What Is an ISP? | 2022 Guide

Cindy F. Cape

Popular Internet Service Providers

A strong internet connection has become, at many times, integral to our daily lives. Whether you’re streaming movies, working or learning from home, or simply want to scroll through social media, a good internet connection is important. Below, you can learn more about what internet service providers (ISPs) are and what to look for when purchasing services.

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An ISP, or internet service provider, is a company that lets you access the internet from home, usually with a monthly subscription. Think of it like a cable company, but instead of connecting you with TV channels, an ISP connects you to the internet.

An ISP may sell one or more types of internet service, also called connection types. The most common types are cable, fiber, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), and satellite internet.

High-speed internet service is called broadband. Non-broadband internet is slower. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a connection must deliver download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds at a minimum of 3 Mbps to be considered high-speed. The types and levels of online activities your household enjoys determine the connection speed you need.

The good news is that, as more households sign up for broadband, more networks are becoming available. Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for Leichtman Research Group, Inc., a company that analyzes the broadband industry, says top broadband providers added more than one million subscribers during the first quarter of 2021. This marks the fourth time in the past five quarters that there were over one million net broadband additions in the U.S. A recent study comparing subscribers from 2020 to those in 2021 shows the industry continues to expand. Over the past year, there were around 4.7 million net broadband additions, compared to about 2.8 million additions during the prior year, Leichtman said.

When it comes to choosing an internet provider, most of us have a choice. The FCC reported 94% of Americans have three or more ISPs offering broadband internet where they live. However, not all types of broadband are available in all areas. Rural and outer-suburban areas in particular have more limited options.

Types of Internet Service

Features Fiber DSL Cable Satellite
Download Speed 0.2 Mbps – 2,000 Mbps 0.20 Mbps – 940 Mbps 10 Mbps – 2,000 Mbps 12 Mbps – 100 Mbps
Upload Speed 0.128 Mbps – 1,000 Mbps 0.128 Mbps – 940 Mbps 1 Mbps – 1,000 Mbps 3 Mbps
Latency 12 ms – 33 ms 19.5 ms – 51 ms 22 ms – 28 ms 610 ms
Packet Loss 0% – 1% 0% – 1% 0% – 1% >1%
Data Cap 1TB – No Cap 1TB – No Cap 1TB – No Cap No Cap

Disclaimer: Select data provided by fcc.gov

Internet service providers use different technologies to connect you to the internet. Some may use more than one to complete the “last-mile” connection, which is the distance from the junction box or ISP facility to your door. Types of internet connections include:

Cable Internet

This service uses coaxial cable. It’s the same cable that delivers cable television to a home, and providers of cable TV generally also sell cable internet service. Cable internet is fast and reliable, consistently delivering advertised speeds. It also has low latency, which means users experience fewer delays or lag time, such as when playing online games.

Cable internet is widely available and is often consumers’ top pick for internet service. In its most recent report on internet access, the FCC says 382 companies offered cable internet service in 2017. The top cable companies have about 74 million broadband subscribers, states Leichtman Research Group. For more information, see our rating of the Best Cable Internet Providers in 2022.

Fiber Internet

This service uses fiber optic cable made from strands of glass to transmit data at the speed of light. As such, fiber internet has some of the fastest download and upload speeds. It also has the lowest latency of internet technologies, which translates to fewer delays for gamers and video conferences. Fiber supports heavy internet use. Multiple users can simultaneously stream video, play live-action games, and share large files, as well as connect numerous personal and household devices.

Fiber broadband is available to about 39% of the U.S. population, reports the FCC. Nonetheless, the network is growing, with fiber deployed to a record 5.9 million homes in 2018. And adding fiber broadband access increases rental and property values, according to a study conducted by the Fiber Broadband Association. For more information, see our rating of the Best Fiber Internet Providers in 2022.

DSL

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connects you to the internet using the telephone line. Since most homes are wired for telephone, the service is widely available, and traditional telephone companies typically offer DSL. Almost 90% of people in the U.S. have access to DSL, reported the FCC. However, even when high-speed DSL internet access is available in your area, keep in mind that the farther you live from the ISP’s facility, the slower the speed. Distance increases line interference and weakens the connection.

In general, DSL internet is faster than satellite internet but not as fast as cable and fiber internet. For more information, see our rating of the Best DSL Internet Providers in 2022.

