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Sunday, March 17, 2024

We Are Tech Experts. Here's How We Really Feel About Our Home Internet - CNET

We Are Tech Experts. Here's How We Really Feel About Our Home Internet

"Choosing between fiber, cable, DSL, satellite and 5G internet? We share our personal experiences with our home internet setups and how they stand up against our household needs.

Illustration by James Martin/CNET

Our parents may not have needed good internet service to survive, but we do.

That's because technology is advancing all around us at a rapid pace -- from see-through TVs to bendable phones to, yes, even AI-powered toothbrushes. As our technology advances, so do our internet needs. Most smart tech is Wi-Fi enabled -- and the more smart tech you add to your home, the better the internet connection you'll need. "Connectivity isn't just about the internet anymore," said Adam Auriemma, editor-in-chief of CNET. "New smart technologies mean that our broadband connection can help us monitor our health, energy usage, home security and so much more." 

When searching for the best internet plan to meet your home's technology demands, how do you know which to choose? How do you sift through all the techy jargon about speed, bandwidth, latency and so on? 

The first step is to hear about real-life experiences with each broadband connection option: fiber, cable, satellite, DSL and fixed wireless (5G). We pooled together advice from a group of CNET staffers. Together, we have a combined 45 years of experience testing and reviewing technology and broadband products, interviewing industry experts and talking to consumers about their needs and wants. 

Here are our best tips.

A picture of Eli Blumenthal
Eli Blumenthal 

As CNET's resident wireless carrier reporter, I've been following this space closely for over a decade. And these past few years, I've been particularly focused on the major carriers' 5G home internet offerings. For all the hype that 5G has so far failed to live up to, home internethas been a bright spot. 

Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T all offer some version of cellular-powered home internet to people around the country, providing competition and potentially a more affordable option. They've forced incumbent internet service providers to up their games if they want to keep your business. 

I've been testing T-Mobile 5G Home Internet since its inception, and I'm using it as I write this while working from home. Its speeds aren't as fast as cable, fiber or even millimeter-wave-based offerings (which I've also tried), but for the most part it's been, well, fine. Zooming, streaming and browsing have worked largely as they should with any provider, though gaming on an Xbox Series X (particularly with sports titles like NBA 2K24) has led to some hiccups, as have some video calls. 

I regularly watch YouTube TV; movies and shows from streaming services; and NBA games from NBA League Pass. Even with those more data-demanding tasks, T-Mobile has held its own. In January, my roommate and I used nearly a terabyte of data. 

There has been the occasional random drop in service, but again, for the most part it's been working as it should. Friends who come over and connect to Wi-Fi haven't noticed that this is 5G-powered, which is the point. This is supposed to work just like any connection, and it largely does. 

I do, though, have some reservations a couple of years in. 

I wish T-Mobile's speeds would be a bit more consistent, and as someone who's used more than a terabyte of data in a month, I'm a bit wary of the company's new policy that may slow down users if they go over 1.2TB in a given month during times of "congestion." And since I don't have T-Mobile as my wireless provider, I'm also keeping a close eye on price increases, which the carrier seems to be experimenting with once again (at least right now, for new users). 

But even if I need to switch to a different service in the future, I do appreciate that T-Mobile works in my area of New York City. Hopefully, its presence continues to add pressure to the market, so that even if I do need to make a move, Spectrum or Verizon will give me a better deal. 

A picture of David Anders
David Anders

I'd been covering broadband for a few years before moving into my current home, so I was familiar with fiber internet and excited to find that our home was fiber-ready. Even with my prior knowledge of fiber's capabilities, I didn't realize the difference it would make compared with my previous cable connection.

My mesh Wi-Fi router is set to run two speed tests daily, one in the morning and one in the evening. I consistently get over 900Mbps to the home with a plan that advertises max upload and download speeds of 940Mbps. 

Actual speeds in the home are lower, of course, but speed tests still land in the 300 to 500Mbps range on my phone, laptop and PS5 over a Wi-Fi connection. That's more than enough speed to accommodate the many devices connected to our network -- 37 according to my router app -- with lots of bandwidth available to add more if needed. The only time I've noticed a significant drop in speed is when downloading a large file (specifically a video game), but that's only temporary.

The symmetrical upload speeds are a nice bonus to fiber internet. I take online gaming semi-seriously, so fast upload speeds are a must, and my wife makes use of the connection to upload content to social media. We also work mostly from home, and the fast, consistent upload speeds make for seamless video calls.

