The cord-cutting revolution is being driven by two primary factors: One is that it’s clearly cheaper to forgo legacy pay-TV services, and the second is that it has never been easier to replace old-school pay TV with streaming services. The second idea — replacing your old cable subscription with modern streaming options — relies on the internet, though, and you won’t enjoy being a cord-cutter if you don’t have a fast connection from a reliable internet service provider (ISP).
Our buying guides break down how to create the ultimate entertainment setup as a cord-cutter. We show you how to choose the right streaming services and how to buy the best streaming device for your needs. All of this is useless if you don’t have a fast enough internet connection, though, so this buying guide to ISPs and internet packages will break down everything you need to know.
What is an ISP?
First things first: What is an ISP?
An ISP is an internet provider — the companies, small and (mostly) large, that connect customers to the internet around the country.
ISPs have the infrastructure it takes to connect you to the internet. That infrastructure is a whole lot of cables, and when you are hooked into that network and have permission to use it, you can access the internet.
Your deal with an ISP will give you internet access, and the nature of your agreement will determine how good that internet is — how fast you can upload and download information.
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Internet service providers you need to know about
Before you can choose an ISP, you’ll need to know what your options are. Here are the ISPs you should know about.
It’s not technically called U-verse anymore, but AT&T Internet remains a strong option for cord-cutters looking for high-speed internet plans, including internet-only plans.
CenturyLink’s service area covers the Northwest and inland West, and stretches all the way to the East Coast, where it has some territory in the Mid-Atlantic and South. CenturyLink has brought faster internet to some areas that traditionally did not have it.
Love it or hate it, Comcast is a very big deal in the ISP market. It’s a massive company with massive reach, and it offers some very fast internet plans.
Cox isn’t available everywhere, but it’s a solid option in the areas it serves. Cox sometimes plays the role of the second ISP in an area, which gives customers a chance to save through competition.
An early arrival to the ISP business, Earthlink used to compete with old-school options like America Online. Today, it’s a modern ISP that competes with giants like AT&T Internet.
RCN competes with some of the biggest ISPs in some of the biggest markets — such as Spectrum in New York City, where RCN has managed to carve out a market share in select neighborhoods. When you have them available, RCN deals can make for very attractive internet-only plans.
The artist formerly known as Time Warner Cable rebranded after being acquired by Charter in a huge merger that shook the ISP market. Spectrum serves some huge areas, including New York City.
Verizon made its name in mobile telephone service (and, before that, in landline phone service under its former name, Bell Telephone). But Verizon offers internet connections for your home, too, and its powerful Verizon FiOS service is among the most exciting options on the market. Verizon Fios is a fiber-optic internet network — the fastest type of network around.
Viasat is a satellite internet provider, meaning that it uses satellites rather than physical cables. That makes Viasat one of your best options for rural internet.
Hughesnet competes with Viasat in the satellite internet market.
This list isn't exhaustive (there are other ISPs, like Suddenlink, too, and we have reviewed Optimum and other providers that aren't listed above), but it's a good overview of the big players in the ISP business.
How the internet works: a brief refresher
At its most basic, the internet is just a very big collection of connections between computers that form a large network. You can build your own network at home by connecting computers with wires and cables. With some Ethernet cables and a router, you can get the devices in your home to talk to one another — no internet required.
The history of the internet is basically the history of people putting together larger and larger networks and connecting them. (Well, there’s quite a bit more to it than that, but that’s all we really need to know for our purposes.) Internet providers were able to offer everyday people an internet connection by using cables to connect people to the larger networks that formed the internet. You may remember when those cables were phone lines — you had to hang up your phone to access the internet! — but ISPs now use cables that can carry more information than phone lines could. These broadband cables are now far more typical than phone-line connections.
When you use the internet on your home computer, your home network (through your router) connects to the internet (through a modem and your ISP’s infrastructure). At the other end, something similar happens. Netflix, for example, has servers full of stuff to stream, so when you’re watching Netflix on your computer, you’re communicating with Netflix’s computers through these network connections.
You can think of the connections that form the internet as being almost like pipes; broadband cables are like larger pipes that can fit more stuff through them. You share some of these connections with others: A big pipe may run down your block with your connection running off of it, which means how much stuff you can send and receive could be affected by how much stuff everyone else on your block is sending or receiving at the same time.
In other words, there is a physical limit to how fast a given internet connection can be without someone in a hard hat and vest coming out to replace your neighborhood’s cables with speedier ones.
There is also an artificial limit: Your ISP will let you use only as much bandwidth as you pay for. You can get internet service at various speeds, up to the “real” limit of the infrastructure.
It’s also worth noting that there are different kinds of internet infrastructure. DSL internet networks can be very fast, but fiber-optic internet is the fastest option. In rural areas, your best bet may be satellite internet, which is slower but can reach areas where physical cables have not yet spread.
All of this is a bit simplified, but it gives us some basic information to work with.