Satellite Internet

This wireless internet service uses geostationary satellites to send and receive data between your home and the internet. But because data has to travel to space and back, it has the highest latency, or delay, of all connection types. Additionally, its internet speed can be affected by weather and how busy the network is at any given time. Data caps that limit your total data usage are common. The combination of these drawbacks makes satellite internet a poor choice for real-time gameplay or binge-watching online videos.

That said, satellite internet is often one of the only high-speed options for people living in rural areas and places served by slower dial-up, DSL, or mobile internet plans. Satellite internet is accessible to nearly the entire U.S. population, reports the FCC. For more information, see our rating of the Best Satellite Internet Providers in 2022.

Dial-Up Internet

Around since the 1990s, dial-up uses your existing phone line to make an internet connection. It is not “always on” like broadband internet service. Connecting to the internet requires dialing an access number (which looks like a phone number) and using a special modem. With dial-up, the maximum speed at which you can send and receive data is 56 kbps, which may cause some applications and webpages to time out before loading. Dial-up access is low cost, accessible (most homes have a landline), and secure. It may be one of the few internet options in rural areas.

However, most people have switched to faster technologies. In 2019, only 1.9% of Americans were using a dial-up connection, according to a report by Statista, as compared with 3% who were using dial-up in 2015.

It helps to understand the lingo when evaluating internet providers and internet service plans. Here are some commonly used terms and what they mean:

  • Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL): A type of DSL for residential use that has faster download than upload speeds.
  • Bandwidth: The amount of data an internet connection can transmit at a given time.
  • Broadband: An internet service that is always on, has a download speed of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps), and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps.
  • Bundle: A discount for buying more than one service from an internet provider, including internet, TV, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone, home security, and home automation.
  • Consistency: How reliably an ISP provides its advertised speed during peak internet use times.
  • Data Cap: The limit placed on how much data you can download each month as outlined in your internet service plan.
  • Download Speed: The speed at which you get information from the internet.
  • Fixed Broadband: A broadband connection delivered to a fixed address, not to a mobile phone via a cellular network.
  • Hotspots: A network of Wi-Fi locations, each covering small geographic areas, that let you connect to the internet.
  • Latency: The delay you experience between requesting an action from the network and receiving a response, measured in milliseconds (ms).
  • Megabits Per Second (Mbps): The unit for measuring download and upload speeds in seconds as data passes through an internet connection.
  • Modem: A piece of electronic equipment that communicates with the internet and allows you to send and receive data using your computer or other device.
  • Packet Loss: Data flows through the internet in packets, and when packets don’t reach their intended destination, it is referred to as packet loss which results in slower speeds and lag time.
  • Router: A device that connects to the modem and uses radio waves to create a wireless home network.
  • Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL): A type of DSL geared to businesses that features equal download and upload speeds, allowing companies to better engage in activities like video conferencing and cloud backups.
  • Upload Speed: The speed at which you can send information, such as files to coworkers or video during a video chat.
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP): An application that lets you make and receive phone calls using broadband service instead of a traditional telephone line.
  • Wi-Fi or Wireless Network: A network that lets you connect smartphones, tablets, laptops, virtual assistants, wearables, and other devices to the internet without using a wire or cord. It’s created by a router using radio wave technology.

Broadband internet is increasingly important in the home. “It’s not just the internet access anymore. It’s about more applications, more Wi-Fi, connected devices in the home,” explains Bruce Leichtman, an industry authority who leads Leichtman Research Group in Durham, New Hampshire. As such, people increasingly want an ISP that’s not just fast, but reliable and that consistently delivers advertised internet speed.

According to the FCC, most U.S. households have at least three fixed broadband providers offering service where they live. Our ratings identify the best ISPs overall, as well as some cheap internet service plans.

The Best Internet Service Providers

It’s essential to choose an internet service that delivers on its promise. We analyzed nearly three dozen internet access providers in the U.S, rating them on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest possible score. Twelve ISPs earned top honors, with Xfinity rating first and Verizon Fios and AT&T tying at second. Read more in our review of the Best Internet Service Providers in 2022.

