Getting older, not necessarily wiser!
One of the primary tasks most of us face when setting up a home network is picking an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Of course, you can set up a home network without an internet connection, and some choose to do just that. However, the majority of people will want some level of connectivity to the internet.
Your location will have a lot to do with what sort of connectivity is available. In some cases options will be limited, especially in some rural areas. Even in the more urbanized areas there may be limited choice.
Before discussing the various options that may be available, it is best to determine what your internet needs actually are
I suggest using a spreadsheet, as it will be easily modifiable as your review your needs. Now the way I did my estimate might or might not work for you. But it is a starting point, feel free to use whatever works for you.
The first thing I did was list all possible internet users, including guest and house. Guest is for anyone who is visiting and might log into your network. House is for all those internet enabled items in your dwelling, like the game console, smart TV, or home security system. After that I started editing each user, making an estimate of how many devices each has. The magnitude of the number might surprise you. But you should be aware that unless you turn a device off, it will probably still access the internet, even while not in use (software updates, receiving mail, getting texts, etc).
Next you need to determine the normal usage for each person. Admittedly a lot of this is guess work. But they are educated guesses. There are two things you are interested in, speed and usage. So adding columns to my spreadsheet I list things like;
• Activity Speed Usage • Web Browsing 1 Mbps 10 MB/hr • Video Streaming 5 Mbps 600 MB/hr • Video Conferencing 2 Mbps 200 MB/hr • Blogging 1 Mbps 4 MB/hr • Gaming 2 Mbps 20 MB/Hr • Security System 1 Mbps 5 Mbps/Hr
You can probably think of more, but this is a good list to start with. What I have listed is my estimates. Your situation will determine what sort of numbers you use. For example, I have no high definition TV’s, so I don’t need High Definition TV streaming. There is some overlap also. For example, without video streaming, security system bandwidth requirements are very low.
When adding up values, also remember to determine time of usage. For instance if someone works graveyard shift, they will probably have different usage times than a day worker. What you are trying to determine is your maximum usage at various times.
From this data you can derive an average bandwidth requirement. This in turn will help you start filtering out various ISPs and plans that are not aligned with your bandwidth requirements.
There are two parts to connection speed. The first part is what the ISP advertises, which is under ideal conditions, and does not reflect the real world. The second part is Download speed verses Upload speed.
Read ISP advertisements carefully. You will probably see something in teeny tiny letters equivalent to “Speeds up to” and the advertised speed in big letters. The advertised speed is a theoretical speed that your connection should have in a perfect world.
However since we do not live in a perfect world, your average speed under normal use will be somewhat less. You will also find that the average speed varies depending on the time of day (number of users on-line). In reality, for a 25 Mbps connection, you might see under good conditions an actual speed of 15-20 Mbps at best. And on average speeds around 10-15 Mbps. And in high usage or bad conditions less than 10 Mbps.
Most ISPs provide different upload and download speeds. The theory being that most people will spend their time downloading. So most ISPs provide higher download speed than upload speed (saving them money in the end).
If you are not running servers or pushing a lot of videos to social media, then upload speed is probably irrelevant for the most part.
In general, unless otherwise stated, your upload speed will be around one fifth to one tenth of your download speed. For instance an ISP that offers 25 Mbps Download, will probably offer upload speeds of around 5 Mbps.
If you are an on-line gamer, then low latency is going to be important. This is also a value that is harder to find, as it is not part of any ISP advertising. Latency is measured in milliseconds.
Latency can basically be considered how responsive your internet connection is. Think of it as how fast you’re in game actions get to the gaming server. If your competitor has a lower latency, then his actions always get to the game server before yours.
Latency is caused by more than just your ISP. However, your ISP is the only part you actually have any say about.
You will have to dive deep for this data on the provider’s website, assuming it is available at all. The other option is to check with gaming sites that provide statistics on latency for various providers in your area.
In general, anything satellite based will have really high latency (500 ms +). DSL will weigh in around 50 ms. Cable and fiber are around 20 ms or less.
Another specification that might be hard to find on the providers website is if they have any data caps. This is how much you can download and will usually be in Gigabytes per month.
The questions to ask, beyond if they have a data cap, is what happens when you reach it. It could be anything from throttling back your speed to extra data charges.
This is another somewhat nebulous specification for most average users. Basically most services over the internet use both an IP address and a port off that IP address. In reviewing information about providers you might find that some ports are blocked.
The most likely scenario is if you are going to run your own mail server. You might find your ISP blocks port 25 and 110, especially if the ISP offers email services. The reason a provider might block a port is to reduce traffic on their network, and promote one of their services.