ISPs, cable, and phone service
Connecting to the internet requires a lot of infrastructure. Mobile devices can use antennas to pick up signals from big towers, which aren’t cheap to put up or maintain. Most other devices rely on connecting to a local network (your Wi-Fi, for instance, or the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi), which then conducts information to the broader internet — usually through a modem and a physical cable that heads out into the world.
Running cables all over the place underground is a tall order, which is why the ISP market is largely dominated by companies that already had lots of expensive infrastructure before the internet was a thing. It’s no coincidence that the same companies often offer landline phone service, cable TV, and internet service — they’re the ones with the cables in the ground!
This leads to the first major complication we’ll deal with as we track down the best internet plan for you: bundling. ISPs love to bundle discounted internet service with phone service and cable TV.
This cuts into cord-cutting savings, since cutting cable doesn’t just eliminate your cable bill — it can actually inflate your internet bill. Still, there are often savings to be had by cutting the cord, and lots of reputable ISPs offer pretty good deals on internet-only packages.
How good does my internet need to be?
If you’re going to replace your old-school pay-TV service with modern streaming services, then you’ll need an internet connection able to deliver the streaming video you crave. That means two things: First, your infrastructure needs to be good enough (rural broadband is often limited or unavailable, so your ISP can’t give it to you no matter how much you’re willing to pay), and second, the internet package you pay for needs to be good enough.
How internet speeds work
You need good internet infrastructure and a good internet package from your internet provider to get fast internet. But what is “fast” anyway? How do we measure this stuff?
Internet speeds are measured in Mbps, which stands for megabits per second. All you need to know is that it measures the rate at which you can send information over the internet. Megabits is a measure of data, and seconds, obviously, is time. It’s basically stuff per time.
How much stuff do you need to send or receive per second to stream video? For streaming video (and most other things), you’ll need to look at download speeds, which, not coincidentally, is also how most internet speeds are measured. A 100 Mbps connection means 100 Mbps download speeds, and it will usually have much slower upload speeds, which is fine for most users.
Upload speeds matter for certain activities though. If you want to play video games online, then you’ll want to pay attention to upload speeds. Slow upload speeds can cause latency, or “lag,” which could frustrate you when you’re trying to game. Bad upload speeds can also be an issue when you share files with P2P file-sharing clients
How data caps work
Internet speeds are a rate: stuff over time. But we can also just measure straight-up stuff. We can add up all the data being sent over a given connection and get a total.
Theoretically, you can send just about any amount of information over just about any connection if you have enough time. It just may take a really, really long time. There’s no real-world limit to how much data you can send or receive over the internet, although there may be a practical one.
But there are, in some cases, limits imposed by ISPs, which are used for billing purposes and to manage traffic so power users don’t slow down everyone else’s internet too much. (Remember, you share some larger internet cables with your fellow citizens.)
We measure internet speed in megabits per second. A bit is the smallest possible piece of data — it’s literally one of those binary zeros and ones — and a megabit is 1 million bits. Data caps are in much bigger units, such as gigabytes (about 1 billion bytes, which, for computer-nerd reasons you don’t need to know, are themselves eight bits) or terabytes (1,024 gigabytes or about 1.1 trillion bytes). Data caps are usually per month, and the typical household is very unlikely to use 1 TB in a month. But heavy streaming could put you over a lower data cap, such as 300 GB.
Internet speeds, data, and streaming
Now that you know how internet speeds and data caps work, let’s talk about what you’ll need for streaming video!
How Fast Your Internet Needs to Be to Stream Video
You’ll generally need at least 10 Mbps for streaming on-demand content in standard definition. Most streaming services claim to be able to stream in HD at this speed too.
You’ll need at least 30 Mbps to stream live content or in 4K Ultra-HD, even if the streaming services say they can work with less.
Your streaming isn’t happening in isolation though. Other stuff you do may use your bandwidth too. When you use more than one device at a time, you share your internet speed across multiple devices. If you’re streaming Netflix on Roku and your kid is streaming Netflix on an iPad, you’ll essentially be splitting your internet speed in half. (It’s actually a bit worse than that, because you have to factor in other minor drains, such as passive connected devices or your spouse checking their email on the desktop in the next room.) The more internet-connected devices you have, the faster your internet will need to be to keep you happy. If you plan to stream video (or music or video games) on multiple devices at the same time, you may want to pad out those internet speed recommendations a bit more.
We suggest around 25 Mbps minimum, with 50 Mbps as a good baseline for 4K and livestreaming and 100 Mbps the ideal for beefy streaming needs and big families. You may not have access to internet service at all these speeds, though, depending on where you live and the infrastructure in your area.
How Much Data Streaming Uses
Data caps aren’t as big of a deal for streaming, since 300 GB will cover even people who watch a fair amount of Netflix. To your data cap, streaming three movies in a row is pretty much the same as streaming three movies at once; that’s not the case for your internet speed, though, so consider that during high-traffic times. You should keep track of your usage and adjust accordingly.
Other considerations: Wi-Fi and more
You’ll need a fast internet connection to stream top-notch stuff, but your connection’s speed is not the only thing that matters.