Most Affordable Internet Service Plans

*Based on the lowest starting monthly cost

The monthly cost of internet service is a major consideration when choosing an ISP. We ranked our Best Internet Service Providers according to their lowest starting monthly fee. Five made the cut, with Suddenlink, Astound Broadband (formerly RCN), and Mediacom earning the top three spots. Read more in our guide on the Cheap Internet Service Plans in 2022.

Consumers are spending about $78 a month on average for online service, whether that’s cable, fiber, or satellite. The average cost of DSL is much less, about $50 a month.

Costs vary by internet provider, location, and plan speed. Plans with faster download and upload speeds typically cost more. The key is finding “what works best for my household both from an efficiency standpoint and from a cost standpoint,” advises Leichtman for choosing broadband service.

Here’s what you can expect to pay for a plan from one of the Best Internet Service Providers:

  • Cable internet costs between $29.99 and $105.95 per month
  • Fiber internet costs between $20 and $299.99 per month
  • DSL runs $34.99 to $44.99 per month
  • Satellite internet costs $39.99 to $149.99 per month

“One thing to keep in mind is that the advertised price often doesn’t include taxes and fees which can add up and vary by ISP,” says Mark Lubow, a veteran cable and telecommunications expert who heads the Cloud11 consultancy in Atlanta. A recent Consumer Reports investigation found fees add $450 to the average cable customer’s bill each year. For a complete list of fees, read the ‘understanding your bill’ section on the ISP website.

Light Use Moderate Use High Use
1 user on 1 device Basic Basic Medium
2 users or devices at a time Basic Medium Medium/Advanced
3 users or devices at a time Medium Medium Advanced
4 users or devices at a time Medium Advanced Advanced

Basic Service = 3 to 8 Mbps. Medium Service = 12 to 25 Mbps. Advanced Service = More than 25 Mbps. Mbps (Megabits per second) is the standard measure of broadband speed. It refers to the speed with which information packets are downloaded from, or uploaded to, the internet.*Speed usage data from FCC website.

If you’re only emailing and browsing websites, a download speed of 3 to 8 Mbps will work.

A download speed of 12 to 25 Mbps is best for basic tasks plus streaming video or playing an online game, or if you have two or three internet users in your household.

A download speed of 25 Mbps and higher is best for four or more people who use the internet at the same time for basic and high-demand applications. Telecommuters who share large files and video conferences need a plan with a higher upload speed.

Most ISPs deliver their promised broadband speed, says the FCC in its Eighth Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report, which was released in December 2018. “Overall 17 different ISP/technology configurations were evaluated in this report. Out of these only two performed below 90% for actual-to-advertised download speed,” it states.

You may experience slower speeds when internet traffic is heavy and or when using Wi-Fi. The advertised speeds are for wired or fixed-line connections.

Super-fast plans, some reaching gigabit-level speeds, are available. But at some point, speed “ultimately means nothing to a consumer,” says Bruce Leichtman, a broadband industry authority. “The reality to a consumer is that it works; that it’s a consistent quality when you’re trying to use it,” he says.

In fact, the benefits gained from paying for more than 100 Mbps of download speed were marginal for the typical household, found a study by the Wall Street Journal (available behind a paywall). “Faster speeds don’t necessarily mean a better streaming experience: Picture quality doesn’t improve much, and video content doesn’t load more quickly,” it states.

Latency, or the delay between sending and receiving data, affects the online experience. So does packet loss, which happens when packets of data fail to reach their destination causing choppiness and jitter.

What Is Throttling?

Throttling is when an internet provider slows down your internet speed on purpose. Reasons that your provider throttles your internet include:

  • You’ve used a lot of data and have gone over your data cap.
  • You’re using lots of data during peak internet use time, which is typically in the evening.
  • You’re suspected of illegal activity, such as torrenting or illegal file sharing.
  • The internet provider has reduced speed to a specific website, such as a streaming service. (This practice became legal with Net Neutrality’s repeal in 2018.)

The easiest way to tell if you’re being throttled is to run an online speed test and compare the result to your plan’s advertised speed. It’s best to perform this test during non-peak hours, like in the afternoon. Turn off or disconnect any devices connected to your internet to get a more accurate measurement. To determine if the speed to a specific website is being choked, run the speed test using a VPN or virtual private network, which encrypts data so the ISP doesn’t know it’s you.
To reduce throttling, upgrade your data plan. Keep data-heavy tasks like sharing large files and updating applications for non-peak hours. Use a VPN to circumvent the throttling of specific websites, though a VPN can sometimes slow your overall speed when it’s in use.

