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Explainer Smart Home

Getting the best Wi-Fi speeds from your ISP? Here's the fine print

Throttling? Hidden fees? Data caps? Here's a rundown on how all of the major ISPs in the US manage their networks.

Chris Monroe/CNET

For a lot of us, a good Wi-Fi connection at home is way more than just a nice thing to have. In fact, according to a recent survey commissioned by Google, a majority of respondents said they would be out of touch (82%), their life would suffer (79%) and they'd be lonelier (68%) without Wi-Fi. And 32% said that they'd be willing to give up sex for one month in exchange for a life free of Wi-Fi woes (that one seems low to me, to be honest).

Read: Best internet providers in 2019

As important as our internet connections are, it's aggravating when it feels like our internet service providers (ISPs) are selling us short -- and, apparently, that's exactly how a lot of us feel. According to that Google survey, 81% of router users said that they had experienced Wi-Fi issues, including outages, sluggish-seeming speeds and slower connections during peak hours. In fact, users reported dealing with Wi-Fi issues three times per week, on average. And that's to say nothing of ISP billing practices, the abundance of junk mail they often send out, the lack of high-speed infrastructure in rural areas or the way the increasingly monopolistic structure of the industry means that people in some regions are stuck with only one or two service providers to choose from.

Our first Wi-Fi 6 speed tests showed the tech could solve some of those issues, but the problem is bigger than just better technology.

So what gives? There's no easy answer. Internet connections are complicated things affected by common headaches like network congestion, gating, the capabilities of the different networks your signal needs to traverse to fetch your data and all sorts of other variables. And a lot of that is beyond your ISP's control.

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To that end, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that broadband providers disclose information about their networks, the way they manage them and the different variables that might affect the way they perform. You can learn an awful lot about each provider by digging through that data if you're so inclined -- but let's be honest, most of us aren't itching to parse paragraph after paragraph of fine print.

Lucky for you, that's where I come in. Here's a breakdown of what I learned from reading through the disclosures of each of the five largest ISPs in the US by market share: Comcast, Charter Spectrum, AT&T, Verizon and Cox Communications. I also window-shopped each provider to get a sense of how customer-friendly their websites are.

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Yes, your speeds may vary

Most internet providers prefix their speed claims with language like "up to," because there are lots and lots of factors that can affect your connection. And while some are more detailed than others, most of the broadband disclosures for the major ISPs start by explaining what these factors are. 

They typically include things like the capabilities of your internet-connected devices, the limitations of whatever networks your signals are traveling along and overall congestion or heavy traffic to specific sites and services. It's also important to remember that advertised speeds are typically based on wired connections to the modem. Speeds will dip a bit once you start wirelessly beaming an internet connection throughout your house with a Wi-Fi router.

In 2017, the FCC found that most internet users were experiencing median download speeds that were as fast as advertised (light blue). This was especially true among cable and fiber internet subscribers.

FCC

Those caveats aside, there's actually decent data in support of ISP speed claims -- namely from the FCC, which periodically tests the various speeds each ISP offers. The most recent FCC speed tests, run in September 2017, found that most ISP top speeds were more or less as fast as advertised. For most connections -- particularly cable and fiber connections -- at least 70% of users experienced median speeds that were at least 95% as fast as the advertised top speeds.

"The best-performing ISPs, when measured by this metric, are Optimum, Charter and Verizon-Fiber," the FCC report reads. "More than 90% of their panelists were able to attain an actual median download speed of at least 95% of the advertised download speed."

ISPs: 100 - 150Mbps plans compared


Comcast Xfinity Charter Spectrum AT&T Fiber Verizon Fios Cox Communications
Max download speed 150Mbps 3 - 300Mbps (same price for all plans in this range) 100Mbps 100Mbps 150Mbps
Max upload speed 10Mbps 1 - 20Mbps (same price for all plans in this range)   100Mbps 100Mbps 10Mpbs
Data allowance 1TB, then $10 / 50GB Unlimited 1TB, then $10 / 50GB Unlimited 1TB, then $10 / 50GB
Installation costs Up to $60 Up to $140 Up to $99 Up to $99 Up to $75
Promotional price $50 / month $45 / month $50 / month $40 / month $60 / month
Promotional period 12 months 12 months 12 months 12 months 12 months
Price after promotion $80 / month $66 / month $60 / month $55 / month $88 / month
Modem/router fee $13 / month $5 / month $0 $12 / month $11 / month
Early termination fee Up to $120 None Up to $180 None Up to $120

Picking a plan is a pain

The chart above lists the details of midrange broadband connections from the top five providers. Speeds as high as 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) are available in some areas, but I used 100Mbps as a baseline since it's closest to the current national average download speed of 119Mbps. Some providers offer plans at 150Mbps instead of 100Mbps, but that was close enough for the sake of comparison. The plans and speeds available to you will depend on where you live. 

