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Internet Service Providers

Speed Limits

How the Leading ISPs Stack Up

Because so many of our daily tasks require us to access Internet-based computing services, home access is becoming essential. But many consumers are locking themselves into long-term broadband contracts for services that are nowhere near as fast as what they thought that they were purchasing.

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Did you miss your favorite TV show last night? No problem. You can watch it online tonight—that is, if your Internet connection is fast enough to stream it.

Today nearly 80 percent of Americans use the Internet to read the news, make phone calls, watch TV, listen to music or upload home videos, according to an August survey by Pew Internet & American Life Project. As we move further into a world that is dominated by cloud (read: Internet-based) computing, we will become even more dependent on fast Internet connections for daily tasks, such as paying bills, purchasing tickets and checking a bank balance.

That means that our reliance on Internet service providers (ISPs) will increase, of course. Digital cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) technologies still rule, but fourth-generation (4G) wireless service is spreading to more households, and those who are lucky enough to live in the handful of markets that are served by fiber-optic service can enjoy the fastest (and most expensive) Internet connections that are available.

In the past 5 years, the average price for residential broadband Internet access has remained stable—$39 a month, according to Pew—while average connection speeds more than doubled, according to researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. But at the same time, major broadband companies began to offer a bewildering array of packages and pricing schemes that are built around speed. So it isn’t surprising that a June Federal Communications Commission report found that 4 of 5 broadband users don’t know the true speed (measured in megabits per second, or Mbps) of their Internet connection. The speeds that are advertised by ISPs are anything but guaranteed, analysts tell us. ISPs might say that you get “up to” 20 Mbps, but they rarely provide that sustained speed, FCC says.

This, when combined with the fact that ISPs also offer heavy discounts to lock consumers into pricey 1- or 2-year contracts that cost hundreds of dollars each month, makes selecting the right ISP more challenging than ever before. If you’re not careful, you could end up getting stuck in a long-term contract with a provider with which you no longer want to do business.

SPEED IT UP. Choosing a broadband ISP boils down to price and speed. The faster that your Internet connection is, the less time that it takes to fetch your e-mail, load Web pages or stream videos. Unfortunately, the speed for which you’re paying is most often slower than what you actually get. Actual sustained speeds are roughly half of the bandwidth of maximum speeds, according to an August report by FCC. For instance, when your ISP says you’ll get up to 3 Mbps, you typically might get only 1.5 Mbps.

Comparing the Connection: Eight of the Largest ISPs

Comparing the Connection: Eight of the Largest ISPs

The practical differences between a slow connection and a fast one can be dramatic. A 30-minute video (a 200MB file) can take roughly 22 minutes to download over a 1-Mbps connection, according to Qwest Communications. That same video will download in 2 minutes or less at 20 Mbps. If you plan to use your Internet connection to watch high-definition movies and TV shows, you’ll probably need a 5-Mbps connection to avoid interruptions in playback. You won’t notice the connection speed when you’re simply looking at a Web page or paying a bill online, but if you have to download a large file from work, a fast connection could mean the difference between waiting 90 seconds and waiting 20 minutes.

On average, Americans have broadband connections that have a promised maximum speed of just under 8 Mbps, according to Ookla, which independently measures ISP performance and costs. (The median, or halfway point, is 6.7 Mbps.) But most users see maximum performance only when they stream video or other large files. That’s because most ISPs detect when you’re downloading a steady stream of data (as opposed to smaller chunks during, say, Web surfing) and use burst speeds to establish a connection and accelerate the first 10MB of a download, notes Ookla Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles. This increases the perceived speed of your connection; after the connection is started, however, the ISP will throttle you back to a much slower sustained speed.

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