How Do I Speed Up My Internet?

  1. Disconnect: Every connected device uses internet bandwidth. Turn them off when not in use. Exit streaming apps when you’re done watching videos or listening to music and turn off automatic updates for devices, including gaming consoles.
  2. Reboot: Restart your modem and router. This is called power cycling and it helps fix connection and speed issues. Unplug the power cord, wait one minute, and plug it back in. Restart devices, such as computers, smartphones, and tablets, regularly.
  3. Analyze data use: Internet providers sometimes throttle speed if you exceed your data plan. If this happens often, upgrade to a plan with a higher data limit. Monitor data use using your online account or app.
  4. Upgrade equipment: Invest in a high-capacity modem and router (or a combined gateway device) that support faster connection speeds. Make sure all equipment is working properly, is up-to-date, and is compatible with your internet company and service plan. All connections to and from this equipment must be snug to keep speeds as fast as possible.
  5. Optimize your Wi-Fi signal: Place the router in a central location, up off the ground, and where it isn’t obstructed. Password-protect your Wi-Fi network to keep poachers from hopping on to your network without your knowledge, which can slow your speeds down. Install Wi-Fi extenders or repeaters in areas of the home where the Wi-Fi signal is weak. Eliminate devices causing signal interference.
  6. Maximize satellite reception: Satellite internet users should trim bushes and tree branches to ensure the satellite dish has an unobstructed view of the southern sky. Ask your online service provider to send a certified technician, who can install an in-line amplifier, move the dish closer to the house, or reposition the dish to improve your internet connection.
  7. Update software: Make sure devices are running the most current operating system and security software. Check for viruses and malware that may be sapping speed and install and configure an ad blocker, which helps websites load faster and prevents malware ads. Clear your browser cache and cookies regularly.
  8. Call for service: The slowdown may be outside your home at the junction box or in the cables, telephone lines, or satellite dish. A technician can run tests and address these issues, as well as recommend the best place to put equipment for an optimal connection.
  9. Switch providers: Change to an internet provider that delivers speed more consistently. For instance, the companies in our rating of the Best Internet Service Providers earn high marks for delivering fast, reliable high-speed internet.

To pick a plan with the right level of data, consider your normal online activities. According to AT&T’s internet data calculator, sending an email uses hardly any data, estimated at 20 kilobytes (KB). Add an email attachment and you’re up to 300 KB. One minute of online gameplay uses 200 KB and surfing the web takes 250 KB. Downloading one song is 4 megabytes (MB) and uploading one photo to social media uses 5 MB.

Video is a data hog. Streaming just one minute of standard-definition video uses 11.7 MB, high-definition video uses 41.7 MB, and 4K ultra high-definition video consumes a whopping 97.5 MB, the equivalent of sending about 4,875 emails.

“Cord-cutter or internet-only households use an average of around 400 gigabytes per month,” says Lubow. “Households with bundled TV/internet use about half that amount since they balance usage consumption across both services.”

Some internet providers have interactive calculators to help you estimate your monthly data needs. You can track data usage through mobile apps and by logging into your online account. The companies in our Best Internet Service Provider rating either limit data to 1 terabyte (TB) per month or offer unlimited data plans.

One TB is a lot of data. It’s equal to 1,000,000 MB or 1,000 gigabytes. Over a one-month period with 1 TB of data, you can stream about 15,000 hours of music, watch 700 hours of high-definition video, play 12,000 hours of online games, or upload or download 60,000 high-resolution photos, according to Xfinity.

“Data allowances vary by carriers and service plans so if you expect heavy usage look for the unlimited plans. Otherwise you may be accumulating overage charges for each additional gigabyte over your monthly limit,” says Lubow.

What Are Internet Data Caps?

An internet data cap is the limit a service provider sets for the amount of data you can download and upload in a month. The internet provider tracks your data usage and resets your balance to zero at the start of each billing cycle.

If you exceed your monthly data allowance, your ISP may charge you a fee for the overage, such as $10 for every 50 gigabits of data used beyond the cap. Some ISPs let you add more data to your monthly service plan for an additional fee.

