers who have had negative experiences are often more likely to share their opinion publicly than those who are happy with their internet provider, so these reviews will often skew toward the negative.

An angry customer gives a bad online review.

Gathering feedback from current subscribers will give you a better feel for each provider’s reputation, customer service, and reliability. It will also help you notice any red flags that you would otherwise miss.

I’ve found that performing a little qualitative research goes a long way. I want to select a company I can rely on, so if I find out an ISP is known for throttling its customers’ data, that’s a deal breaker for me. If it’s great at providing fast internet but tends to raise prices periodically, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but something I want to be aware of before I sign a contract.

Other things to look into to help you determine if an internet provider is reliable and has a good reputation include:

  • Security: Does it offer extra security features? Does it automatically install security updates, or do you have to remember to update your router security yourself?
  • Customer support: Does it have a 24/7 support line or set hours? What options are available for contacting customer support?
  • Outage reports: How often is service down? How long do outages typically last? Do users frequently report not being able to access their internet?

6. Equipment

As you compare potential internet providers, check what equipment is required for setup and whether or not the internet company provides it for you.

Most ISPs require both a modem and router. The modem is the device that connects your home to the broader network. A router connects to the modem in order to enable wireless internet connection throughout your home. Alternatively, some providers offer a gateway, which combines the router and modem into one device.

Before I make a final decision on an internet provider, I want to know if the modem and router I currently have are compatible with its services. If they aren’t, then that’s a cost I need to plan for. Many companies will provide you with their own approved equipment to set up your internet service or offer to rent it to you for a small extra fee. Others might require you to purchase the equipment yourself. If you want or need your own equipment, there are several factors to consider when it comes to choosing a modem and router.

It also doesn’t hurt to become familiar with the troubleshooting process for when your router isn’t connecting to the internet or if it becomes damaged. Replacement fees are usually fairly affordable, but it’s another good thing to know up front before signing a contract.

7. Installation

If you haven’t used very many interent service providers, you may not know that each of them has its own installation process. Some, like Google Fiber, will send out a technician who brings all of the necessary equipment, cables, and gear to set up and install your internet for you free of charge. Others, like Xfinity, are also willing to send a technician out to install your new internet, but they charge an extra fee for this service.

Probably one of the most common options that’s rising in popularity among bigger, nation-wide providers is to send new subscribers a Getting Started Kit with instructions on how to install the internet yourself. Though this option sounds daunting at first, we will say that all of the Getting Started Kits we’ve received have had very clear instructions and were easy to follow.

I’ve put the installation process towards the end of the internet provider criteria list because, while important, it often isn’t a make-it-or-break-it feature. If you’re stuck between two plans from two really good providers, it can be a good tie breaker based on your personal preference and how tech-savvy you are.

Luckily, you can find a tutorial for almost anything on YouTube. Just make sure that even if your new internet company doesn’t provide installation services, it will provide support if you get stuck.

8. Extra perks

Recently, I’ve seen lots of providers add extra perks or bonus items to their internet packages to make them seem more appealing.

For me, the most important thing in this whole process is that I walk away with fast, reliable internet and a plan that can meet my needs. Any additional items like free subscriptions to popular streaming services, voice-command remotes, Visa gift cards, Rokus, Echo Dots, etc. are simply that—additional. They may be fun, but they aren’t necessary. Similar to installation costs, package perks can be helpful tie breakers if you’re stuck going back and forth on plans from two providers, but there are much more important criteria to consider first.

That said, if it's really important to you to have a Disney+ subscription, then why not save a few dollars by packaging that subscription with your internet plan? Similarly, if you already have a cable subscription, it may be worth bundling your cable and internet services together in one package to take advantage of the offered discounts.

Definitely take time to browse and compare the different perks offered by various ISP packages. Just make sure you also give equal or greater consideration to more important criteria like reliability, speed, and cost to ensure you pick the best internet service provider for your needs.

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Contributing researcher
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Researched by
Bridie BowerbankContributing Writer
Contributing reviewer
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Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.