Providers don't always make it easy to understand what your bill is going to look like as you're shopping. Most will try to get you to  submit your home address and contact info before they'll show you the specific offers available in your region. Squint at the fine print, and you'll probably notice terms like these, from the Cox Communications website:

By clicking "Get Free Quote" above, I consent to receive from Cox and any party on Cox's behalf telemarketing calls using an autodialer or pre-recordings and SMS text messages at any time, which could result in wireless charges, at the number provided. I understand that consent is not a condition of purchase.

At any rate, try to avoid "free quote" buttons like those if you can. Most providers put basic info about their different speed tiers somewhere on their site, and you shouldn't need to provide your personal info or consent to robocalls in order to see it.

spectrum-price-chat

Spectrum's website won't even let you use the chat feature to ask a question without first submitting your name, phone number and home address.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

You might also have a hard time figuring out how much you'll be paying once the promotional period is up. For instance, Charter Spectrum offers a flat introductory rate of $45 a month for all of its broadband internet speeds up to 300Mbps, but you'll really have to dig if you want to figure out what your bill will look like on month 13. The website doesn't show you that number on any of the main pages describing its plans, even after you pull up the plans specific to your area and select one for yourself. 

Even then, if you click on the fine print for your offer, all you get is: "Promotion price is $44.99/mo. Yr 1; standard rates apply after year 1." Gee, thanks, Spectrum, but perhaps customers would like to know what that "standard rate" actually is before they commit to paying it.

It was only after scouring Spectrum's site that I was finally able to find the figure -- $66 -- listed on a rate card for my region, the link to which was neatly tucked away in the bottom corner of one of the company's tangle of homepages. Even at that point, the site made me enter a home address before showing me anything.

In fact, Spectrum won't even let you use the site's live chat feature to ask a question without first entering your name, number and home address, which seems especially egregious to me. As a former Spectrum customer, I remember feeling bombarded with junk mail offers, and I suspect that most providers aren't much better.

Like I said, my advice is to avoid providing your personal info until you're relatively sure that you want to sign up for service. Adding your name to your provider's "Do not call" and "Do not mail" lists is probably worth doing, too. The companies will need your address in order to verify that their services are actually available in your home, but there's no reason they shouldn't be able to provide a basic overview of rates for services available in your ZIP code.

3-xfi-advanced-gateway-16x9

You'll pay an extra $13 per month to use the Comcast Xfinity Gateway modem/router.

Comcast xFinity

Understand the fees

Most internet plans come with fees on top of the monthly rate. Here's a quick rundown of what to look for:

Modem/router rental fee: Just like it sounds, most providers will charge a monthly fee to let you "rent" their modem or router hardware (you might also see them listed under "equipment fees"). These fees range from $5 a month for a router from Charter Spectrum, which calls it a Wi-Fi fee, to $13 per month for the Comcast Xfinity Gateway, a combination modem and router. In most cases, your ISP will let you skip this fee by using your own router, but you'll need to make sure that it's certified by the ISP as a compatible device.

Installation fees: These vary from provider to provider, and some will charge less if you bundle your internet with other services like phone or TV. In a lot of cases, the ISP will waive these fees altogether as a way to sweeten the deal and earn your business.

Overage fees: Some internet providers cap your monthly data usage -- if you go over that cap in a given month, you'll have to pay a fee. Of the top five broadband providers, Comcast, AT&T and Cox use data caps, while Spectrum and Verizon don't. For the three that do, the monthly cap is 1,024GB of data, with a fee of $10 for every 50GB you use after that. More on fees like these in just a bit.

