There are a number of ways to connect your computer to the Internet. The discussion which follows is primarily concerned with your INTERNET connectivity rather than general connectivity for your TV or telephone, although most of the factors apply to all, as providers now “bundle” all three, whether you want/need them or not:
This isn’t a simple question to answer. There are a number of factors to consider in making a decision about which is the right internet service for you:
WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?
CABLE service for the internet is a service that allows you to hook up your computer to a local cable television line and transmit and receive data over a cable modem into your computer through the wired (cabled) or wireless ethernet card. Because the cable leading to your house and into the cable modem is coaxial cable, your service is known as “cable”. Through a device known as a “splitter” the frequencies of your cable signal are divided into television and computer signals and routed appropriately. (But too many splitters can degrade the signal, making it slower, see more about this below.) There is also a service known as Digital Cable Service, primarily for television, which provides a higher quality picture.
DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line (originally called “Loop”). DSL is a family of technologies that provide digital data transmission over local telephone lines. DSL typically works by dividing the frequencies on a single telephone line into two primary “bands”. The internet data is carried over the high frequency band (25 kHz and above), while the voice is carried over the lower frequency band (4 kHz and below). The user typically installs a DSL “filter” on each voice phone line, which filters out the high frequencies, allowing the phone’s limitation for telephone use. The high frequency is transmitted through a DSL modem, where it can be fed to the computer through a wireless or wired ethernet card, same as cable. All DSL provided over a single telephone line, is “always on,” has high speed access compared to analog telephone lines (“POTS”), and has some limitations based on the distance from the telephone provider’s switchgear (a maximum of about 3 miles (actually an 18,000 foot “loop”); the shorter the distance, the faster the networking).
[You can skip this explanation of DSL, and continue on, unless you’re really interested in DSL.] There are three types of DSL:
First is Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (“ADSL”), designed to support the typical home user (who frequently downloads large amounts of data from web sites and P2P networks, but uploads relatively less often) by allocating a majority of the available telephone line frequencies for communication of “downstream” traffic. ADSL is technically capable of speeds up to 6 Mbps, but in practice delivers about 2 Mbps or lower for downloads and up to only 512 Kbps for uploads. [There is also a sub-category of ADSL known as RADSL (“Rate Adaptive Asymmetric DSL”) which configures at start-up to test the telephone line and adjust the data rate; however, RADSL typically operates at rates even lower than standard ADSL.]
The next higher type of DSL service is Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (“SDSL”), which provides approximately equal bandwidth for both uploads and downloads (see definitions below), at speeds approaching 4 Mbps (3,088 Kbps). Originally developed in Europe, this was one of the earliest forms of DSL not to require multiple telephone lines.
The third and highest speed DSL is VDSL (“Video DSL”; sometimes also called VADSL, BDSL or even Very-High-Speed-DSL). This was developed to support exceptionally high-bandwidth applications such as high-definition television (HDTV), rather than computers. It achieves rates up to 51,840 Kbps, making it the highest available form of DSL.
O.K., if you’re considering FIOS, you can start reading again here:
FIOS: Starting in 2004, Verizon began the first large scale deployment of fiber optic service (“FIOS”). By using fiber optic (glass) cables to transfer data via pulses of light [instead of copper or coax cable] at, well, the speed of light. FIOS is capable of very high transmission speeds. FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) service can range in speed from 5 to 50 Mbps downstream and 2 to 5 Mbps upstream, subject to conditions, of course. But it’s not available everywhere, at least yet. And it still connects to the copper wiring in your home, somewhat slowing the transmission.
SATELLITE: You’ve probably seen those TV commercials for HughesNet or WildBlue satellite internet. And some satellite TV services, like DirecTV, also offer internet service. If you happen to be one of those people who live far beyond the availability of either cable or DSL, other than plain old telephone service (“POTS”) dial-up, your only choice for high-speed internet may be through a satellite connection. It will not be nearly as fast as the other choices described here, and the installation and service for the satellite disk will be more expensive, but you really have no choice. Between 2010 and 2012, however, second generation satellites were launched, making the speed more competitive with cable and DSL. (You’ll still have problems with weather-related reception problems, such as snow on your satellite dish or impenetrable cloud cover during storms, however.) We mention it by way of completeness for this discussion, but for most of us, satellite broadband is not a viable option if other services are available.
