A strong, reliable internet connection at home is borderline essential these days, especially given the recent uptick in remote work, which seems to be sticking around even as coronavirus restrictions ease. That means it's more important than ever to understand whatever internet options are available at your address, and ultimately, to pick the best provider for the job.
Finding the right ISP can be easier said than done, though -- particularly if you live in a rural part of the country with limited options for getting online. That's why we've spent the past few months evaluating all of the top internet providers in the US, from household names like Comcast and Verizon to little guys like Rise Broadband and Wide Open West. Our goal is to sift through the sales pitches, speed claims and fine print to put each provider into context, and to provide you with all of the information you need to pick out the plan that makes the most sense for your home.
To date, we've reviewed more than a dozen ISPs, and you can expect us to continue covering the category throughout the rest of 2021. For now, here are the top providers we'd recommend first.
Best fiber provider
One of the metrics we like to use to compare value between ISPs is the average cost per each megabit-per-second of download speed. A lower cost per Mbps is a good, rough indicator of value -- and with AT&T's fiber internet plans, the average cost per Mbps is just 9 cents during your first year, and 13 cents per Mbps after that.
For comparison, you can expect the average fiber internet plan from Verizon to cost you 15 cents per Mbps, while a fiber plan from CenturyLink will cost you 17 cents per Mbps. Meanwhile, most cable internet plans from names like Spectrum and Comcast Xfinity will typically cost you at least 25 cents per Mbps, if not more.
All of that is to say that AT&T's fiber plans are a terrific value -- especially since none of them come with any contracts or data caps. On top of that, AT&T is top-ranked for customer satisfaction from both the American Customer Satisfaction Index and from J.D. Power. The telecom giant's DSL and fixed wireless plans are much less impressive, but if AT&T fiber is available at your address, then consider yourself lucky, because there really isn't much reason to consider anything else.
Best cable internet provider
You'll find better bang for your buck with fiber providers like AT&T, but if fiber isn't an option, a cable connection is the next best thing. And, among all of the providers offering cable internet service in the country, Spectrum is the one I'd be happiest to see available at my address.
Spectrum isn't the biggest name in cable internet -- that'd be Comcast Xfinity -- but it still offers service to more than 100 million Americans, thanks to Charter's acquisition of Time Warner's internet infrastructure in 2016. And, unlike Comcast (or Cox, its other main cable rival), Spectrum doesn't enforce a data cap, and it won't tie you down to a long-term contract, either.
On top of all that, Spectrum's prices and terms are straightforward, easy to understand and easy to live with -- and the average Spectrum plan comes with a lower cost-per-Mbps than either Comcast or Cox. It isn't quite the best value in the cable category (keep reading), but when you drill down into the details, Spectrum is still clearly your top option for cable internet at home.
Best rural internet provider
Pickings can be frustratingly slim when you're shopping for an internet plan in a rural area, because most of the best internet infrastructure in the country is centralized in population-dense cities and the suburban neighborhoods that surround them. If you live outside of a region like that, then your home probably isn't wired for fiber or cable -- instead, you'll have to make do with technologies that are slower, less reliable and more expensive, and you'll likely have fewer options to choose from, too.
You'll need to take the good with the bad with just about any rural ISP, but there's more good than bad with Rise Broadband, our top pick for getting online when faster cable and fiber plans aren't an option. A fixed wireless provider covering much of the middle of the country, Rise Broadband will beam an internet signal directly to an antenna mounted outside your home, providing download speeds of up to 50Mbps. That's twice as fast as what you'll get with a satellite internet plan from Hughesnet, and faster than a lot of DSL plans, which often struggle to surpass double-digit download speeds. Rise's 250GB data cap is also significantly higher than you'll get with most rural internet plans, and plans with unlimited data will only cost you an extra $10 per month.
Best customer care
In 2021, AT&T pulled into a tie with Verizon atop the American Customer Satisfaction Index's rankings of internet providers -- but Verizon had already held that spot for years, and it's been one of the strongest finishers with J.D. Power for multiple years running, too.
What do people like about Verizon? For starters, while the company's DSL service isn't anything special, the majority of customers across the company's eight-state coverage map in the northeast have access to Verizon Fios fiber service capable of gigabit speeds, as well as uploads that are just as fast as the downloads. Verizon plans don't come with contracts or data caps, either, and your price won't automatically go up after a year the way it will with most other providers.
What's more, Verizon is keeping busy in 2021 by expanding access to 5G and 4G LTE cellular internet plans across 48 states, with 5G Home Internet service already available in 40 US markets as of June. That's a good development for consumers given the glaring need for better internet options across the country.