Early termination fee: Most internet plans offer a discounted promotional rate for new customers, typically for a period of 12 months. After that, the price goes up to the standard, month-to-month rate. In most cases, if you cancel your service before that promotional period is up, you'll have to buy out the remainder of your contract with an early termination fee -- typically either $10 or $15 for each remaining, unused month of the promotional period.

Keep in mind that providers will often try to tempt you to switch from your current provider by offering to pay the early termination fees for you. If nothing else, that should give you a good sense of what your business is worth to the company if you're trying to negotiate a better deal on your plan. If you don't have early termination fees that they can pay off for you, see if they'll waive the installation fee or bump you up to a faster speed tier during the promotional period instead.

Notes on network management

Something else you're bound to read about in these broadband disclosures is "network management," which is the umbrella term for all of the ways that ISPs exert control over your connection in order to manage speed and network performance for everyone. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for doing this -- blocking spammers and dealing with Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, for instance -- but it's still a somewhat thorny issue in part because of something called throttling. That's the term for when a website, a device or an internet provider puts a limit on your speed that's lower than what your setup is actually capable of.

Comcast garnered its fair share of unflattering headlines for the practice in 2008, when the company was caught throttling traffic to peer-to-peer file-sharing service BitTorrent. The FCC ruled that Comcast was violating Net Neutrality laws, and ordered the company to disclose its network management practices moving forward. Comcast's answer was a congestion management system that slowed down all heavy internet users instead of slowing down traffic to specific sites. Still an unpopular practice, but legal.

Ten years after that, in June of last year, Comcast announced that it was ending its congestion management system altogether. Here's what the company told CNET last year when it made the change:

Our network and consumer devices have evolved to a point that our old congestion management system is no longer necessary. The system has been essentially inactive for more than a year. With well over 99 percent of our Internet customers using more modern DOCSIS gateways and modems, congestion on individual channels is no longer an issue that needs to be managed. We took the opportunity to formalize this change while we were updating our other customer disclosures.

That falls in line with other providers, all of whom go out of their way in their network management disclosures to indicate that they don't throttle traffic for specific users or to specific sites. That said, most providers also leave language in the fine print that would seem to allow wiggle room for some degree of throttling.

For instance, Charter Spectrum's disclosure explains that it follows "a variety of reasonable network management practices" that are designed to "protect customers from activities that can unreasonably burden our network or compromise security." Note that it's up to Charter to determine what constitutes an unreasonable burden on the network.

Cox Communications puts it similarly: "At times of congestion, standard network algorithms may be employed to ensure that available bandwidth is equitably allocated to competing users. Cox regularly monitors data usage, congestion and capacity to decide where additional capacity in the network is needed."

I give some extra credit to Verizon's disclosure, which actually calls out throttling by name: "Verizon Online does not affirmatively manage congestion on the network through mechanisms such as real-time throttling, blocking or dropping of specific end user traffic based on source or content."

That brings us to one last connection consideration...

Broadband data caps: Annoying, but workable

Data caps can be a real pain if you're using a basic, DSL-type internet plan with top speeds of less than 10Mbps, because plans like those are often structured around light internet usage -- designed for people who just log on once or twice a day to check their email, for instance. Accordingly enough, the caps for basic plans can be very tight, which isn't good if you need more.

Even if you're paying for a faster connection with a higher data cap, the practice feels a bit unfair. After all, if you're already paying more for faster speeds, why should you pay more a second time when you actually use those faster speeds?

The good news is that the data caps for broadband connections are a lot more generous than those for slower connections. Of the five providers I looked into for this post, Spectrum and Verizon don't cap your data at all, while the other three -- Comcast, AT&T and Cox Communications -- each cap it at 1,024GB per month, with a fee of $10 for each 50GB after that. 

That's more than a whole terabyte per month, which is a pretty huge amount of data. For example, I live with a roommate who works from home and makes regular use of the internet each day. I use a variety of smart home gadgets that keep a steady connection to the router, and we also often use streaming TV services and play video games online with friends. Our typical data usage comes in at about 0.5TB per month, tops.

Most providers offer usage trackers that can help you understand how much data your family typically uses, so it's a good idea to keep an eye on that info to get a good sense of your home's needs. If you have a lot of internet users in your home, particularly ones who do a lot of downloading, then you'll want to consider switching to a provider that doesn't use data caps at all. If that isn't an option, spending extra for an unlimited data plan might be worth it.