ANTENNA: While it’s impossible to get internet service with an old-style antenna mounted on your house, you can still can get at least some TV the old fashioned way. Believe it or not, there are still external home TV antennas (you remember, “rabbit ears” for indoor use, and the big outdoor ones you bolt on to the outside of your house) available that you can install so you can receive free UHF/VHF channels and even a few HD channels on your HDTV. [I’ve seen these and they work rather well.] Companies like TVAntennaSale.com offer mountable antennas with 36dB gain and 150 mile range. No monthly fees, somewhat limited reception and channels, but a good free alternative if that’s all you want. And the RCA ultra-thin indoor antenna, at about $69, receives local HD and digital TV broadcasts at up to 1080dp, but looks nothing like the old rabbit ears. Rather, it’s an 11-by-13 inch flat antenna that you mount on a window and connect via a USB power supply. Not quite plug-and-play, but not very difficult, either. [Also, in a dozen states or so, there are services like Aero and FilmOn that use special dime-sized antennas to stream full TV to your house without the cable or phone company as middleman. But they’re stepping on cable’s and phone’s toes, and the case is currently pending before the Supreme Court about whether these services will continue to be allowed. Click HERE and HERE for more. 6/25/14 UPDATE - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Aero and others which scoop up free streaming TV and forward them to subscribers, so it looks like this option is no longer available, unless something else comes along.] Unfortunately, there is usually no internet component to the signal you receive from any of these antennas, so they’re a limited part of this discussion. I just mention it in case you’re comparing services in separate from or in addition to internet. See FAQ #46 for more about this.
DIAL-UP: You can still get “dial-up” internet over your telephone land line (“POTS,” or “Plain Old Telephone Service”). If you can stand the slow speed or loading of incomplete pages. All of the old services like Juno, PeoplePC, NetZero and others are still in business, although no longer free. And they’re not broadband, so you may not be able to view videos, download large files (including some photos) or see many web pages. I don’t even consider this type of service part of this discussion. But, if all you are doing is checking your e-mail on your computer, it’s useful for that, and quite inexpensive. Still, I think your money would be better spent getting a “smart” cell phone with e-mail capabilities (which will likely come with internet access as well). And, if you have a free data plan or don’t require much data, you may be able to “tether” your cellular phone to a computer for internet access, or use an HDMI cable if your phone supports this connection or else get a wireless “hot spot” to receive wireless internet not only to your laptop but to several devices. ( Most laptops come with built in Wi-Fi. But, to stream to a desktop, you’ll probably have to install a wireless antenna card, less than $100.) Still, it probably won’t be nearly as fast as a direct cable or DSL/FIOS connection to your computer and may not be available for every type of phone hardware or service plan. Also, your phone provider may prohibit tethering (see below), not provide that service (e.g. Cricket) or cap your connection speeds if you do it much, so you should check this first.
FIBRE: At the moment, this is not generally available, except in limited geographic areas. But it looks to be the next major high-speed broadband technology for the future, so it must be included with your options. If it’s available in your area, you should definitely go for it. A preview of this new technology took place on July 26, 2012, when Google announced that it was testing Google Fibre in Kansas City, MO. Google claims that fibre will increase internet speeds as much as 20 times faster than cable and telecom broadband networks, operating at a gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second, providing subscribers with near instantaneous downloads and streaming video, more in line with the high-speed broadband in other countries. (Current cable and telecom speeds are at about 5.8 Mbps (megabits per second)) and that’s without the capping and surcharges on customers that actually use lots of bandwidth, the providers claiming that they are being charged for “overtaxing” the network resources (see Net Neutrality). The Kansas city plan costs customers about $70 per month. For another $50 a month, they can also get Google TV, a set-top box complete with DVR, a Nexus 7 tablet and an app turning the tablet into a TV remote. At least for the introductory period. Click HERE for more current pricing, based on city. Is this the future? Looks like it, but the cost of a completely new technology like this (as opposed to the upgrades to the current systems) is something only a few providers (like Google) can afford. And it will take some time to get the infrastructure installed, so availability will likely be limited for quite some time. As of 2014, Fibre is offered in Kansas City, Austin, TX and Provo, UT. But it’s planned for another half-dozen cities across the U.S. Click here for MORE.