Wide Open West
Wide Open West -- or WOW -- is a relatively small provider that offers services in just nine states, but it earns the exclamation point it likes to stick at the end of its branding by offering cable internet plans at some of the best prices you'll find anywhere in the US. That includes an entry-level 100Mbps plan that starts at $20 per month ($40 per month after the first year), as well as a high-speed gigabit plan that starts at $65 per month. Even after the price of that plan jumps to $75 per month in year 2, that's still a cost per Mbps of just 8 cents, which is unheard of in the cable category.
In addition to all of that, WOW doesn't enforce contracts or data caps with any of its plans, and it offers a 30-day money-back guarantee when you sign up, letting you cancel without penalty if it isn't the right fit. All told, it's about as strong as ISP sales pitches get -- I just wish the footprint was a bit bigger.
Worth a look if fiber is available
CenturyLink offers DSL internet plans across 37 states, but roughly half of the coverage map also has access to CenturyLink's fiber plans, branded as Quantum Fiber. That "Quantum" bit is meaningless, but the plans themselves are a great deal -- $50 per month for matching upload and download speeds of 200Mbps (about 25 cents per Mbps), or $65 per month for a gigabit plan with matching speeds of 940Mbps (about 7 cents per Mbps, which is an even better value than you'll get with AT&T). There are no data caps or contracts with those plans, and those prices don't arbitrarily go up after a year, either.
Meanwhile, CenturyLink's DSL speeds are much slower, and can vary greatly from address to address, but with a flat rate of $50 per month, the pricing is pretty fair by DSL standards. Better still, the DSL plans come with a Price for Life guarantee, which locks that rate in for as long as you stay a customer. If nothing faster is available at your address, a plan like that might be worth considering -- but if CenturyLink offers fiber service in your area, signing up becomes a no-brainer.
A fast, reliable pick if you don't mind the data cap
Comcast is the biggest name in cable, and the company offers its Xfinity internet service to well over 100 million people in the US -- more than a third of the country. Subscribers will find a great variety of plans and packages to choose from, including plans with download speeds of up to 1,200Mbps that are available across the majority of the sprawling coverage map. In addition, Comcast Xfinity consistently earns above-average customer satisfaction scores from organizations like J.D. Power and the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
That said, biggest doesn't mean best. Cable internet plans from Spectrum, WOW and Optimum all come at a slightly better value than most Comcast plans, and with the exception of WOW service in Chicago, none of those three enforce a data cap. Comcast does, capping your monthly data usage at 1.2TB, with penalties in store should you exceed it in a given month. If you can live with that, then there's a lot to like about Xfinity home internet -- but it's more of an honorable mention than an outright best pick.
A great value for high-speed internet, if available
It's been over a decade since Google first announced that it would bring fiber internet service to select regions across the country -- and it's been a bumpy ride ever since. After initially rolling out across 11 metro areas, Google struggled to build out the service beyond that and paused its efforts outright in 2016, leaving disappointment across dozens of cities where the company had teased prospects for future fiber expansions.
Google hasn't given up, though -- the company is currently working to expand fiber access in select cities, and recently rolled out plans that support speeds of up to 2 gigabits per second for $100 per month, available in Atlanta, Austin, Huntsville, Nashville, Orange County, Provo and Raleigh/Durham. If you live in any of those cities, and Google Fiber is available at your address, give it a look, because that's one of the best deals you'll find for such a blazing fast connection.
Best if you're stuck with satellite
Satellite internet is typically slow, laggy and temperamental in inclement weather, so I'd explore any and all other options if you've got them. But that's the thing -- too many of us don't have other options, and satellite internet from established names like Viasat and Hughesnet is available just about everywhere.
If it comes down to those two, I'd start with Viasat. Why? Neither one offers strong value for what you're getting, but Hughesnet caps the max download speed of all plans at 25Mbps, which is the barest definition of broadband. With Viasat, satellite speeds of up to 100Mbps are available in some regions, and speeds are set to improve in 2022 with the launch of Viasat's newest satellite hardware. Viasat also offers data caps that are slightly higher than what you'll get with Hughesnet.
All of that said, there are aspects of Viasat's service that would probably be more at home on a worst list than a best list like this. For starters, your monthly bill will shoot up after just 3 months -- and with some plans, the increase is a whopping $50. You'll also need to agree to a two-year contract, with potentially steep penalties if you decide to cancel early. Like I said, make sure to shop around for other, better options in your area -- but if there aren't any (and if you can stomach the sky-high prices), Viasat is a workable choice for getting online in remote parts of the country.