The only real drawback is the price, but if you can work it into your household budget, fiber internet is definitely worth the cost. My fiber connection is always on, and it's always able to handle whatever I need it for. It's nice not having to think about your internet.

A picture of Joe Supan
Joe Supan 

I've been covering the broadband industry for six years, and for all of them, I've had the same cable internet service through Xfinity. Like most people, my internet connection is something I think about only when something's going wrong. Thankfully, that's been pretty rare for me. I can't remember the last time I saw a buffering wheel on my screen or a Zoom meeting glitch. 

I say this as someone who's constantly writing about cable internet's flaws -- namely, its low upload speeds. But truthfully, I don't need fast upload speeds. I hardly upload anything -- just my side of Zoom meetings, which requires only about 4Mbps.

A cable internet executive once told me the upload speed debate is like the Fast and Furious movies. "Those guys can flip their cars around without missing a beat at 80 miles an hour. That's like broadband. There's no reason to go in reverse as fast as you go forward."

I take that analogy with a grain of salt, but for me, it is true. Xfinity says I'll get 100Mbps upload speeds with my plan, but a quick speed test shows I'm actually getting 119Mbps as I write this. There are only a few devices in my apartment connected to the internet, and I don't play online games or stream content, so that's far more upload speed than I realistically need

Would I prefer to have fiber internet? Probably. But for me, it wouldn't be worth the hassle of switching. I never think about my cable internet, and that's the highest praise I can imagine. 

A Picture of Jim Hoffman
Jim Hoffman

There aren't a lot of CNET editorial staffers who have recent experience as DSL users, but I have the dubious distinction of being one of them, having been a member of the CNET copy desk for just over a decade. And I hate to say it, but if DSL is your best option for land-based internet service, I feel your pain. For more than 10 years after we moved to the digital backwater of the Dundee hills of Oregon (about an hour outside Portland), we suffered the indignities of ridiculously slow and unreliable DSL service from Verizon, then Frontier and later Ziply. (We never changed providers intentionally -- it was just that our service kept getting sold from one corporate entity to another.) I shouldn't make it sound like the entire Willamette Valley is bandwidth-challenged, just small backroad corridors here and there, which describes where I live. 

The various inconveniences of DSL were many. Slow bandwidth (less than 4Mbps down and never over 1Mbps up), and it seemed like the service was predestined to burp and blip and go down for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Zoom calls were possible sometimes, but good picture quality wasn't. Dealing with customer service was equally frustrating, particularly under Frontier. After a couple of years of this, our local technician gave me his direct number so I wouldn't have to keep navigating Frontier's phone tree cluster and go through their customary hurdles ("OK, turn off your modem... now wait 2 minutes and turn it back on...") before they would concede I really did have an issue and file a repair ticket. 

And because our telephone landline wire carried DSL (yes, I know), any problem farther up the line -- such as someone repairing a neighbor's service -- would cause ours to be cut off. Sometimes for hours. And don't get me started on the difficulties of streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime Video with such glacially slow speeds. Buffering was a regular interruption (but it did offer a chance to go to the fridge or take some other kind of convenience break). 

So much so that about three years ago, I threw up my hands and got on the waiting list for Starlink satellite service. A neighbor who's a notorious early adopter had signed up for Elon Musk's satellite ISP venture when it first became available and was crowing about its advantages over DSL (he'd been laboring with Frontier's/Ziply's abominable user experience too, so he knew what our lives had been like).

It took about nine months to get to the top of the waiting list, but it changed our lives for the better in so many ways. There's almost never a blip in service. Download speeds range from about 40Mbps to over 100 and uploads are between 10 and 15Mbps, which may seem slowish to those of you who've had cable or fiber for years, but believe me, it seems like a digital fire hose here. 

Granted, it costs more than DSL did (it's now $120 per month, which is $20 more than we were promised when I first got on the Starlink list and more than double what we paid to Ziply for internet), but it's worth it for such a quantum leap in speed and reliability, not to mention the hours I'm saving not sitting on hold waiting for tech support. The only glitch is that for some reason our IP address seems to indicate we're in Seattle, not Oregon, so we get geolocated ads for Washington-based services instead of Oregon. Oh, well.

Ironically, about a year after we got hooked up with Starlink and ditched Ziply entirely (we cut off the landline, too -- huzzah!), Ziply announced that its fiber service would be making its way up our gravel road. But after so much time with them working my last nerve, I'm not going back. 