Not to be outdone, Comcast introduced it’s own gigabit service, Gigabit Pro, which aims to deliver download speeds roughly 200 times faster than what average U.S. households get today, theoretically allowing you to download a complete HD movie in about 20 seconds. It went live on July 13, 2015 at a cost of $300 per month (promotional price of $159/mo for a three year contract), one hundred dollars less than the price Comcast charges for its top Internet speeds but four times as fast. Compared to Google Fiber, it’s twice as fast but also $170/more. As is the case with Google Fiber, the service will be rolled out first in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee, with more states to come.
TETHERING: I’m purposely ignoring the subject of tethering your computer to your smart phone. Yes, I know, I just mentioned it, but I’ll explain. Tethering is using the satellite connection on your phone to access the internet by connecting the phone to your computer. Or using a mobile “hot spot” that you can purchase for various brands of smart phones from your service provider. The good news is that it connects you to the Internet (that’s why I included it). The bad news is that it may be slower and more costly, or even violate your phone provider’s agreement. Even if you are technically capable of accomplishing this, it’s not a good idea for anything except occasional internet connections (e.g. you’re traveling and there’s no available connection, or your network is down) for a variety of reasons: First, your phone service provider may actually prohibit tethering under your contract. Second, if you don’t have an unlimited data plan and you use this method a lot, your overage will be a killer. If you have unlimited data service, without any caps or throttling, you may be o.k. in this regard. But those plans are increasingly rare. Third, even if it works, it’ll still be perceptibly slower than any direct internet connection, and may even have other limitations for streaming, sizes of downloads and the like. Finally, even if you purchase a wireless hot spot and pay extra on your service plan, it’ll still be wireless and therefore slower than just paying for a real internet hookup using any of the methods above, so it’s not cost competitive. For more, see TIP #36.
EVALUATING YOUR CHOICES
O.K., so we know the difference between cable, DSL, FIOS and, satellite. Let’s just forget antenna and dial-up, as they won’t provide an acceptable broadband connection. And fibre probably isn’t close to available in your area yet. How do we evaluate them on common grounds? By applying the following factors:
SPEED – In theory, cable boasts faster speed than DSL, if speed is measured in bandwidth (so-called “raw speed”). Cable technology supports about 30 Mbps of bandwidth, whereas most forms of DSL (known as ADSL or SDSL) don’t even reach 10 Mbps. FIOS is faster than both standard cable or DSL. [Past that, in the future, Google Fibre is far faster than any of them. And in the (distant) future a technology known as XG-FAST, developed by Bell Labs, may provide fiber-optic-like speeds (10Gb/second or 1000x faster than cable/fios, even 10x faster than Google Fibre) over the existing copper infrastructure that blankets most of America already.] However, in practical usage, the gap may be narrower. Why? Cable’s speed can be reduced in practice by several factors: First, cable is like the old “party-line” telephones – service speed can slow down significantly if many people in your neighborhood access the internet simultaneously over the same line. Also, some cable providers put “speed caps” (artificial speed limits) or “throttling” on their residential customers. [See, Net Neutrality, which isn’t just a technology issue, but a political football.] They may do this to accommodate more customers, to level the playing field for each customer, because they don’t believe that a residential customer requires more bandwidth or because they may desire to charge more for higher levels of bandwidth if users consume a lot of bandwidth to stream TV, movies or music. In addition, your computer or home network may not be able to match the highest speed of your internet connection, due to age or hardware limitations, or the mixture of various types of cables at your actual location. And, finally, (for both DSL and cable) the performance can vary from one minute to the next, depending on usage and traffic levels on the net. Satellite is generally no match for cable respecting broadband speeds, and it also doesn’t offer a bundle with phone, internet and TV if that’s what you’re in the market for. But, generally, broadband speeds are going to have to increase as the demand for streaming video expands and as technology evolves.
