Most Americans don't have a lot of choices in Internet Service Providers. Most rural areas -- if they have high-speed Internet connections at all -- have only one provider, typically the local cable company. In large cities, there may be a cable company competing with one or two national carriers that offer services. Within those constraints, there are differences in network speeds, some of which are driven by the underlying technology; others are driven by the policies of the service provider.
Nearly every Internet service provider rates its upload and download speeds in megabits per second. Upload speeds are typically much slower than download speeds, often only a quarter or an eighth as fast. This works for ISPs because the vast majority of Internet users download a lot more data than they upload. If you think of your own usage patterns, you'll see why. If you're a typical Internet user, you surf the Web much more than you send emails with attachments over the connection. Eight megabits per second sustained transfer rate translates to about one megabyte per second of download speed.
FiOS: Fastest Landline Service
Verizon offers the fastest download speeds on the Internet with its FiOS service, which is available in 12 states along the East Coast and in Washington, D.C. FiOS regularly hits download speeds in excess of 35 megabits per second, or about 4.5MB of file downloads per second. As of June 2012, Verizon upped the speed on its packages; at the highest speeds, FiOS is faster than most wireless routers, at 300 megabits per second. Upload speeds are also speedy. By way of comparison, most cable Internet service packages, including self-termed "speed boost" packages have a peak transfer rate of about 30 megabits per second and sustained transfer rates of around 8 to 10 megabits per second. The drawback to FiOS is the limited number of places where Verizon has run fiber to the home.
4G LTE: Fastest Wireless Service
After FiOS, the next fastest Internet connection to be had in the U.S. is a 4G cellular data plan. However, 4G has become something of a meaningless term in the U.S. There were three competing standards; one of them -- Sprint's WiMax -- is slowly being retired, and the major carriers appear to be standardizing on LTE connections. The fastest providers tend to vary by region and by the number of users on the network at any given time. Depending on the carrier, your average download speeds on a 4G network can be anywhere from 2 to 4 megabits per second or less for some of the smaller networks, up to 25 or 30 megabits per second. For the two largest carriers, Verizon and AT&T, PC Magazine rates the average download speed at around 11 to 12 megabits per second.
Price and Data Caps
Beyond available coverage areas, the other aspect that drives Internet connections is price. FiOS gets expensive as a fixed rate monthly service; it can be triple or quadruple the cost of a comparable cable Internet package on its own. Many service providers bundle services, in part to avoid spending more money in infrastructure. Cable Internet providers may not be as fast as FiOS, but they can combine telephone services, cable TV and cable Internet into one bill. From their perspective, it all uses the same cable connection, the companies just get to charge more. Bundle deals also happen with wireless data plans, but they're less common. Wireless data plans are also likelier to cost more for greater bandwidth consumption; the benefit, of course, is that your Internet connection isn't tied to your home and can go with you anywhere you have wireless coverage.
Many Internet service providers used to provide a certain number of email addresses to their customers; some still do, although this service is less common as customers move to Yahoo Mail or Gmail to have an email address that doesn't have to change or be abandoned if they move. Other Internet service providers give a free subscription to Norton Antivirus to their subscribers, as a way to proactively slow down the propagation of malware and viruses. All internet service providers are judged rightly or wrongly by their support services. Most route their calls to the Philippines or India, especially outside of normal business hours. Most can also have a technician on site within 48 hours or less if there's a problem that can't be solved remotely.
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