The cord cutting revolution is being driven by two primary factors. One is the fact that it is clearly cheaper to forgo legacy pay TV services. The second is the reality that it has never been easy to replace old-school pay TV with streaming services. But that second idea — replacing your old TV subscription with modern streaming options — relies on the internet. And if you don't have a fast enough internet connection from a reliable internet service provider (ISP), then you're not going to enjoy life as a cord cutter too much.

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 to subscribe to and how to buy the best streaming device for your needs. But all of this is useless unless you have a fast enough internet connection, which is why we're here with this buying guide to ISPs and internet packages. Below, we'll break down everything that you need to know.

What is an ISP?

First things first: what is an ISP?

An ISP is an internet service provider. When we talk about ISPs, we're talking about the companies — small and (mostly) large — that connect customers to the internet all around the country.

ISPs have the infrastructure that it takes to connect you to the internet. That infrastructure is a whole lot of cables, and when you are hooked in to that network and have permission to use it, you can access the internet.

Your deal with the ISP will give you internet access, and the nature of your agreement will determine how “good” that internet is: how fast you can download information and how fast you can upload it.

To understand all of the different factors that go into your relationship with your ISP, we should cover how the internet works.

How the internet works: a brief refresher

At its most basic, the internet is just a very big collection of connections between computers. These connections form a big network that we call the internet.

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 each other, no internet required.

The history of the internet is basically the history of people putting together larger and larger networks and connecting them together (I mean, there's quite a bit more to it than that, but that's all we really need to know for our purposes here). Internet service providers were able to offer everyday folks an “internet connection” by using cables to connect people to these 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!). These days, ISPs use cables that can carry more information at once time than phone lines could. These “broadband” cables are far more typical these days than are phone line connections.

When you use the internet on a home computer, your home network (through your router) is connecting with the internet (through a modem and then through your ISP's infrastructure). At the other end, something similar is happening. Netflix, for instance, has big servers full of stuff to stream — so when you are watching Netflix on a computer at home, you are 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 at once. And you share some of these connections with others: a big “pipe” may run down your block, with your connection running off of it. This means that how much stuff you can send and receive could be affected by how much stuff everyone else in your neighborhood 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 a vest coming out to replace your neighborhood's cables with better and speedier ones.

There is also an artificial limit: your ISP will only let you use as much bandwidth as you are paying for. You can get internet service at various speeds (up to the “real” limit of the infrastructure, of course).

All of this is a bit simplified, but it gives us some basic information to work with in the next few sections.

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 the companies that already had lots of that expensive infrastructure even 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 that we'll deal with as we track down the best internet plan for you: bundling. ISPs love to bundle discounted internet service in with phone service and/or 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're going to need an internet connection that is up to the task of delivering that great streaming video that you crave. As we mentioned earlier, that means two things: first, your infrastructure needs to be good enough (some rural areas don't have broadband, so your ISP can't give it to you no matter how much you're willing to pay for it); and second, the internet package that you pay for needs to be good enough.

How internet speeds work

So you need good internet infrastructure and a good internet package from your ISP in order 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 really 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 stuff-per-time.

So how much stuff do you need to send or recieve per second in order to stream video? For streaming video (and most other things), we're looking at download speeds — which, not coincidentally, is also how most internet speeds are measures. A 100 Mbps connection means 100 Mbps download speeds, and will usually have much slower upload speeds, which is fine by most users.

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 of the data that is 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. So there's no real-world limit to how much data you can send or receive over the internet, though there may be a practical one.

But there are, in some cases, limits imposed by ISPs. These are used for billing purposes and to manage traffic so that power-users don't slow down everyone else's internet too much (remember, you share some larger internet cables with your fellow citizens, we we explained above).

We measure internet speed in megabits per second. A megabit is 1,000,000 bits, and a bit is the smallest possible piece of data — it's literally one of those binary zeroes and ones. When we talk about data caps, we use much bigger units, like gigabytes (1,073,741,824 bytes — and bytes, for computer-nerd reasons that you don't need to know, are themselves eight bits) or even terabytes (1,024 gigabytes, 1,099,511,627,776 bytes, or a ridiculous 8,796,093,022,208 bits). The data caps are usually per month. The typical household is very unlikely to use 1 TB in a month — it's just so much! But heavy streaming could see you hitting a lower data cap, such as 300 GB.

Internet speeds, data, and streaming

Now that we know how internet speeds and data caps work, let's talk about what you'll need for streaming video!

How fast your internet need to be to stream video

Generally, you'll need at last 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 to get a bit more speed if you're going to stream live content or stream in 4K Ultra-HD. Figure on at least 30 Mbps, even if the streaming services say that they can work with less.

There's one more important thing to discuss here, though, and that's this: your streaming isn't happening in isolation. Other stuff you do may use your bandwidth, too! When you use more than one device at once, you share your internet speed across multiple devices. So 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 (actually, it's a bit worse than that, because you have to factor in more minor drains that are happening: passive connected devices, your spouse checking their email on the desktop in the next room, and so on). The more internet-connected devices you have, the faster your internet will need to be to keep you happy. And if you plan to stream video (or music, or video games) on multiple devices at the same time, you'll definitely want to pad out those internet speed recommendations a bit more.

At Cordcutting.com, we prefer to suggest something like 25 Mbps internet as a minimum, with 50 Mpbs being a good baseline for 4K and live streaming and 100 Mbps being ideal for beefy streaming needs and big families. Of course, you may or may not have access to internet service at all of these speeds, depending on where you live and what the infrastructure is like in your area.