If you're considering going the DSL route, I might suggest talking with your neighbors or asking on NextDoor what people's experience is with that provider in your area. If folks seem reasonably happy with it, you might be fine. But if their experience is like mine, see what you can find in the way of other technologies. And if you're a gamer or do a lot of work with graphics or other data-heavy applications, it may be worth spending the extra money for faster tech. While DSL was a good "broadband" option 15 to 20 years ago, things have changed and it seems to have trouble keeping up.

A picture of Adam Oram
Adam Oram

As a leader of CNET's Deals team, I cover the most up-to-date deals on technology products, including those that require an internet connection. And like many folks, I work remotely and need a solid internet connection myself. I live in a relatively out-of-the-way village in Northern England, so my options for getting such a connection are limited. Fiber hasn't made its way to my property yet and won't until Dec. 2025, and the speeds available via the phone lines aren't enough for video calls, streaming media or operating a home with a bunch of smart devices in it. 

Following a gradually worsening experience with a 5G home internet connection provided by UK carrier Three, I made the switch to satellite internet with Starlink at the start of 2024. I took some time to consider whether this was the right option for me, as the hardware is an expensive up-front cost (or a pricey long-term rental) and the service itself is twice the price of the 5G service I had before. But I've been satisfied with the speeds and reliability so far.

Starlink does offer a trial period of 30 days, so I set up the dish in my garden and ran the cable through a window for a few days to make sure the service worked effectively for me. I was super impressed with the speeds, so I went ahead and installed it at roof height once I was certain it would work well. Starlink provides the dish for self-install, which is great if you're comfortable with that, but it's less than ideal if you've got a fear of heights or generally lack skills with power tools. I fall into the latter group, which meant paying an installer.

Though I've been using Starlink fully for only a couple of months, I haven't experienced any major outages or disruption due to the weather, or had any reason to contact the support team. In fact, I haven't thought much about the service at all since getting it all wired in, which is more than I can say for my frustrating 5G service. I've seen high download speeds, of over 300Mbps, though more regularly I'll see speeds sit within the 75Mbps to 150Mbps range. And upload speeds are a pretty consistent 20Mbps, which is enough for my usage. It works great with my Eero mesh network setup, and I'm able to take Zoom calls, stream in 4K and run a smart home without issue.

There are some cons, though, in addition to the expensive hardware and service costs. There's a hidden extra cost in paying a professional to install your system or buying mounting hardware from Starlink or a hardware store. There's also no Ethernet port on the Starlink router, which means buying an extra adapter for something that should be table stakes. And the latency, or ping, of the Starlink service is relatively high, meaning it isn't ideal for online gamers who need lag to be as low as possible, though it's fine for Zoom calls. 

Though I'm not a fan of making a monthly payment to one of Elon Musk's companies, I'm not left with many choices either. Regardless, I expect I'll be happy using Starlink for the next couple of years until fiber is available for my home and I can switch. But if you can't get fiber, and your alternative options aren't providing a reliable experience, I can recommend Starlink  -- and satellite internet more broadly -- if you need to get online.

Headshot of writer Hallie Seltzer
Hallie Seltzer

I'm a 2023 college graduate who just moved into my first apartment last year -- which means that I recently had to buy my first internet package without the help of my parents. First adult purchase, am I right?

Before I started working on CNET's broadband team in 2023, I had no clue what type of internet I needed. It really didn't matter anyway since Comporium was one of the only ISPs that served my small town. Comporium is a cable provider that also offers a small fiber network, but of course, my address could only access its cable system.

Thankfully, it did seem to come with faster speeds and lower prices than T-Mobile Home Internet or satellite internet, which were my only other options for broadband.

My fiance and I are big-time streamers and gamers, and I work mostly remotely from our apartment. The tier we picked (and currently still have) is Comporium's 400Mbps plan for $50 per month, which comes with no data caps, contracts or equipment fees. Despite its simple service details, I haven't been impressed with the speeds I get, especially since my bill will jump after the first year. 

I've run a few different speed tests and discovered that our Wi-Fi is only reaching download speeds up to 120Mbps, which is a big difference from what I'm paying for. My speeds are significantly faster using an Ethernet cable, but it's not practical with multiple devices on one network. I know Comporium isn't to blame for my spotty Wi-Fi, but footing a $50 monthly bill for only 120Mbps of speed is a bummer. 

All this being said, I'd switch over to fiber internet in a heartbeat if my location was serviceable. Cable internet isn't the worst choice for residential internet -- satellite and DSL are much pricier and slower. However, I'd rather be paying nearly the same cost each month for AT&T Fiber and getting flat-rate pricing and symmetrical speeds.

