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Find the Right Speed When Shopping for High-Speed Internet

DSLs, modems, fiber optics and satellite ... what's the difference?


You can get high-speed Internet access through a variety of services, including:

  • Digital subscriber line (DSL).
  • Cable.
  • Fiber optic.
  • Satellite.
  • Wireless.

When you’re shopping for Internet service, it helps to understand the differences and know what questions to ask.

Types of High-Speed Internet Service

The type of Internet service available to you depends on what technology your local providers offer:

  • Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) transmit data through phone lines without interfering with telephone service. Local phone companies typically offer DSL service, but other Internet service providers offer it as well.
  • Cable modems provide access to the Internet through cable lines without interfering with your cable TV service; cable companies provide this service.
  • Fiber optic service provides Internet, phone and TV services delivered simultaneously through one fiber optic line.
  • Satellite Internet service is available in most areas from providers of satellite television services. Extreme weather conditions can disrupt service.

There also are wireless Internet options available in some areas:

  • Mobile wireless services, often referred to as 3G or 4G networks, are available from mobile phone companies. You access them through mobile devices or a computer with a built-in or plug-in air card.
  • Fixed wireless broadband connects a home or business to the Internet using a radio link between your location and the service provider's tower.
  • Wi-Fi hotspots are available in many airports, city parks, bookstores and other public locations.

How Fast Is Fast?

Speeds depend on a variety of factors, including what type of service you are using, what level or tier of service you purchase and how congested your network and the Internet are at any time.

  • Typically, fiber is faster than cable; cable is faster than DSL.
  • Speeds are expressed in kilobits (kbps) — thousands of bits per second, or megabits (Mbps) — millions of bits per second.

Most providers have different speeds for uploading and downloading content. Download speeds usually are faster than upload speeds.

Some processes — like watching high-definition movies or playing real-time video games — require a high-speed connection, but even basic Web browsing goes faster with one.

If speed matters to you, ask providers what speeds you can expect.

The Web is full of free speed testing programs, but they don’t all test speed the same way. If you test your connection speed and you're not getting what you expected, ask your provider why and whether you can improve it.

Questions to Ask When Shopping

Ask providers:

Is there a discount if I order more than one service from your company?

Buying a bundle of services from one provider can be a good deal. At the same time, it can make it more difficult to change providers for any one service if you're tied into a long-term contract. In addition, promotional prices may have time limits. Ask how long they last, and what the post-promotion cost will be. Get that in writing.

Are you offering any specials?

Special promotion prices may be enticing, but get all the details. The promotion price probably doesn’t include taxes, the cost of extra equipment or additional fees, like activation or early termination fees. Ask the provider to explain the one-time, recurring and special charges, including taxes and fees. Get all these quotes in writing.

Some deals are available only online or by phone. Even if you have to order your service online, call the provider first. Review all the information presented on the websites, the minimum system requirements and the fine-print terms and conditions. Read the entire customer service agreement, and file it for future reference.

Is there anything I need to know about setting up my connection?

Some promotions require you to install cables, modems, routers, satellite dishes or software yourself. Find out early what you'll need to do and whether support will be available on the phone or online if you have trouble. Message boards on a manufacturer's website can be helpful for troubleshooting.


What speeds can I expect?

Be aware that low promotional pricing may be for the lowest speeds. Make sure the listed download and upload speeds are the ones that you're expecting, and if there's a trial period to test the service to see if it meets your expectations. Actual transmission speeds depend on many factors, including the type of application you’re using and the number of people using it at the same time, and may be slower than the maximum potential speed your provider touts.

Can I change plans before my contract expires?

Ask about options and costs for changing your plan to reflect your use.

Is there a cancellation fee?

Some plans include early-termination fees. Be sure you understand what the fees are and how they are calculated before you sign up.

If I get fiber optic service then decide I don't want it, can I go back to my old DSL service? If you're considering fiber optic service, ask the provider if the copper wires that are used to carry your phone calls will be removed. Fiber lines are capable of carrying calls, Internet and television service. But if the copper lines are removed, you may not be able to switch back to traditional phone service or DSL service.

Whom do I call if the service goes out?

Ask if customer service or tech support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and whether it is by telephone or the Internet. Is it free?

What happens if my power goes out?

Check with the provider to find out whether phone and Internet service will be available in the event of a power outage. Services provided over a landline or DSL typically work during short term power outages, but services provided over cable or fiber may not. Remember that your computer needs a battery or other power supply to work during a power outage.

What security measures does the provider include, and what’s the cost?

Some Internet providers include anti-virus and anti-spyware software with your service, and sometimes it’s free. Ask about it, and take these other steps to ensure basic computer security.

Get Help

If you have a problem with your Internet service, first contact your service provider to resolve the issue. If you can't get satisfaction, consider contacting your public utility commission or other appropriate state or local regulator.

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