What to consider when looking for an ISP

It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when someone might need to look for a new Internet service provider, or ISP.  Moving to a new location, dissatisfaction with service quality or pricing and changes in technology are situations that may necessitate an ISP change.

Dial-up access is available through a variety of telephone providers, but most users today should be looking towards broadband access.  Broadband ISPs include those that deliver Internet access via DSL, cable and fiber.

Though all ISPs should deliver the same Internet websites and destinations, their bandwidth speeds and usage options differ, which is why it’s worth comparing common specs across providers.

Here’s a few aspects to consider when evaluating Internet Service Providers in your area:

Bandwidth

The connection speed your ISP can deliver information to and from your location is important, since it determines how quickly you can download files, what quality streaming video you can watch and the speed you can send data.

Download speed is how quickly data is sent to your computer, or how fast data can be downloaded by your local machine.  Locally, the download speeds offered range from 1.5 Mbps to 100 Mbps.  For comparison, a user downloading a 4 GB movie he or she just bought on a digital download service would wait under 6 minutes to complete the download on a 100 Mbps plan. The same file would take just under an hour to download for a user on a 10 Mbps plan.

Upload speed is how fast your computer can transmit data out to the Internet.  Common uses for this are attaching large files to e-mail or transmitting streaming video out as part of a video call.  Upload speeds are usually lower than download speeds and range from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps (but can go higher, depending on the ISP).

Since faster speeds usually bring higher prices, you want to find the right speed tier to suit your Internet habits.  Small user groups that don’t consume much multimedia online will be fine with one of the lower speed tiers (15 Mbps or under), while those providing Internet to a household of users or heavy web video streamers will want a higher-bandwidth plan (30 Mbps and up).

Hardware

Two additional pieces of hardware, a modem and router can be used to access and distribute Internet from an ISP.  A modem translates the signal from the ISP to facilitate data transfer, while a router helps break up the Internet access so more than one computer on a network can use it.

Most ISPs will allow users to rent a modem for a monthly fee, though some are starting to provide a modem for “free” (the cost is built into the price).  Some ISPs will allow a user furnish their own modem, forgoing a possible rental fee.  If this interests you, be sure to clear it up with the ISPs office before purchasing since some ISPs are starting to only support company-provided modems.

Some ISP modems will have a router built in, but this isn’t guaranteed.  If the ISP you’re looking at provides a modem only, you’ll need to purchase a separate wired or wireless router if you want to distribute network access through your home.  Check with the ISP beforehand so you’ll have the hardware ready for setup day.

Usage

It’s also important to know if the ISP has any usage restrictions, like bandwidth caps, that might affect how you use the service.

Bandwidth caps are a limit on how much data you can transfer per month on your account.  The caps range between 100 GB to 500 GB per month of data transfer, depending on ISP and subscriber access tier.  If you’re a user that might hit the applicable caps, check the ISP’s usage policy to find out what they do when a user goes over the cap.

ISPs claim that “normal” users won’t ever come close to hitting the cap, but our society’s increasing reliance on the web for communications means that bandwidth requirements for services like digital video will only increase, putting “normal” users eventually against the caps. Coupled with the fact that most local ISPs don’t provide users tools to monitor their own bandwidth leaves the caps quite unsatisfying.

Research

It’s difficult to recommend a specific provider, since usage requirements, budget and experience preferences are specific to each user.

It’s worth talking to your neighbors to find out what works well in your area.  Some services work better and are less congested in certain areas.

One good online resource is DSLReports (http://www.dslreports.com/), which has user reviews and forums for most major service providers.  If you’ve had a unique experience with your ISP, consider leaving a review to help future users make a good choice.

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