Trisha Jandoc
Trisha Jandoc

I started high school with Spectrum cable internet and now I'm in my 20s. Before I switched to Verizon Fios early last year, Spectrum had been my internet provider for about seven years. As a new associate writer covering broadband, I still have much to learn about this topic. However, as someone who grew up using Spectrum, it carried me from studying for the SATs to reading my job-offer letter online. 

One of the main reasons why my family and I stuck with cable for so long was its consistency; we always knew what to expect. Everything was straight to the point: no contracts or data caps. Moreover, a Filipino household wouldn't be complete without our favorite teleseryes and Spectrum offering the Filipino channel as part of our cable and internet package was a plus! 

However, the hiking of prices over the years was what deterred us from continuing with Spectrum's services. Back when I was starting high school, my household, a family of five, lived off Spectrum's cheapest internet plan, which also meant it was the slowest. Yet, even if we were on the lowest plan tier, we were still paying upward of about $205 per month for an internet and TV bundle. Which was a hefty amount for our household. 

Besides Spectrum's price point, over the years my household consumed less and less cable TV and more streaming services. Factoring in this change led us to choose Verizon Fios' home internet service. But if your household still enjoys cable TV, Spectrum might be a viable option for you. New Spectrum customers can benefit from the better prices, too. After many years of rising costs with cable, our family found a better deal with Verizon Fios, with faster speeds and no term agreements. 

A picture of Katie Collins
Katie Collins 

While working for CNET, I've found that bringing a first-person perspective to our audience is a genuine way to help folks navigate a purchase decision. I'm here to talk about my experience with DSL internet and how it relates to my home technology.  

DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line and I admittedly haven't had this connection type since my early college years (the early 2000s). DSL served its purpose at that time. I wasn't streaming or connecting to many devices -- there was just my computer. I used it to browse the internet, log in to online class portals, perform online research for school, send and receive emails, and, even though it took a while by today's standards, download music to my MP3 player.  

The provider was Cablevision -- now Optimum -- and I can't recall the speed. But I distinctly remember the sound. When uploading or downloading a file, it sounded like a fax machine. And that's essentially what the technology was: it transferred information to and from a location through a phone line, just like a fax machine. 

Yes, DSL worked for college-age me. Candidly, it wouldn't work for me today. The main reason is the number of smart devices that connect in my household. DSL couldn't support our streaming, gaming, zooming and multitude of smart home devices -- at least at the same time. Even our baby tech -- such as the Hatch sound machine and Nanit baby monitor -- is all Wi-Fi enabled. 

If your tech needs seem similar to mine, check whether you can get fiber or cable. If DSL is the only connection type available to your home, see if satellite internet or 5G home internetis an option before settling for DSL. 

How to tell what connection type you have now 

First, aside from the name, speeds are the biggest indicator of cable, DSL or fiber internet. 

Internet connection typeHow to tell by the speed
FiberSymmetrical (or close) upload and download speeds.
CableMultiple speed options, possibly up to 1,000Mbps or higher, but uploads won't match downloads.
DSLWill probably present one, maybe two, speeds -- which are all but guaranteed to fall below 100Mbps.

Second, chances are you already know if you have a wireless internet connection. If you don't, here's how you can tell. 

Satellite internet 

For satellite internet, your provider is Hughesnet, Viasat or possibly Starlink, and you've got a satellite dish mounted somewhere on your property. 

Fixed wireless internet 

Similarly, fixed wireless internet, from providers such as Rise Broadband, requires mounting a small receiver, unless you have service from T-Mobile Home Internet or Verizon 5G Home Internet.

Fiber internet 

Determining the connection type with wired internet -- cable, DSL and fiber -- can be a bit more tricky, but a good speed test will often suffice. If your speed test returns similar upload and download speeds, congratulations, you have fiber internet. 

Seeing as how fiber is a more desirable product, most providers put "fiber" right in the name: AT&T Fiber, Frontier Fiber, Quantum Fiber, Ziply Fiber, and so on. Verizon hides it a bit better with "Fios," but that stands for "fiber-optic service."

DSL vs. cable 

Speed tests are a little less telling of cable versus DSL connections, but download speeds above 100Mbps are a good indicator of cable internet, because DSL typically isn't capable of such speeds. You can also take a look at what kind of cord is plugged into your modem. A phone line means DSL, while a coaxial cable, like what's used for cable TV, is, you guessed it, cable internet."

We Are Tech Experts. Here's How We Really Feel About Our Home Internet - CNET

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