Testing ISPs is logistically challenging, but there's plenty of room for critical analysis. CNET shares its process.
Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Joe Supan is a senior writer for CNET covering home technology, broadband, and moving. Prior to joining CNET, Joe led MYMOVE's moving coverage and reported on broadband policy, the digital divide, and privacy issues for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. He has been featured as a guest columnist on Broadband Breakfast, and his work has been referenced by the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, National Geographic, Yahoo! Finance and more.
CNET experts have reviewed the top new tech products and services for over 20 years, but there's never been an assignment quite like writing reviews of internet service providers.
From refrigerators, waffle makers and toasters to smart speakers, light bulbs and security systems, the common thread tying CNET's review process together is testing. Our team prides itself on finding smart, effective means of putting products and services to the test, uncovering the key data that separates the good options from the bad ones, and sharing those insights with our readers.
ISPs are an entirely different beast.
Locating local internet providers
The first problem is that internet providers are regional, so if you wanted to test a provider's quality of service, you'd need a home in whatever part of the country they cover. Even then, a single location wouldn't cut it because service offerings and available technologies vary wildly by address. On top of that, testing the quality of a given home's internet connection means accounting for all sorts of variables that are completely outside of your control -- service disruptions, infrastructure failures, interference from nearby networks and more. Finding a way to test internet providers that's fair, repeatable, thorough and helpful to the reader is a logistical nightmare.
OK, so how exactly are we testing them?
As we've said, there's no good way for us to test internet providers in a way that's comprehensive, repeatable and applicable to the entire category. Yes, we can go hands-on with certain providers to offer readers our impression of a given service -- and we're doing that whenever it makes sense, as Eli Blumenthal did with T-Mobile's new 5G home internet service. His insights offer a helpful glimpse at the practical realities of the respective provider's services -- but you can't build your reviews around tests like those. Eli's place is a totally different environment than mine and the sample size is much too small to represent a broader experience, and repeating the process for every provider on our list is impractical.
Locating local internet providers
So, how do you review something that you can't really test? The answer is to remember why we test in the first place -- to generate objective data to inform our subjective opinion. And, fortunately, there's already lots of data for our team to pick through and scrutinize. That's where we begin.
First up is the Federal Communications Commission. Providers are required to disclose metrics about the scope of their coverage and the quality of their speeds twice a year -- that gives us a look at where each provider offers service, what their speeds are like, and how fast their technology seems to be improving. The FCC data is notoriously flawed and gets released to the public on a delay, but it still sets the table with a good bird's-eye view of the category. When we examine internet options in a specific city, we always input local addresses on ISP websites to ensure we have accurate local pricing and plan information.
From there, we put each provider's slate of advertised speeds and plans under the microscope, digging into the fine print on all of their deals and offers to determine what you'll actually end up paying and what you'll actually end up getting. It's a big job, and it makes up the bulk of what we've been working on whenever we review a provider or publish a versus-style comparison piece between multiple providers. For instance, certain ISPs will often try to lock you into pricing schemes that regularly cause your bill to increase. Exposing practices like those and helping you to steer clear of them is one of our top priorities.
There's also a lot we can learn a lot from examining each provider's customer service track record with reputable organizations like J.D. Power and the American Customer Satisfaction Index. On top of that, we're taking publicly available data on each provider's speeds and outage history into account, as well as industry efforts to improve access to broadband speeds in regions that have long been underserved. You can expect our approach to evolve as we seek additional data sources to inform our reviews.
Gathering all that information and putting everything into context gives us a thorough look at each provider and lets us start to make comparisons. From there, we supplement our research with whatever hands-on testing we're able to complete, whether that's a CNET editor reporting on their experience with a new provider, a rundown of the modem and router each provider offers its customers or even an investigative look at which providers send potential customers the most spam messages.
That's also a way of saying we'll work hard to keep our guides and reviews current. Internet technology continues to evolve and deals come and go, but no matter what, you can trust that you're getting information that's accurate and up-to-date. That noted, plan availability is highly specific, so it's important to always check your particular address when comparing options.
