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Internet Isn't Free: 10 Tips to Ensure You Get the Best Service

There's more to consider when comparing internet providers and plans than you may think. Here's all you need to know.

David Anders Senior Writer
David Anders is a senior writer for CNET covering broadband providers, smart home devices and security products. Prior to joining CNET, David built his industry expertise writing for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. In his 5 plus years covering broadband, David's work has been referenced by a variety of sources including ArcGIS, DIRECTV and more. David is from and currently resides in the Charlotte area with his wife, son and two cats.
Expertise Broadband providers, Home internet, Security Cameras
David Anders
9 min read
A couple sitting on the floor looking at an open laptop.

Set aside the packing and unboxing for a moment to find the right broadband service for your home.

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Whether you're moving and need to set up internet service at your new place or are frustrated with your current service and want to switch providers, shopping for a new internet provider can seem like a daunting task. It's tempting to just pick something and be done with it, but that approach could leave you unsatisfied and stuck with an overpriced service. 

Spending a little time to find the best internet service provider can be well worth the effort. It's important to compare available ISPs and plans, service terms and customer satisfaction. You'll also want to go into the process with a solid understanding of your needs. 

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but these 10 tips for getting the best internet service will help break it down into manageable steps. At the end of it all, you can feel confident you've got the best internet service available for your needs and budget.

1. Have your speed needs in mind

Think about what you use the internet for and how many people and devices will be connected to your network. 

For basic internet use like online shopping, browsing social media and light TV streaming, speeds of 25 to 100 megabits per second are often suitable. I'd recommend faster internet speeds for working and learning from home, streaming in HD on multiple devices at once and connecting numerous smart home devices such as security cameras, video doorbells and smart speakers

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Gigabit and multi-gig plans will all but guarantee you've got enough speed for every person and thing in your home, but those are often the highest-priced plans. If you don't want to splurge on gigabit service but still prefer something on the faster side, consider speeds in the 200-600Mbps range, assuming they're available in your area. 

Check out our internet speed guide for more help determining the right speeds for your home.

Pro tip: Advertised versus actual speeds. Keep in mind that advertised speeds and actual speeds are two different things. While an ISP's advertised max speeds may be 100Mbps, those are speeds to the home. 

Actual speeds in the home are likely going to be lower, even more so when using a Wi-Fi connection and adding multiple devices to your network. When shopping for internet service, be sure to factor in that speed loss and select a plan with advertised speeds faster than what you'd like your actual speeds to be.

2. Find all of your ISP options

Available internet providers vary by location, possibly even by address within the same ZIP code. While the options can understandably feel limited, know that it's uncommon for one provider to be the absolute only ISP in an area. 

In markets where a cable internet provider such as Xfinity or Spectrum is available, there's also likely to be a fiber or DSL service available from providers like AT&T, CenturyLink or Frontier. Additionally, the recent rise of 5G home internet from T-Mobile and Verizon has further increased broadband competition in both rural and urban settings.

Serviceability check tools like the one you'll find a bit further up the page are a good way to identify the internet providers in your area and get an overview of potential plans and pricing. I can't speak for all serviceability tools, but CNET's version uses proprietary in-house technology to help ensure your results are accurate and keep your information secure.

3. Consider the connection

Speed and cost are among the most important considerations when it comes to choosing an internet service, but you may want to start by comparing the connection type each provider uses.

There are some possible exceptions, but I'd rank connection types in order of most to least desirable as: fiber-optic, cable, 5G home internet, DSL, fixed wireless and satellite

Fiber-optic internet is the best bet for fast, consistent speeds, low latency and greatest overall value. Service also comes with the advantage of symmetrical or close upload speeds. Cable internet is not far behind in terms of speed and value, and is often a good choice for cheap internet

Meanwhile, 5G home internet is quickly proving to be a potential alternative to cable and even fiber connections in select areas. The new technology could also provide much-needed upgrades to broadband in rural areas where less speedy or reliable DSL, fixed wireless and satellite internet services are the only options.

Look to our guide to internet connection types for more info on what separates each technology and how to determine which type an ISP uses.

4. Compare plans, not just prices

Here's where the bulk of your internet shopping takes place: comparing plans from each available provider.

It's tempting to look at the price first and speed second, but I'd suggest focusing on speeds, then price. Opting for a cheaper plan that doesn't quite meet your household's speed demands, especially one that comes with a contract, may end up costing you more when you need to upgrade to a faster plan or provider.

So look for plans with the speeds you want, or higher, then compare the prices. Find the one that best fits your speed demands and your budget. 

Pro tip: Price versus value. A low price is nice, but is it a good deal? To get an idea of a plan's value, consider the cost per Mbps by dividing the cost by the advertised speed. For example, Spectrum's cheapest plan is $50 for speeds up to 300Mbps -- that's a cost of around 17 cents per Mbps. Not bad. However, Frontier Fiber's cheapest plan is $60 for speeds up to 500Mbps for a cost per Mbps of 12 cents. So, even though Spectrum's plan is cheaper, Frontier is actually the better deal.

5. Be aware of the price increase

Cox promo trap chart

Price increases are to be expected, but some may be designed to get you to switch to a faster, and eventually far more expensive, plan.

Ry Crist/CNET

Once you've identified potential providers and plans, take a closer look at the monthly cost. Will it be the same a year down the road? Or is there a steep price increase waiting for you?