Your deal with your internet provider determines how fast the connection is between your modem and the internet, but your modem connects to a router (or maybe your modem is also a router) and your router manages your local network, including your Wi-Fi.
Your Wi-Fi can be slow or unreliable, but that’s not exactly the same thing as your internet connection. If your internet should be fast enough to stream but you’re still having trouble over Wi-Fi, then consider upgrading your router or trying a wired connection with an Ethernet cable. Some streaming devices have Ethernet jacks, and others can add them with accessory dongles.
How much does internet service cost?
It’s the question we’ve all been waiting for: When you land the internet deal that gives you the speeds you need to cut the cord, how much will it actually cost?
It’s a vital question. After all, cord-cutting is really about saving money. Some of our favorite streaming solutions are better than cable, but the big appeal is that streaming is cheaper than cable. For all this cost-cutting stuff to make sense, you’ll need your internet to be reasonably affordable.
It’s impossible to say exactly how much your internet plan will cost. Internet speeds, options, and prices are different all over the country: rural areas may have fewer choices and slower internet speeds, while areas with multiple competing ISPs may have cheaper plans. Your internet will generally cost a little more on its own than as part of a bundle with pay-TV service, but most people can still save money by cutting the cord.
Your options will vary based on which ISPs operate in your area and what the internet infrastructure is like. Most likely, you’ll be dealing with one of the ISPs from our earlier list.
Deciding which internet deal to buy
There are a ton of factors that can influence what internet deals are available in your area. We can’t offer a one-size-fits-all recommendation for internet service, but we can tell you how to find the right deal for your needs.
Your best bet for saving money and getting great internet service is to:
- Figure out what you need from your internet service.
- Determine which ISPs operate in your area.
- Find a plan each ISP offers that meets your needs.
- Compare prices. Don’t forget to compare both the introductory rates and the standard rates you’ll eventually be paying.
If you live in an area with competing ISPs, you could consider hopping back and forth between them to maximize your savings. You could stay with each during your introductory rate and contract commitment, and then cancel and get the sale rate with a competitor. You’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for cancellation and installation fees that could make this strategy less cost-effective though. Helping you out with this is why we maintain pages like our AT&T Internet deals page.
Prices for many ISP deals are set, but you’ll sometimes find pricing with a little bit of wiggle room. If you do, then you may be able to put your business skills to work and negotiate your internet or phone bill. (This tactic tends to work better when you’re an established customer looking for a discount on the standard rate; if you’re a new customer, then you’ll probably want to go with the standard introductory deal, which may not be negotiable but is usually pretty affordable.)
What Will You Use Your Internet For?
To know what you'll need out of your internet connection, you'll have to know what you're going to be using that connection for. Now is the time to jot down some big-picture ideas of what you'll be streaming and how many devices you'll be using. Will you be watching live TV and 4K videos? You'll want at least 30 Mbps, then. Have a big household with lots of people using connected devices? You'll need some wiggle room for that, too. Add it all up and you’ll have a good idea of what you'll need. Revisit our section on internet speeds and streaming above if you need more information to make the final call!
Finding Your Local ISPs
Which ISPs operate in your area? You can learn more about the service areas of major ISPs on our pages about each brand (just go back up to our list and click the names of the ISPs). You could also head to your favorite search engine and search for “internet service” and your city’s name. Don’t dive deep into offer pages yet though. First, make a full list of the ISPs that operate in your area. It could be just one — there are plenty of internet service monopolies in the U.S. — but you may have options.
Picking Out Packages
Now take a look at your ISP options’ internet offerings. Make a list of the ones that suit your needs. If you decide you need 25 Mbps or more, look for deals that offer 25, 30, or even 50 Mbps. Don’t worry about pricing yet.
Once you have your list, it’s time to research prices and compare your options in depth.
Price Comparisons on Internet Service
The factor that will ultimately lead many of us to choose one internet deal over another is price. Take your list of possible deals and start hunting down specific prices — and keep in mind that some of the important stuff will be in the fine print.
Internet Bundles and Introductory Pricing
You’ll often pay less for internet if you bundle it with phone service or (gasp!) cable. You’ll also likely pay less in the first six months, year, or more of your contract — introductory-pricing deals are pretty standard on the ISP scene. There also may be installation fees, hardware rental fees (consider buying your own modem and router to dodge those), and more. When you’re writing down prices, read the fine print so you can fairly compare your options.
Considering your budget
When you’re done, you’ll have a pretty complete picture of how much the internet service you need will cost, which should help you compare options and decide whether cord cutting will save you money (it usually will). Consider your budget. Can you afford a few extra Mbps? If you can, it may pay to get a little extra bandwidth for those big streaming days.
Hunting for internet deals
Everyone likes saving money. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for good internet deals! Keep an eye on our homepage and social-media pages (we’re on Facebook and Twitter) for all the latest deals on internet services and other cord-cutting essentials. We’re here to help you get more for less!