Figuring out what distinguishes one internet service provider from another can seem perplexing, especially if you don't have a strong technical background to make a judgment from. There are, however, a few ways to sort out which ISPs you might want to consider.
Companies now have a lot of ways to deliver high-speed internet, including cable systems, satellites, DSL lines, FIOS, and even next-generation cell phone systems. Satellite is generally considered suboptimal because data comes in unstable bursts, and it's a choice that only people in very remote areas tend to lean toward. DSL is considered antiquated, and most people don't choose it unless there's a good deal or if cable or FIOS is not available nearby. Using a router attached to a cell phone account is generally less desirable due to data caps and throttling.
The two big players at the moment are cable and FIOS. Most regions of the U.S. have cable providers, and that's why companies like Xfinity and Time Warner have been dominant forces in the internet service provider market. There are also smaller regional cable companies that typically give the big names the most competition, but they're not available in all areas. FIOS is a fiber-optic system that often offers higher speeds than cable but is less available in suburban and rural areas.
Understanding Speed Ratings
Speeds are measured in terms of bits, the total number of ones and zeros a line can actually transmit or receive. You'll typically hear these referred to in terms of megabits and gigabits per second. A 10 Mbps line, for example, can hypothetically receive about 10,000,000 bits in a second. Gigabit speeds are measured in billions.
Ratings, real-world performance, and speeds claimed by ISPs rarely align well. Your hardware and even the servers you're connecting to can slow things down.
There are a number of websites that benchmark the speeds of various ISPs. DSLReports.com is a good quick reference for anyone who wants to start comparing different ISPs. If you know a friend or a family member who has service through a particular ISP, you may want to take your laptop or tablet there and try using Speedtest.net to conduct your own testing. The FCC also provides a solid quick reference for different applications. Be aware with any tests you run that there might be limitations caused by things outside the ISP's control, like the router in use.
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