OVERALL POPULARITY – In the U.S., cable internet has traditionally been more popular than DSL, but over the past few years DSL is rapidly challenging cable. (FIOS is a relatively recent introduction, and isn’t sufficiently generally available to be factored in yet.) In 2007, cable had approximately 23.7 million subscribers in the U.S., while DSL had 19.5 million subscribers. Outside of the U.S., DSL seems to be more popular than cable. So, it’s a toss-up. A lot depends on what’s offered in your neighborhood, how far you may be from the DSL signal and how many other people in your neighborhood have cable service.
CUSTOMER SATISFACTION – Some surveys show that DSL has a slightly higher consumer satisfaction level than cable. (It seems to us that, no matter who you speak to, they think they’d be happier with the competition. Cable users want to switch to DSL and vice versa. (The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, it seems.) Cost, reliability and other factors would effect this determination, and are somewhat subjective. Back in 2004 (when FIOS wasn’t even available) for example, Earthlink had the highest customer satisfaction Index score for residential high speed internet providers, according to J.D. Power & Associates, with a score of 728. Verizon was right behind it with 724. Road Runner cable had 723, while Comcast cable was below the national average of 705 with only 657. The 2012 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which ranks more than 225 companies, has consistently ranked the four largest cable companies (Comcast, Time-Warner, Cox and Charter) among the ten lowest rated companies. But, although higher in their ratings, cable’s competitors in the telecom and satellite business haven’t spurred any real defection from the cable operators. A massive customer survey, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, (issued quarterly by the U. of Michigan Ross School of Business) shows, for example in May, 2014, that Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the lowest consumer satisfaction scores of any ISPs in the entire U.S., below health insurers, airlines and even Sprint. The updated Index, released on 6/3/15, shows telecom customer satisfaction is at a 7-year low, with TV and Internet companies tied for last place. In order to compensate for service issues, some providers have began to offer “premium” services such as personal advisors, 24 x 7 phone and online chat, faster repair scheduling and the like. But the cost can be between $5.99 a month (DirecTV) and $200 a month (Time Warner). It’s too soon to tell if there are going to be many takers or if it even works. And satellite still has problems with weather and man-made interruptions (trees, buildings, etc.) that can interrupt service, sometimes regularly (during rainy season in Florida, snow in the northeast).
SECURITY – Today, there is really no difference in security between cable and DSL, or satellite. Years ago, there was a perceived preference toward DSL, on the basis that all cable users were theoretically individual “nodes” on a vast network of shared cabling, while DSL customers used dedicated cabling in a given neighborhood and do not appear as nodes on a network. Now that cable providers have built in network firewall capabilities in their cable modems (which use Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (“DOCSIS”) support, including authentication and packet filtering, their networks are virtually equally secure.
COST: There are so many plans that it’s almost impossible to compare them except in general terms. In most U.S. plans, you pay for “packages,” which some claims hold the popular channels hostage along with tons of channels no one would ever watch. BUT KEEP YOUR EYE ON CANADA: Shortly, the Canadian government has mandated “full channel choice,” a/k/a a la carte, which will allow Canadian viewers to choose channels and networks one at a time. It’s been said that unbundling the channels will only result in increased rates for the individual channels, making the cost as high or higher than bundling. We’ll have to see how this works out. Aside from the plans, the faster the speed, the more the service will cost, both between services and within them. FIOS costs more than cable or DSL, but it’s faster. High speed DSL costs more than low speed DSL. And so forth. Satellite also has various plans. If you’re a gamer, you have no choice but to get the broadest and fastest service. But if you’re a “light” user, just getting e-mail and not much more, maybe you don’t need to pay for that excess speed.
