Shopping for internet plans gets confusing fast — especially if you aren’t familiar with the different technologies being used to deliver the connection to your home. Between fiber, fixed wireless, cable, DSL, satellite and cellular internet plans, there’s an awful lot to keep straight and if you don’t understand the differences, you risk getting stuck with a connection that isn’t as fast or reliable as you had wanted, or as affordable as you need. That’s no good when there are long-term contracts potentially at play.
This guide will walk you through the different types of internet connections that may be available in your area, how they work and what, if any, limitations you can expect from them.
Fiber-optic internet: Fast and reliable, but not yet for everyone
Fiber-optic internet is arguably the best connection type, so we’ll start there. Like the name suggests, fiber refers to an internet connection that comes to your home via fiber-optic cable, which uses pulses of light along thin strands — or fibers — of glass or plastic to transmit data.
These fiber-optic strands support speeds and reliability that are superior to other connection types.
Fiber-optic can deliver download speeds as fast as 2 gigabits (2,000 megabits per second) — fast enough to download a two-hour movie in HD in less than a minute — but you’re likely to find max download speeds around 1,000Mbps from most fiber-optic providers. Upload speeds, which are especially important when working and learning from home, are also significantly faster with fiber-optic service.
Availability is the only real disadvantage with fiber. Laying enough fiber-optic cables into the ground to connect entire cities and regions is a huge logistical challenge, and with lots of competition and red tape to cut through, it’s been slow going for any of the major service providers to expand coverage to underserved areas. Consequently, fiber internet is only available to around 45% of U.S. households and primarily those in urban areas, according to the FCC.
Fiber connections used to be fairly expensive as far as internet pans go, but most providers have lowered their prices in recent years. As a result, fiber internet is now likely to be as competitively priced as any other connection type — and considering the speeds you get for the price, it’s actually now one of the most cost-effective internet types. No wonder everyone wants it.
Notable fiber internet providers:
Cable internet: Fast and available, your standard connection
Cable internet lacks the speed potential and reliability of fiber-optic service, but it’s much more widely accessible. Cable is one of the most common types of internet connections — available to nearly 90% of the U.S. population — and you’ll often find it bundled with home phone service and TV packages. That makes sense, because cable internet uses the same coaxial connections as cable TV.
Coaxial cables do not have the same speed potential and reliability as fiber-optic, but cable internet is still one of the fastest internet types. Most cable providers offer a variety of speed options, including a gigabit plan with download speeds around 940 Mbps. Upload speeds are a much different story, however, as few providers deliver upload speeds above 50Mbps. Speed reliability can also be a concern with cable internet, as coaxial cables are susceptible to network congestion and slowed speeds, especially during peak usage times.
Cable internet pricing varies quite a bit among providers, but cable is, for the most part, one of the more affordable internet connection types. You can get a broadband connection from providers like Cox, Mediacom and Xfinity starting at less than $30 per month. Spectrum, another big name in cable internet, has a higher starting price at around $50 per month, but comes with max download speeds of 200Mbps.
Notable cable internet providers:
DSL internet: Cheap and readily available, but somewhat outdated
DSL refers to a digital subscriber line and you’ll often find it available in areas where you might not have access to cable or fiber internet. With DSL, your connection to the internet runs through your phone lines. Unlike dial-up, however, where it would disrupt your connection with a call, with DSL, you can use your internet without having to worry about an incoming call disrupting your connection.
DSL internet is best for those in rural communities looking for a reliable and affordable internet connection. While it does lag in speeds compared to cable internet plans (only about 42% of those eligible for DSL service can get broadband speeds, defined by minimum downloads of 25Mbps and minimum uploads of 3Mbps), it can be a cheaper alternative to satellite internet. Since DSL uses existing phone lines to deliver service, providers can keep prices relatively low and consistent. CenturyLink, for example, offers a price for life guarantee on it’s DSL service.
Notable DSL internet providers:
Satellite internet: Slow and expensive, but possibly the only option
Satellite internet is the most widely available types of internet because it doesn’t rely on ground-laid infrastructure like cables, cellular towers or line-of-sight antenna connections. Instead, you’ll use a special dish to connect with satellites orbiting far overhead. If you have a clear view of the southern sky, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a satellite provider capable of delivering an internet connection to your home.