Unlimited data plans don’t have a data cap. They may, however, have a monthly data threshold. If you surpass the threshold, the internet company may prioritize the data of other subscribers during peak internet use times, which are typically evening primetime hours. As a result, you may experience slower internet speeds until your data allowance resets.

The equipment needed for internet service varies by the type of connection, but may include the following:

  • All connections require a modem, which communicates with the internet.
  • You need devices on which to use the internet, such as a computer, game console, or virtual assistant.
  • If you plan to use wireless devices, say a smartphone or tablet, you’ll need a Wi-Fi router, which uses radio waves to create a wireless home network.
  • A combo modem-router, called a gateway, is a single piece of equipment that acts as both a modem and a router.
  • Ethernet and coaxial cable connect your devices directly with the router. You may want to connect your desktop computer, streaming devices, or gaming consoles using a fixed wire connection to achieve a faster, more stable internet connection.

Some internet connections need special equipment. This may include line filters for DSL, a satellite dish antenna for satellite internet, or an optical network terminal (ONT) for fiber. Extenders and amplifiers are optional pieces of equipment that boost your Wi-Fi signal to areas of your home where the Wi-Fi is choppy.

You can rent some of this equipment (such as a gateway device) from your internet provider for a monthly fee. Some companies give you the option to use your own modem or router, and you typically have to buy cables and Wi-Fi extenders. Satellite equipment, however, must be rented.

You may be able to install the equipment yourself if it’s a straightforward job. Professional installation is best for more complex installations and is required for satellite dish and fiber internet setup.

Today, everything is online, including the bad guys. Risk Based Security, a firm that helps companies reduce cyber threats, reported that there were 28,695 vulnerabilities exposed in 2021. The firm reported it as the highest year on record.

Children need lessons in internet safety, too. A survey from Pew Research Center found 59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. A Google survey found parents and teachers believe 39.1% of children have seen inappropriate online content, 23.8% have overshared information on social media, and 15.6% were scammed by an email or by a bad link.

How to Protect Your Privacy Online

  • Stay current: Install antivirus software and download updates for it regularly.
  • Don’t overshare: Whether it’s your password or details of your upcoming vacation, don’t blab. Make sure your social media privacy settings are active.
  • Use incognito or private browsing: This browser option prevents the computer from saving your browsing history, temporary internet files, and cookies (although the ISP still tracks your activity).
  • Don’t fall for phishing: Ignore and block emails requesting personal information. “Understand that whatever you are told on-line may or may not be true,” says the FCC. Links, attachments, ads, and photos from unknown sources may contain malware that infect your laptop or smartphone, or add hidden pieces of code that record your online activities.
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN): A VPN encrypts your data before it’s transmitted through the internet. It’s more secure and you remain anonymous. A VPN may slow your internet speed, however. Learn more in our VPN guide.

Keeping Your Kids Safe Online

  • Be present: Keep the computer in a high-traffic area of the home. Monitor activity on smartphones, laptops, and gaming devices.
  • Stay open: Maintain an open dialogue about internet safety and encourage children to tell you or another safe adult when they’ve made a mistake online.
  • Take control: Set limits for online use and rules for social media, texting, gaming, and photo sharing. Download a parental control app so you shut down Wi-Fi access at a designated time.
  • Watch for red flags: Behaviors like switching screens when you come near and secretive behavior may indicate an inappropriate online relationship.

Best Internet Service Providers

Learn More

To learn more about Internet Service Providers, visit our guides:

Related 360 Reviews

You may also be interested in the following reviews of related services:

y You Can Trust Us: 25 Internet Service Providers Researched

At U.S. News & World Report, we rank the Best Hospitals, Best Colleges, and Best Cars to guide readers through some of life’s most complicated decisions. Our 360 Reviews team draws on this same unbiased approach to rate the products that you use every day. To build our ratings, we researched more than 25 internet service providers and analyzed 13 reviews. Our 360 Reviews team does not take samples, gifts, or loans of products or services we review. All sample products provided for review are donated after review. In addition, we maintain a separate business team that has no influence over our methodology or recommendations.

U.S. News 360 Reviews takes an unbiased approach to our recommendations. When you use our links to buy products, we may earn a commission but that in no way affects our editorial independence.

https://www.usnews.com/360-reviews/services/internet-providers/what-is-isp

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