First-Time Internet Buyer’s Guide

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Whether you’re moving to a new home or want to save money on your monthly bill, switching internet service providers (ISP) can be overwhelming. Use this buyer’s guide to understand what to look for in an internet plan and what to expect at sign up.

Key Insights

Different Internet Options

Knowing all of your internet options before you even begin shopping can help you make the best choice for your home. For example, while fiber internet offers fast speeds, you could potentially save money going with a slower plan like DSL if you don’t do much online.

It all comes down to your lifestyle. Whether you need basic internet for web browsing or something with a bit of an extra kick for streaming, we cover just about every connection type there is to help you pick a new internet plan.

Fiber Internet

Fiber internet uses light to transfer data along fiber-optic cables. These “cables” are thin, transparent glass fibers that transmit data at the speed of light, which explains why it’s so much faster than other connection types.

Fiber offers the fastest symmetrical speeds, delivers great home coverage, and supports the most connected devices at once. However, since fiber is not as widely available as DSL and cable internet and typically costs more, it only makes up 1 in 5 internet subscribers today.

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    Fast download and upload speeds

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    Most reliable connection

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    Supports the most connected devices

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    Can get pricey

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    Limited availability in the US

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    Slow overbuild process

Cable Internet

Far more common than fiber, cable internet uses electrical signals to deliver signal between a provider and the home. It piggybacks off of pre-existing TV infrastructures to deliver internet over coaxial cables. While DSL is similar in that it relies on older networks, cable internet is usually more reliable than DSL and offers faster speeds.

Cable service can deliver fast download speeds and is widely available, which makes it the leading choice for people today. Currently, 3 in 5 internet subscribers use cable.

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    2x the availability of fiber

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    Supports gaming and streaming

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    Fast download speeds

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    Slower speeds during peak hours

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    Limited availability in rural areas

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    Moderate to high prices

DSL Internet

DSL internet, which stands for digital subscriber line, is the most common connection in the US due to its availability. Similar to cable, DSL also runs on pre-existing networks (i.e. in this case copper phone lines) to transmit internet signals to the home.

Based on its speeds, DSL is a step up from dial-up service but is still known to cause dead spots, latency issues, and all-around slower speeds compared to cable and fiber internet. It’s best for smaller homes, users with fewer connected devices, or those looking for cheap internet.

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    Affordable

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    2x the availability of fiber

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    Faster than dial-up

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    Slow to average speeds

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    Doesn’t support gaming or streaming well

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    Weak home coverage

Satellite Internet

Satellite internet is a wireless connection that sends internet signals between three satellite dishes. One is set up at your provider’s main hub, one is set up on your property, and one is in space. This type of internet has the unique advantage of being available virtually anywhere, but it is subject to service interruptions due to bad weather or poor equipment.

There are only a few satellite internet providers available today. It’s ideal for those who live in remote areas and can’t get wired connections to their property easily.

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    Available virtually everywhere

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    Can overcome physical barriers

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    Faster than dial-up

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    Tends to be expensive

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    Data caps are common

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    Unreliable due to physical elements

Contracts, Pricing & Fees

More goes into your monthly internet bill than the service itself. Internet costs can include everything from price hikes, one-time fees, and recurring charges depending on what plan you choose. Here are the most common things to anticipate before signing on the dotted line.

Contracts

When you sign up for new internet service, you may be required to sign a contract, and this contract is usually for one or two years.

A contract will outline the services included in your plan, the monthly price, and any penalties for early termination. It’s important to know about these charges if you decide to cancel your service before the contract is up or wish to change something on your account.

Promotional Discounts

Internet providers often use promotional pricing to attract new customers. This pricing can be a great deal, but it’s essential to understand all the terms and conditions before signing up. The last thing you want is to get hit with an unexpected price increase months down the road.

Most promotional discounts last for the first year of service. This price is usually lower than the regular rate, but it may not be the best internet service around. Compare similar plans across multiple providers to ensure you get the most for your money.

One-Time Fees

Installation Fee: $35 – $200

An installation fee is one of the biggest expenses for new internet service. Costing up to $200, this fee covers the cost of man-hours and equipment needed to install service at your home. It includes a truck roll and professional technician support. Sometimes providers will automatically waive this fee during a promotion.