We know building that trust requires transparency on our part, so this is a good spot to explain how these guides and reviews will make money for CNET. Our site is free and doesn't charge subscription fees. To keep it that way, CNET sells ads on the page and may earn a commission when you buy a product or subscribe to a service using the links on our site. Those efforts are kept strictly separate from the work we do as reviewers and have no impact whatsoever on how we score or evaluate providers.
How does CNET score internet providers?
Specifically, we score providers for speed, value and customer care. Here's how we approach each metric:
It's what you're paying for, after all, so the first thing we consider is whether or not the provider offers a reasonably fast internet connection. It's a question that depends on context: if you live in a city with access to fiber, then a slower, laggier satellite internet connection would seem like a big step down. If you're in a rural area and your only other option is a 10Mbps fixed wireless plan, satellite might seem like a godsend.
Our job is to make that context clear for you, no matter your situation. To get there, we ask the following questions:
Does the provider offer a good quality of speeds relative to other providers who use the same technology?
What's the quality of speeds relative to all providers?
How strong are the upload speeds?
Are fast speeds available across a majority of the provider's footprint?
Does the provider offer a decent variety of speeds relative to other providers?
Internet plans are notorious for obfuscating their true costs using hidden fees and promotional trap rates that lure you in with a temporary deal only to jack your bill up a year later. We aim to take all of that into account, make it easy for you to understand the terms before you sign up, and find the plan in your area that offers the most bang for your buck.
Specifically, we consider the following criteria for each provider we write about:
Including fees, how competitive are the typical monthly costs?
How does the cost per megabit compare to similar plans and providers?
Do customers get any meaningful additional benefits for subscribing?
Does the provider offer bundles at an appropriate discount, or are the bundles designed to get customers to pay for more than they need?
What assistance does the provider offer for low-income customers or underserved communities?
The biggest chunk of each provider's score comes from customer care, and it's the category that raises the most questions. The last one here is the key: Is there anything about how this provider does business that we need to warn readers about? If so, we'll tell you all about it.
What does the provider's customer service track record look like?
Are the provider's plans and prices clear and understandable before signing up?
Are the provider's fees reasonable? Are the equipment fees optional?
Does the provider offer contract-free pricing? If not, are the contracts reasonable?
Does the provider enforce data caps, and if so, are the terms reasonable?
Does the provider ever throttle customer data speeds?
How does the provider's history of outages compare to the competition?
How transparent is the provider about policies, rate changes, fees, etc.?
Is there anything else we must warn readers about regarding the provider's plans or terms?
Our aim is to answer each and every one of these questions to the best of our ability whenever we review an internet provider on CNET. You deserve a full understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly before you sign a contract for internet service, so that's what we'll strive to provide. This is an ongoing effort, so expect to see more ISP reviews, guides and best lists from us coming soon. We'll also continue following important news developments in the category, and publishing relevant how-to content, guides, explainers and versus-style provider comparisons.
How we use AI for guides and comparisons
While CNET tests and reviews ISPs based on their nationwide offerings, we also zoom in at the state and city level to provide more local recommendations, such as you'd see on our guides to the best ISPs in Charlotte or Seattle. This allows us to help readers navigate the options where they live.
To help our team of experts serve more readers nationwide, we use an in-house AI tool called RAMP to help compile portions of some guides. (RAMP stands for Responsible AI Machine Partner.) Here's how that works: RAMP creates an initial draft with some basic information covering some of the top providers in an area; our editorial staff picks it up from there, vetting, refining and ultimately writing our final analysis and recommendations. RAMP is trained on our previously published ISP reviews and guides. It draws information from FCC.gov data and a proprietary database that also includes partner data on speeds and pricing.
On any guides that leverage AI technology, we will include that information in the form of a disclosure below the byline of the staff writer who was assisted by RAMP.
Every page goes through the same editing and fact-checking process as it would if a human writer were creating it from scratch. The providers we highlight in each guide are picked by our editors, and we test addresses on each ISP's website to vet local plan information.