When you’re trying to find the best internet provider in your area, speed and price are the two factors that usually jump out the most. But there’s something else you’ll want to consider as well: the connection type. It’s easy to overlook what technology a provider uses, but it could make all the difference in speed, reliability and availability.
Home internet service uses either wired or wireless connections. Wired connection types — a wire is connected directly to your home — include fiber-optic, coaxial cable and copper (or DSL) internet. Satellite internet, fixed wireless and the increasingly popular 5G home internet round out your potential wireless internet options.
So what’s the difference between them all? This guide will walk you through the different types of internet connections that may be available in your area, how they work and what limitations you can expect from them. Connection types are listed in order of most to least recommended.
Fiber internet: The best, but with limited availability
Fiber-optic internet refers to a connection that comes to your home via long, thin strands (fibers) of glass or plastic. ISPs send data along these fibers as light signals, and the result is speed and reliability that are superior to other connection types.
Fiber-optic can deliver download speeds as fast as 10 gigabits (10,000 megabits per second) or higher — fast enough to download a two-hour movie in HD in less than a minute — but you’re likely to find max download speeds around 1,000Mbps from most fiber-optic providers. Upload speeds, which are especially important when working and learning from home and online gaming, are also significantly faster with fiber-optic service and typically mirror download speeds.
Pricing for the ultraspeedy plans can easily run you $100 or more per month, but most providers also offer slower (if speeds of 100 to 1,000Mbps can be considered slow) speed tiers for $40 to $90 per month. Other connection types may present slightly lower introductory prices, depending on the available providers in your area, but when you take into account the speeds you get for the price you pay, you’re likely to find the best value with fiber internet.
Availability is the only real disadvantage with fiber. Laying enough fiber-optic cables to connect entire cities and regions is a huge logistical challenge, and with lots of competition and red tape to cut through, it’s been slow going for any of the major service providers to expand coverage to underserved areas. Consequently, fiber internet is only available to around 38% of US households and primarily those in urban areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Notable fiber internet providers
Cable internet: Your standard connection
Cable internet lacks the full speed potential and reliability of fiber-optic service, but it’s much more widely accessible. Cable is one of the most common types of internet connections