Early Termination Fee: $100 – $400

As much as we try to plan, life happens. In cases where you have to cancel your internet service prematurely, there may be fees associated with this. Providers charge an early termination fee (ETF) in order to recoup some of the investment they made in setting up your service and using resources to support it. ETFs can run as high as $400 depending on what provider you go with. If you move frequently, don’t want to be stuck in a contract, try finding a provider like Spectrum or Centurylink that doesn’t have a cancellation fee.

Late Payment Fee: $10 – $25

Regardless of if you have a contract or not, you can still be penalized for late payments. Many providers provide two-day grace periods to accommodate unexpected events. However, we don’t recommend making this a habit. If you are late on a payment, your provider may charge you a late payment fee as high as $25 each time it happens. Then, if things persist and your service is cut off, you may be charged a reconnection fee to reactivate your services.

Recurring Fees

Equipment Rental Fee: $5 – $15

Internet service requires equipment. At the bare minimum, you’ll need a modem and an ethernet cord to establish a hard-wired internet connection in your home. If you want a wireless connection to use multiple devices at once, you’ll need a modem and router. Providers often lease internet equipment for an extra monthly fee between $5 to $15. To save money, consider investing in your own equipment. It’s a heftier cost upfront but may save you as much as $300 over the span of a few years.

Data Caps and Overage Fee: $10+

When a provider sets a data limit on your internet plan, overage charges can occur when you exceed those limits. Typically, providers charge $10 to $15 for a certain overage each month. Say you went over 100 GB of data and your provider charges $10 for each 50 GB you go over. You would expect to see an overage fee of $20 added to your bill for that month you exceeded your data cap.

Add Ons: $10+

ISPs often offer add-ons to their plans. These add-ons can include features like HBO, Showtime, or a data allowance increase. You need to be aware of what these add-ons cost and what they include. You don’t want to be surprised by a large bill after you’ve already signed up for service.

Choosing Internet Speeds

Several factors will determine the speed of your new internet service. The three biggest ones include your provider, connection type, and how many devices are being used at once. Which plan you choose ultimately comes down to how you plan on using it.

Are you a heavy user who likes to game online or stream shows? Or, do you just need a way to check your email? There’s no need to pay for more than you need, so knowing what speeds will work for you is key. Calculate your internet speeds to know for sure before shopping.

Light User – 25+ Mbps

Recommended Providers: Viasat, HughesNet

Medium User – 100+ Mbps

Recommended Providers: Spectrum, AT&T, EarthLink, Windstream

Heavy User – 500+ Mbps

Recommended Providers: Frontier, Xfinity, CenturyLink

Equipment You’ll Need

The equipment required varies depending on what provider you’re signed up for, the type of internet you choose, and how many devices are connected. Homes usually need a combination of one or more of these devices: modem, router, and WiFi extender.

Modems

A modem is required to receive internet service from your ISP. However, some providers offer routers with built-in modems. If you choose a built-in modem, you won’t need to purchase a separate modem or router.

WiFi Routers

A WiFi router lets you connect multiple devices to the internet at once. They also allow you to create a WiFi network in your home or office. This means that you can connect devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets to the internet without using a cable.

There are a variety of routers available. It’s important to choose one that is the right size and has the features you need to fit your home size and budget.

WiFi Extenders

WiFi extenders are add-on devices that allow you to extend the range of your WiFi network. This means that you can connect to the internet in rooms that were previously unreachable. There are a variety of WiFi extenders available on the market, fit for different speeds and home sizes.

Conclusion

The internet is a powerful tool for education, business, or just fun. However, knowing what you need to get started can be challenging. This first-time buyer’s guide should help simplify the process by providing an overview of what you can expect to pay and get from your local internet provider.

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Paula Novo
Written By
Paula Novo
Written By
Paula Novo
With over four years of telecom experience, Paula Novo is the Site Editor for HighSpeedOptions. She has helped develop the criteria by which HighSpeedOptions reviews and recommends internet service providers. Paula also leads HighSpeedOptions' coverage of the digital divide, broadband policy, and ISP reviews.