UPDATE: In early 2016, the FCC has rolled out a plan that would force pay-TV companies like Comcast and DirecTV loosen their hold on the set top market, lowering the prices of services to consumers. The plan would allow non-cable companies to manufacture their own set top boxes with more features than those restricted choices by the current providers. Since some 99% of customers are stuck with their providers’ boxes, they have no choice in their cable lineup or features, so this would be a really big deal. But this has been proposed before by the FCC, defused by the cable lobby, and may not get through again. However, shortly after this announcement, in late April, 2016, Comcast announced its own plans to let consumers ditch their set-top boxes. Initially, the plan would allow Comcast’s more than 22 million customers to return their cable boxes (average $230/year rental) and use the software-driven interface by switching to an app built in to the new Samsung smart TVs and Roku devices.
Low Cost/Subsidized Service: Here in Florida, we’re often asked if there are low cost broadband services for seniors or families on fixed or limited incomes or who are just “light” users. Actually, there are. But there are eligibility requirements and it depends on the state where you live. For example, as of the end of 2013, FreedomPop provides free high speed internet access (with the purchase of their modem for $89; more than 1Gb data max, additional charge for more). Also, NetZero and Juno both have DSL plans for only $10 for the first six months ($18/mo. after that). And they still offer dial-up if you don’t require broadband, you have a land line and can stand the slow speed, which may not be fast enough to access many internet services, like video or photos. Depending on where you live, you may qualify for low-income internet service. If you qualify (usually by showing that you receive certain types of federal government assistance like Medicaid or Food Stamps or that your household income is a certain percentage of Federal Poverty Guidelines), you may be eligible for these programs, which vary by state and can always change. One of the more common programs is CenturyLinks Internet Basics program which provides low cost high speed DSL for $10/mo. for the first year ($21 thereafter) and can even include a PC with free classes for $150. Similarly Comcast offers Internet Essentials as does Connect2Compete, which costs $10/mo. and is geared toward families which have a child or grandchild that participate in the national school lunch program. And the federal government is toying with the Lifeline Broadband Program which would offer low cost service to qualifying participants. For more information about these and other services, try cheapinternet.com or Internet Service Providers. AT&T offers low-cost internet to qualified food stamp recipients now that the FCC approved it’s acquisition of DirecTV in 2016. It has two plans available, one at speeds up to 5Mbps for $10/mo, increasing to $20/mo after the first year. The other plan, available where AT&T lacks infrastructure, offers a 1.5Mbps plan at $5/mo., increasing to $10/mo. after the first year. All subsidies will expire however, after 4 yrs. in 2020.
There are also some computers specifically designed for seniors. Like the RealPad, designed for seniors by AARP and Intel. It’s slightly larger, runs on an Android operating system, which can be purchased at WalMart (on line only) for $189. (The AARP one year sign-up fee of $16 is waived the first year.) Icons are about 20% larger, and built-in video tutorials show users how to connect to a wireless network, send photos, use e-mail and Skype, use the camera and navigate the Internet, plus other simple and common tasks. (They work off-line as well, as they’re part of the computer O/S. The 24 hour help line is readily available and specializes in users who may have difficulty hearing or are technological novices.)
On March 31, 2016, the FCC (by a 3-2 vote) approved an expansion of subsidies for the poor, discounts on phone services which includes home internet access. The roughly 40 million Americans on food stamps, Medicaid or other federal assistance can register for and use an existing benefit named Lifeline worth $9.25 a month to purchase broadband service, either as part of a voice bundle on cellular or fixed networks, or on a standalone basis with no voice plan attached. It’s a credit toward broadband to be applied to the overall cost of the service, the service is not $9.25. The plan requires Lifeline providers to offer at least 10 Mbps download speed, and has set a proposed budget of $2.25 billion a year.
