The Best and Worst ISPs
Performance Boost Ahead
On the high end, a 30-mbps link is downright poky compared with what's on the horizon. According to a recent study by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., think tank, U.S. broadband speeds are rising, in part due to the growing use of fiber-optic connections to the home.
Verizon, for instance, is spending billions to run fiber to homes in its 30-state territory. Its FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) network could easily bring 100-mbps broadband to homes, though current service tops out at 30 mbps. Some, but not all, FiOS customers can opt to receive TV services through this big pipe, too, which enables interactivity that most cable and satellite services cannot match.
Fiber may play a role in Verizon's high customer-satisfaction score. Says Charles Spivey, 60, of Richmond, Virginia: "This thing smokes, let me tell you." A retired sheet-metal fabricator, Spivey pays $137 a month for an all-FiOS phone-TV-Internet bundle from Verizon (which also sells bundles that use a mix of technologies). Spivey says his bandwidth tests indicate that he is getting 15 mbps downstream and 8 to 10 mbps upstream.
What does he do with all that speed? He downloads some music and video, but mostly "I like to mess around with satellite photos, and the Weather Channel's site offers an interactive satellite weather map that you can zoom in on," he says.
The cable guys may eventually catch up with fiber: Comcast recently demonstrated a cable modem capable of 150-mbps downloads. The higher bandwidth, however, will be rolled out slowly and in selected areas, analysts say. And the blistering speed? "It's more of a theoretical maximum rather than what a consumer might expect to experience while surfing the Internet," says JupiterResearch broadband analyst Doug Williams.
Certainly, few (if any) home and small-business broadband users have connections that run anywhere close to 150 mbps--or 100 mbps, or even 30 mbps. Most people would be thrilled with 8 mbps.
Net connection speeds varied considerably for our survey participants. About 40 percent reported download speeds ranging from 768 kbps to 3 mbps. Broadband performance is getting better, though, as nearly 30 percent of respondents said that their advertised speed was 4 mbps or faster, up about 5 percent from last year. (Surprisingly, 20 percent of our survey respondents said that they did not know what their connection speeds were.)
Some users are even starting to see faster DSL. Steve James, 54, of Watsonville, California, subscribes to AT&T's $35-a-month Elite DSL and averages download speeds of about 5.2 mbps. He has had the Elite package for six months now, and so far his impressions are favorable. "I've been really happy with the speed, and the dropped connections are almost nonexistent," says James, a police sergeant and part-time network administrator.
James's local cable provider is Charter, and in his view switching ISPs is out of the question. "I have a friend who has high-speed Internet through Charter, and his connection is really slow," he says.