This is an overall ratting of ISP up-time. It is usually expressed in percentage. If an ISP has a high reliability, they will probably advertise it. You will want a provider with an availability in the high nineties. If they are hitting the low nighties or less, you can expect inconvenient service interruptions (is there such a thing as a convenient service interruption?).
This one is more of an intangible and as long as your connection is working well and they are not messing up your bill, it is almost a no starter. Until the first time your service gets screwed up, or you get overcharged, then it becomes extremely important. This is also something else you will have to research independent of the ISP. Just do a search on the ISP and Customer Service Review.
Dial-up: This was the original type of internet home service. It uses the phone line, and while in use will make them unavailable for audio. Advertised speeds are around 56 Kbps. Realistic speeds are around 20 to 40 Kbps. Speeds are dependent on the quality of the phone lines. Compared to other options, dial-up is downright slow. So don’t expect to stream video or do on-line gaming. It is also a demand service, which means when you are not using it, it is off. Dial-up generally has a lower monthly price tag than other services. Bottom line, If there is something else available with higher speed then use it, however there are some areas where this may be one of the only options available.
DSL: DSL is short for Digital Subscriber Line. Like dial-up it works over normal phone lines. Unlike dial-up, with the installation of special filters, you can still use your phone for talking. This is also an always on connection, so it is active even when you are not using it. DSL has a range of speeds based on a number of factors. Low-end speeds are 256 Kbps (about five time faster than dial-up). Depending on the package, how far you are from a hub, and the quality of phone lines, higher speeds are possible. While somewhat more expensive than Dial-up, DSL is still cheaper than most other services. There are some new DSL technologies introduced over the last several years that can provide even higher speeds.
Cable: Cable comes from your TV provider. Speeds and features are highly dependent on the specific package, plan, and pricing. Speeds can range from around 20 Mbps to over 1 Gbps. Cable uses a shared bandwidth structure, so speeds tend to be dependent on how many people are on-line in your neighborhood at any one time.
Satellite: Probably the most expensive option, it is faster than dial-up. In some areas this might be the only option. Satellite is also weather dependent and tends to have really long latency times. While price plans are somewhat competitive, you will need to invest in initial equipment and setup.
Cellular: Cellular internet may also be referred to as wireless internet or mobile broadband. The internet comes though a cell tower to your device. So you need to have a good cell signal for best results. This is a technology that is evolving quickly. Speed performance is related to the technology. 3G offered less than 5 Mbps. 4G offers up to 300 Mbps. At this point in time, 5G is still being developed/deployed, but can offer faster speeds up to and over 1 Gbps.
Fiber Optic: Fiber Optic is generally referred to as just Fiber. It is one of the newer transmission technologies being deployed. Depending on your plan, speed can range anywhere up to and beyond 1 Gbps. Because of the different distribution technology, fiber is less susceptible to varying loads than cable.
Here are a few additional items to watch out for when choosing an ISP.
Some service providers (most notably cable, fiber, and cellular) offer packages which include in addition to internet; streaming services, phone services, security services, additional software, etc. You may or may not want these services. So check closely for what is included.
Another item to watch out for is introductory pricing. Always ask what the standard pricing is and how long introductory prices last. That way you will not be surprised later, when the price increases.
Sometimes to get introductory pricing, or other items, you will need to enter into a contract. Contracts are usually for one, or two years. There is usually an early termination fee.
Equipment rental is another expense that is probably not included in the advertised price, so ask about it. There are some positives and negatives to equipment rental. If you rent, then the equipment belongs to the company, and they will need to fix it when it breaks (see customer service above). I have found that the rental price for some items after six months is as much as buying the item yourself and not renting it. Of course then you are responsible because you own it. This may come down to how comfortable you are with maintaining your own equipment.
One more thing not included in the advertised price is taxes. So ask about what the actual billing cost is, as that should include all items you will be expected to pay for.
I hope to have raised awareness to the various factors that that can affect your internet connection. When picking an ISP, knowing these will help you make a more informed decision.
If you are one of the lucky ones and have a wide choice of Internet Service Providers, then take the time to fully review and evaluate the services, pricing, and long term commitments. The best advertised price is not always the best deal. As a general rule you will never pay the advertised price, there will always be additions of some type (equipment rental, taxes, administrative fees, etc). Depending on how you use your connection, other considerations may be more important (like low latency for on-line gaming).
If you are not lucky enough to have a number of ISPs to chose from, hopefully you are now aware of some other options. I have used several wireless options in the past with good success. You just have to tailor your expectations.