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If you could use a speed boost, you may want to consider switching to a better internet provider. Here’ how to find them.
Internet access is an essential utility, but unlike most other utilities—water, electricity and gas—you may actually have a choice of internet provider. To be fair, that’s not true everywhere, and if you live in a smaller locale with just one internet service provider (ISP), you have my sympathy. Some people are beholden to satellite internet providers, even, and that’s just cruel.
But for most people, it’s not just a matter of calling the one and only provider in town and signing up for service—you can zero in on the best internet service in your area.
There are a few tools at your disposal to find ISPs that can service your address. No doubt, you’ve already thought of the most common method: Just Google it. You can search for “broadband near me” or “broadband in [the name of your city]” to quickly get results.
In addition, some websites have already done a lot of the hard work for you. A little-known gem is a government website: The FCC’s Fixed Broadband Deployment site. It sounds technical, but it’s really just a searchable database of ISPs. Enter your address, and it’ll give you a list of all the ISPs that offer broadband to your home. If you like snazzy visuals, you’ll appreciate the color-coded map that indicates which locales have a higher density of broadband service.
There are a lot of third-party and commercial websites that do more or less the same thing. Sites like BroadbandNow let you enter a zip code and see a complete list of local ISPs. These sites also tend to aggregate deals for ISPs and try to funnel you into purchasing an internet service plan through the site. Some of these deals might be fine, but we recommend using sites like this for research only. When you find an ISP you want to use, go directly to its website and see what plans and deals it offers there.
Most ISPs offer a variety of plans, so with some providers—depending upon what you pay—you may get a plan that delivers anything from 10 megabits per second (Mbps) all the way to 500Mbps or more. But those are theoretical maximum speeds, and the actual speed you get depends on a lot of factors, including the kind of broadband and the ISP’s overall performance.
There are three main kinds of broadband delivery: DSL, cable and fiber optic. There are others as well, like satellite, over-the-air transmissions from fixed antenna and 5G cellular, but they’re a lot less common and usually the best internet options for rural areas.
Want the fastest possible speed? There’s no question: It’s fiber optic. Fiber sends data in the form of lasers through fiber optic cables (no really, it’s literally light), and most fiber plans offer speeds ranging from 300Mbps to a massive 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). This is the ultimate choice for households that stream a lot of 4K video, play online games, run a small business, or have other high-bandwidth needs.
Beyond parabolic speed increases over what was formerly possible, fiber internet is also known for its stability, plus you get a direct line to the node in your area. That means you won’t have to share your bandwidth with neighbors during busy hours.
Some of the main players in the fiber space these days include Verizon, AT&T and Frontier, though there are others. Google is one such company, but the markets it offers fiber in are much more limited.
If fiber isn’t available in your area or if you don’t need that much bandwidth, then consider DSL or cable.
DSL is generally slower than cable, with most DSL plans ranging from 5-20Mbps. Cable plans tend to start at 10Mbps and most common plans offer tens or hundreds of megabits per second. But it’s more nuanced than that; the internet that comes out of cable is shared with entire neighborhoods, so at certain times of day (like in the evening, when everyone is at home trying to stream Netflix) your internet may run more slowly. DSL isn’t shared, but how close you can get to the promised speed depends upon your home’s proximity to the ISP—speed diminishes with distance.
XFINITY BY COMCAST
It’s hard to know exactly what your internet speed will be before you sign up for a plan, but you can get some clues. Besides reading user reviews in resources like Nextdoor and Yelp, you can compare the overall performance of ISPs at Speedtest and review the leaderboard of ISPs published by Netflix.
No matter your approach, finding the best internet provider in your area is all about figuring out your needs and matching them with the pool of available services. And that doesn’t always mean shooting for the fastest, most expensive plan you can get—if all you truly do is check email and watch a bit of YouTube, you can get by just fine with moderate speeds on plans that don’t break your budget.
Dave Johnson has been a tech journalist since the days of the Palm Pilot and Windows 95. He’s the author of about three dozen books about tech, digital photography, small