To set it up, your provider will come out to install a satellite dish either on the roof of your home or in the ground facing southward. It’s best suited for those living in rural areas without access to other options, especially since bad weather and other obstructions could affect your service in ways that you can’t control.
On average, today’s satellite internet providers offer speeds that typically vary from 12 to 100 Mbps. In most cases, that makes it a suitable option for smaller households who want to stream video, browse the internet and update social media. New providers — namely Elon Musk’s Starlink network, which began expanding service in select areas this year — are promising to bump those speeds up by using low Earth orbit satellites that are closer to the ground. That means that the signal doesn’t need to travel as far, which also makes for a reduction in latency, or lag. Other big names are looking to get into the internet space race, too, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
Increased competition in the satellite internet industry may help bring costs down for the consumer. Currently, satellite internet is the most expensive internet connection type, by far. Starting prices for satellite internet are in the $50 per month range, but that’s for slow speeds — 25Mbps max — and low data allowances. If you want faster speeds or more data, satellite internet can quickly get up to $150 to $200 per month.
Notable satellite internet providers:
Fixed wireless internet: Like satellite internet but better
Another option for rural communities is fixed wireless internet. Like satellite internet, fixed wireless requires you to install a fixed receiver or antenna, but it’s likely to be much smaller than a satellite dish. The antenna picks up a signal transmitted from a nearby wireless hub to give you an internet connection.
Fixed wireless connections work best for communities that lack the resources needed for DSL. To receive the strongest signal, you’ll want to place your antenna in an area with a clear view of the sky. Fixed wireless internet connections require a direct line of sight, so if there are hills, trees, buildings or other obstacles nearby, they can distort your connection.
Fixed wireless internet speeds range from 5 to 50 Mbps, but there are many variables that can affect the quality of the incoming signal, so your speed may vary. That said, many providers offer gracious data caps compared to satellite internet. Prices are also much better than satellite with plans starting at $35 to $50 per month.
Though fixed wireless has traditionally been a rural internet option, the connection type is rapidly expanding in metro areas thanks to providers like Google Fiber and Starry Internet. Instead of beaming services to individual residences, these providers send internet signals to entire buildings, such as an apartment complex, then run service to individual units via an Ethernet cable. These providers are capable of delivering speeds much faster than traditional fixed wireless service, up to 200Mbps or higher.
Notable fixed wireless internet providers:
Cellular internet: Also wireless, but without the “fixed”
Another way to draw internet service over the air is with a cellular connection. With this internet connection type a cell phone carrier connects your router or hotspot to the cellular tower nearest you, just like it does with your phone. The speeds can vary based on where you live and how close you are to a tower, but are likely to be faster than with a fixed wireless connection.
If you’re living in a city or another area with strong cellular infrastructure, then you might be able to connect over 5G, with providers like Verizon offering speeds up to 1 Gbps. You’ll also find cellular internet plans that use LTE, the previous generation of technology, which is capable of speeds similar to what you’ll find with fixed wireless service. Pricing is also similar to fixed wireless with providers like T-Mobile and Verizon offering plans starting at around $50 to $60 per month.
Another option is to use your phone as a hotspot, which means it’ll take the incoming cellular signal and rebroadcast it out as a Wi-Fi signal that other devices can use to access the internet without wires. Just be aware that your download speeds will vary depending on your carrier, your location and other factors like network congestion. Also, if you don’t have an unlimited plan, be sure to watch your data usage when using your phone as a hotspot.
Notable cellular internet providers:
Finding the right internet plan for you
So which kind of internet connection is right for you? It depends on several factors. The first thing to think about is your typical usage, and how much speed you really need. If you plan to surf the web and check email only, you can get away with a slower connection, but smaller households with users who stream videos, play games online, or upload files for work or school will ideally want access to download speeds of at least 25 Mbps.
Costs are another key factor, obviously. Some providers bundle their various services to offer you a discount, but be aware that the promotional pricing might not last as long as the service contract. In that case, you’ll pay more for the same service during the second year, for example.
In the end, the biggest factor is likely beyond your control and that’s your location. Some parts of the US have lots of options for getting online, while others hardly have any options at all.
Whatever choices are available to you, understanding the different technologies at play will help you know what to expect before you sign up.