Remember that you will almost never get the advertised speeds for your internet connection no matter which technology you select: The higher “lab speed” or “package speed” that is advertised will always be considerably higher than the “actual speed” that you experience in the field. Why? Consider that there will always be variations in speed by (1) time of day and other high-usage events (like kids home from school, after-dinner usage, weekends, holidays, Super Bowl, Olympics and other events, elections, etc. are generally more congested; see chart above), (2) the extent of shared neighborhood connections (cable may use fibre for the main lines, but coax into the houses (which have varying wiring configurations), slightly slowing the shared broadband connection; very few FIOS connections run FIOS into the house as well; or, with DSL and other telephone connections, how far your house is located from the telephone company’s switchgear location (3) you are downloading or uploading multiple files simultaneously, and (4) the availability of the new 1Gbps and PowerBoost connections being rolled out by some cable companies (claimed to be even faster than FIOS). Moreover, (5) the greater number of signal splitters on the lines inside your house, the more your signal will be degraded, slowing the connection even if it comes into the house strongly. Also, your speed may less at any given time if (6) the service provider has the inevitable periodic service glitch or is slower while upgrading a node (server computer), (7) the ISPs servers are busy simultaneously uploading or downloading lots of other users’ files or even their own upgrades, (8) there is spyware or malware on your computer, (9) your router is misconfigured (or at least not optimized) or failing or (10) has an older and slower Wi-Fi, or (11) your computer’s processor and associated hardware is simply older and less powerful. And (12) upload speeds will always be significantly slower than download speeds, because ISPs design their connections to be asymmetric, providing higher speeds for downloading, which is what most users do.
So, what should your internet speed actually be? This depends on what you are doing and what you are paying. Low level service (often on a “budget” plan) is about 1 - 3Mbps (download). It works well with e-mail, web, VioP phone and basic audio and video. The next level up, 3 - 6Mbps is standard for the higher-bandwidth users who requires speed for HD video, audio, file sharing and Internet TV. Online gamers may require 6 - 10Mbps speed for uninterrupted HD streaming video and audio*. Speeds of 10Mbps and higher are generally useful for professional sites, business file sharing, videoconferencing and networks with VPNs and multiple hardware devices and connections, and are not generally seen on home installations. So, if you’re only getting your e-mail and surfing the net, and not viewing many long or HD videos or downloading large audio files, than half the cost at half the speed may make sense. If you’re a gamer, a business or have lots of devices on your network, more bandwidth may be in order.
[* Note that speed isn’t the only consideration if you are a gamer; you should also check out “ping” (should be <50ms, but higher is always better) and latency as well.]
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
First, it depends on the availability of services in your area. If you don’t have FIOS in your area, you can forget that option. If you do, and it’s becoming increasingly more common throughout the country, it’s certainly the fastest of the three offerings, although also probably the most costly. The very fastest is Google Fibre (see below), but it’s hardly offered anywhere. Similarly, if there’s no cable in your area (which is still quite possible), satellite may be your only option, even if it may be slower and more expensive. Unless you want to go with dial-up, which I don’t even discuss as a choice, because you won’t be able to access most sites, as they require a broadband connection. If you’re not within range of a fast DSL connection, then that decision is made for you as well. If everything is available to you, however, cable and DSL services are pretty much equal, probably a little slower than FIOS (but that may not mean much to you, especially if FIOS ends up costing a lot more for something you really don’t need). That means that cost will be the determination. To complicate the issue further, cable, DSL and FIOS providers are each offering programs to bundle your telephone, internet and television signal service into a sole provider, at a reduction in cost (at least for the first 12 months) versus purchasing these services separately. Just make sure that you’re not paying less for a slower connection that may or may not suit your needs (see “capping,” above), or signing up for a combination of services that you wouldn’t normally be using (e.g. you don’t need long distance telephone, whether its free or not). And check the cost after you come off of the promotion, it can easily double, and you may be bound by contract for up to two years!