Things to Consider Before Selecting an Internet Service Provider
When it comes to selecting an ISP (internet service provider) for your business or home, your options can be overwhelming. Choices in connection type like cable, DSL, or fiber, as well as the company providing the service all need to be carefully thought through. Once you have that all sorted out, how fast should the connection be? How will you connect to it? Will you be able to finally stream your favorite movie?
Typically, I start with researching available connection types in my area. Often, choosing the connection type will be limited by your geographic location, as some services aren’t available in all areas. There are three types of internet connections most commonly used today. Cable, DSL and fiber.
Traditional cable internet uses a copper wire from the cable TV provider to your home or business. Here, it is connected to a modem (a device that translates the signal to something your computer can us) and then your computer. Cable internet is often bundled with phone or TV service, which means only one bill – and one internet service provider – to deal with.
The technology used today provides very fast speeds and reliable service, but it’s not without drawbacks. For one, copper connections can suffer when exposed to the elements. On more than one occasion, I’ve had clients whose internet slowed to a crawl when the weather was soggy.
Also, because you are sharing the single connection to the cable company with many other users, at peak times you may notice it slows down. During an extended power outage, your service may be impacted. Cable providers rely on a series of relays between you and their equipment. These relays are powered and can go down if the power is out for a while – even if you still have power at your location. If your business or home relies heavily on the internet, this can be a problem.
A product of your phone company, DSL uses your copper phone line to provide internet. It too uses a modem to translate the signal. Unlike cable internet, it is not a shared service – your connection is a direct line back to the provider’s equipment. Most DSL service cannot provide the same internet speeds as cable, and are limited by distance between you and the provider’s location. If you aren’t close enough to the internet service provider’s equipment, you won’t be able to get the service. Also, like cable internet, any degradation in the phone cable or wiring between you and the provider can impact the speed of your connection. During power outages, however, DSL is typically not impacted. Phone companies power the DSL signal, so it’s not normally dependent on local power. If you have power (or a generator) your internet will likely still be up.
This type of internet uses a fiber optic signal. Fiber optic cable is actually made from very small strands of glass that transmit flashes of light over long distances at, well, the speed of light! It can provide a very fast connection of extremely high quality. Because it is a completely digital service, the connection isn’t affected by environmental issues such as corrosion or electromagnetic interference. Also, since the provider is powering the signal, power outages won’t affect the service. Being a relatively new type of service, it’s not available in all areas – but this is changing daily. Although a top notch connection, fiber pricing is usually on the upper end of the spectrum – making it a good choice for businesses but less appealing to a home user.
Sometimes, in very rural areas, you can’t get cable, DSL or fiber. For service here, you can look to your cellular provider for internet. If you have cell service at the location, you can likely purchase a device from your carrier that will act as a wireless “hotspot”, providing a wireless internet connection your devices can use. Beware, however, as these services usually carry a lower cap on how much data you can transfer. Streaming movies and downloading large files will quickly reach this cap, and then additional charges can be incurred. Therefore, this type of service is best for simple web browsing and email.
The required speed of your internet connection depends on how you use it. If you watch a lot of streaming video, play online multiplayer games, and have many users in your household – you’ll want a faster connection than someone who only browses the web and checks email. ISP’s advertise connection speeds in Mbps, which in normal speak means megabits per second. It’s a measurement of how many bits and bytes of data can be sent per second over your connection, thereby providing a measurement of speed. While most companies focus on advertising their download speeds, the upload speeds are important when you are sending large amounts of data OUT to the internet, like video chats or large files. For most homes, it’s not something you need to consider. For business, however, it can affect things like remote access, email and VoIP (Voice over IP) phone service. The more users at your business, the more important adequate upload speeds are. Get a recommendation from your network administrator or computer support person when researching connection speeds, and be sure to consider both upload and download speeds in your selection.
Read the Fine Print
Internet service providers tend to leave the dirty little details out of their marketing materials. Pay attention to any caps on data transfer, which is usually measured in GB (Gigabytes). I have 6 users in my household, all of which are heavy internet users. We watch a lot of streaming video, play online games, all the geeky stuff that we love. I have a 250GB cap, and I routinely exceed that. Also beware of “introductory” offers. It’s easy to get signed up, but not always easy to change. For homes and businesses, look at the contract term, and early termination fees. Hopefully your research will assist you in choosing an ISP you are happy with, but if not, you shouldn’t have to pay to leave it.