John Elliott

Choosing your ISP

I was thinking one morning how I’d answer the following question from a friend: “What internet service should I get?” and jotted down these notes for what I’d ask them.

Main factors

In the 2020’s people started to become more aware how good or bad their service was with all-day use for the important things in life. Broadband marketing advertises “fast”, some speed number, and a bunch of vibes. Other times it’s just misleading nonsense1. Clearly we’re on our own here.

So, when it matters as it increasingly has we need a list of the main factors that dictate quality regardless of claims. Here we go.

  1. Service options

    Check the FCC broadband map2 to see what’s available in your area. It’s mostly up to date, and once you get a sense for what providers and speeds may be available you can check their websites.

  2. Do outages ruin everything?

    This one is simple. If the service has frequent outages it’s useless. Reddit is the place to check for your area, but things vary neighborhood to neighborhood.

  3. How’s the latency?

    This is the network speed (as opposed to bandwidth) lower latency numbers are better and make the web and gaming feel more snappy. I argue this is often more important for things like video calls than the bandwidth that providers advertise as the speed. Fiber generally wins here.

  4. How’s upstream and downstream bandwidth?

    The the “internet speed” you pay for. Watch out for cable and DSL, as they have seemingly-competitive download speeds, but terribly low upload speeds. I budget for 100Mb + 100Mb per person in the house when trying to save money.

  5. Can you use your own router? With how little equipment from provider?

    It’s a good sign when you can use your own router. Rental routers are generally cruddy and expensive. Most fiber, DSL, and cable need some modem to provide a standard ethernet network jack for your router, and in an ideal case this modem is small, simple, and router-less or lets you disable router functions to use your own.

Generally, fiber delivery of service has inherent superiority3, helping it win on outages, latency, AND bandwidth all at once. The provider choice is simple if it’s a matter of fiber or not fiber: choose fiber.

More factors for nerds

Things to look in to that don’t matter much for typical use, but may if you experiment with self-hosting or networking.

  1. Is carrier-grade NAT ruining it? Is there double NAT from a router in a multi-unit building?
  2. How do you get IP address? Via DHCP like a home router? Via PPPoE like DSL? A static address? How long can you keep a dynamic address with proper setup?
  3. Does the ISP fiddle with traffic, e.g. DNS, port blocking, firewalling, traffic shaping
  4. Do you get native IPv6? Is there an IPv6 transitional tunnel offering?
  5. How’s the physical installation?4 Is your ISP gear indoors? Could a technician accidentally unplug you?5 Is the ISP gear ugly, bulky, power-hungry? Does the demarcation point let you hard-wire your key devices?
  6. Will power outages take you down? Can you get a battery backup powering the ISP gear?
  7. How good is their connectivity to the rest of the internet?

Tough choice? Good!

With vanishingly little competition in USA broadband markets the choice is usually pretty one-sided if you go down the list.

If you’re fortunate enough to have competition, the decision becomes tricker and perhaps the lists are useful, but luckily you’re choosing between better options. That’s a good place to be.

So that’s it for the guide. I haven’t always consider this stuff when getting set up at a new place but I’m going to refer back here the next time I need to or am helping a friend.

  1. Xfinity “10G network” I am looking at you. Those extra Gs over 5G are definitely not gigabits. ↩︎

  2. I was blown away by how detailed and useful the map was. Once I found the settings I could just zoom around my are and see what individual houses have gigabit fiber. ↩︎

  3. Fiber’s advantage over DSL and cable is unsurprising because it’s technology designed to replace copper. Bringing it to every home is a logical step in making a better internet for everyone. ↩︎

  4. You can have more influence than you might guess when your internet is installed if you engage and are friendly with your technician and make their day/time with you pleasant. Just be sure to ask for where you want stuff installed and how and make sure they understand how much you appreciate their extra effort if it requires any. ↩︎

  5. It’s happened; people are people makin’ mistakes. Inside gear requires a conversation which can catch errors. ↩︎