Again, I know that low pricing can be tempting, but a cheap plan can lose its value entirely from one bill to the next when the price goes up by 50% or more. Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox and others have competitive introductory pricing but a looming hike of $20, $30 or more after 12 months. Astound Broadband is perhaps the worst offender of all when it comes to price increases, and Viasat raises the price after just three months. 

The good news is that providers are fairly transparent about price increases as far as when you can expect them and how much they'll inflate your bill. Additionally, many providers don't require a contract, so if the price hike is too steep, you can cancel without penalty. 

Not all providers have a planned price increase. AT&T, Frontier, Verizon Fios and a handful of others, including EarthLink, don't do promotional or introductory pricing, so you won't have to worry about a guaranteed price increase. Your bill may still go up at some point, which understandably happens, but it won't automatically go up by a preset amount after a specific time period.

6. Know your limits

Data limits, that is. Some ISPs enforce data caps and will charge extra fees or throttle internet speeds when you go over. Be aware of the data cap, if any, before signing up for an internet service.

Those considering satellite internet will have to be the most mindful of data caps and usage. HughesNet and Viasat largely structure their plans around data allowances, so the amount of data you want will have an impact on what you pay each month. Not only that, going over your data cap will likely result in significantly slower speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle.

Data caps are less of a problem with every other connection type, but they're still there. Fixed wireless internet like what you may find from AT&T or Rise Broadband in rural areas often comes with a data cap of 250 to 350GB. Select cable and DSL providers also have data caps, though typically much higher, between 1 and 1.5TB per month. 

That's a generous amount of data and much higher than the average household will use, but still, a plan with unlimited data is preferred. You don't want to have to watch your data usage all month, and you certainly wouldn't want to suffer slowed speeds or added fees for going over.

7. Weigh the Wi-Fi options

You'll need a router to create a home Wi-Fi network. Most, if not all, ISPs offer a router either for rent, to purchase or for free. 

If you plan on renting your equipment, take a look at what the rental fee is ahead of time, then go ahead and tack that onto the monthly price. Some rental fees are better than others, but anticipate it to add anywhere from $5 to $20 extra to your bill.

The option to purchase your router is a little less common, but you may come across it with satellite internet or prepaid internet services. This can add to your upfront costs, especially in the case of satellite internet, but may pay off in the long run.

Many providers have started including your equipment at no extra cost. AT&T, Verizon Fios, Google Fiber and 5G home internet providers T-Mobile and Verizon, for example, have no added equipment fees. Others, like Spectrum, CenturyLink and Xfinity, may include a free modem (but not the router needed for Wi-Fi) or all of your equipment at no extra cost with select plans. 

You may also have the option of using your own router and skipping the equipment fee altogether. Consider the upfront costs and potential added capabilities such as mesh Wi-Fi when deciding whether to rent equipment or use your own. Though new routers can be expensive, supplying your own may pay off in a year or two if you can save $15 per month in equipment fees. 

8. Make note of contract requirements

It's possible your internet provider will lock you into a contract, sometimes disguised as a "term agreement." Breaking your contract by canceling service or refusing to pay your bill before the term is up could result in early termination fees and problems if you want to sign up for service again in the future.

Some providers require a contract, typically of one or two years, with all plans and services. Others may require a one-year contract in order to qualify for the lowest introductory rate or special offers. Most ISPs, however, require no contract at all

Term agreements aren't much of an issue if you plan on keeping the service for the length of the contract, but if you think you may move or want to switch providers at some point, it's nice to know you can do so without penalty.

9. Get a feel for what customers think

ACSI rankings for US customer satisfaction with internet service providers

Customer satisfaction ratings can be a good indicator of your experience with an ISP.


It's no secret that most of us aren't particularly fond of our internet provider. Customer satisfaction ratings like you'll find from the ACSI and J.D. Power help shed some light on which providers fare better than others and why. Take a look at such sources and look for any red (or green) flags. 

In most cases, customer satisfaction numbers will fall somewhere in the middle of the road and not indicate much one way or the other. In others -- like Optimum's consistently low score, Frontier's improving numbers or Verizon's consistently high marks -- the customer satisfaction track record may be a bit more telling.

Also, do a little social research. Ask neighbors and friends who they have and why, what they like and don't like. Check out Reddit, downdetector.com and other media sources for further insight. Take the feedback for what it's worth, but don't believe everything you hear or read.

10. Check for promotional offers

There's a reason I'm mentioning this tip last. Signup bonuses, much like low introductory rates, are tempting, but they're never incentive enough to commit to an ISP or plan that isn't the right fit for your needs. 

Gift cards, free months of internet service or streaming subscriptions eventually expire or lose their value. When that happens, you don't want to be stuck with an expensive plan that is faster than you need or a cheap ISP that doesn't deliver the speeds you want. Additionally, it's possible you'll have to sign a term agreement when accepting promotional offers to prevent you from canceling as soon as you get the reward.

Finding good internet service is worth the effort

There is, or at least can be, a lot to consider when signing up for an internet service. Along with the cost and speeds, be sure to evaluate the fine print -- price increases, data caps, equipment fees and contract requirements -- so you know what to expect when you get the bill each month. It'll take some time to find the right ISP and plan, but the extra effort will quickly pay off.