How much data streaming uses

As for data caps, they're not as big of a deal here. 300 GB will cover most streamers, even those who watch a fair bit of Netflix (of course, you should keep track of your usage and adjust accordingly). To your data cap, streaming three movies in a row is pretty much the same as streaming three movies at once. Not so for your internet speeds, which you should consider with high traffic times in mind.

Other considerations: Wi-Fi and more

You'll need a fast internet connection to stream top-notch stuff. But don't be fooled: the speed of your internet connection is not the only thing that matters here.

Your deal with your ISP determines how fast the connection is between your modem and the internet. But on your side of things, your modem connects to a router (or maybe your modem is also a router — there are some two-in-one devices), and your router manages your “local network,” including your Wi-Fi.

And your Wi-Fi can be slow or unreliable. If that's the case, remember that it'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, try a wired connection (use an Ethernet cable — some, but not all, streaming devices have Ethernet jacks, and others can add them with accessory dongles) or upgrade your router (here are a few of our favorites).

How much does internet service cost?

Ah, 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?

This is 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 here is that streaming is cheaper than cable. And for all of this cost-saving stuff to make sense, we'll need our internet to be reasonably affordable.

It's impossible for us to say exactly how much your ideal internet plan will cost, unfortunately. Internet speeds, options, and prices are different all over the country: rural areas may have fewer choices and slower internet speeds, areas with multiple competing ISPs will have cheaper plans, and so on. Generally, your internet is going to cost a little more on its own than it did as part of a bundle with your pay TV service, but most people still find that they can save money by cutting the cord.

In short, your options are going to vary based on which ISPs operate in your area and what the internet infrastructure is like. Speaking of different ISPs, let's take a look at some of the major players.

Internet service providers you need to know about

AT&T Internet (U-verse)

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

CenturyLink's service area spreads from the Northwest and inland West all the way over the East Coast, where the ISP has some territory in the Mid-Atlantic and South. CenturyLink has brought faster internet to some areas that traditionally did not have it.

Comcast

Love it or hate it, Comcast is a very big deal in the ISP market. It's a massive company with a massive reach, and it offers some very fast internet plans.

Cox

Cox isn't available everywhere, but it's a solid option in the areas that it serves. Cox sometimes plays the role of the second ISP in an area, which gives customers a chance to save through competition.

Frontier

Not all areas have the broadband infrastructure that it takes to cut the cord and use streaming services instead, but Frontier is changing that. Frontier serves areas that are traditionally under-served by internet infrastructure. That can mean limited speeds in some areas, but it also tends to mean improving conditions and more options for the patient consumers in far-flung areas.

Spectrum

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.

Deciding which internet deal to buy

As we talked about earlier, there are a ton of different factors that can influence what's available to you in your area in terms of internet deals. We can't offer a one-size-fits all recommendation for internet service, but we can tell you how you should go about finding the right internet deal for your needs.

Your best bet for saving money and getting great internet is to do this:

  1. Figure out what you need from your internet service
  2. Determine which ISPs operate in your area
  3. Find the one plan that each ISP offers that meets your needs
  4. Compare prices (don't forget to compare both the introductory rates and the standard rates that you'll eventually paying)

If you're lucky enough to live in an area with competing ISPs, you could consider hopping back and forth between the competitors in order to maximize your savings — you could stay with each for as long as your introductory rate and contract commitment last, then cancel and get the sale rate with a competitor. Of course, you'll need to keep a sharp eye out for cancellation fees and installation fees that could make this strategy less cost-effective.

Let's break things down a bit further.

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 25 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 device what you'll need. Revisit our section on internet speeds and streaming above if you need more information to make your determination.

Finding your local ISPs

Which ISPs operate in your area? You can learn more about the service areas of the major ISPs by checking out our internet service pages on each brand (just go back up to our list and click on the names of the ISPs), or you could just head to your favorite search engine and put “internet service” and your town or city's name in there. Don't go diving deep into offer pages just yet — first, make a full list of the ISPs that operate in your area. It could just be one (there are plenty of internet service monopolies in the U.S.), but you may have options!

Picking out packages

Okay, you have your ISP options laid out. Now take a look at their internet offerings. Make a list of the ones that suit your needs. If you've decided you need 25 Mbps or more, look for deals that offer 25, 30, or even 50 Mbps. Don't worry about pricing too much just yet.

Once you have your list, it's time to do price research and compare things in-depth.

Price comparisons on internet service

For many of us, the ultimate factor that will lead us to choose one internet deal over another is price. So let's talk pricing! 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 and/or (gasp) cable. You'll also tend to pay less for internet in the first six months, year, or more of your contract — introductory pricing deals are pretty standard on the ISP scene. Plus, there are installation fees, hardware rental fees (consider buying your own modem and router to dodge those) and more. So when you're writing down prices, be sure to read the fine print! Write down all of the details so that you can fairly compare your options.

Considering your budget

When all is said and done, you'll have a pretty complete picture of what the internet service you need will cost. This should help you decide if cord cutting will save you money (it usually will) and will help you compare different options. Consider your budget. Can you afford a few extra Mbps? If you can, it might pay to be conservative in your estimates and 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 here at Cordcutting.com! Keep track of our home pages and social media pages (we're on Facebook and Twitter) for all of the latest deals on internet and other cord cutting essentials. We're here to help you get more for less!