How We Test and Review Internet Service Providers
We’ve been reviewing internet service providers (ISPs) for years here at Reviews.org, but testing internet service isn’t quite like testing home security gadgets or streaming apps.
Here are some of the quirks we keep in mind while testing internet service:
- Most internet providers are available only in certain regions or cities—and sometimes availability data is flawed or incomplete.
- Speed test data only shows us real-life speeds and tells us nothing about how results compare to the speeds promised by the service provider.
- Prices, speeds, and contracts change depending on where you live. ISPs even change pricing in the same neighborhoods depending on competition.1
- In-home testing is subject to differences in setups, such as which router is used, and other local variables that may affect performance.
Not to mention dozens of smaller, local internet providers are popping up like daisies across the country. We love that it means people have more options than just Xfinity, but it poses additional challenges for testing their services.
But we want to give you a full view of what you might be getting into if you choose a certain ISP, and hands-on service testing is a huge part of that. So here’s how we dig into the nitty gritty of all things good, bad, and even ugly when it comes to internet providers in the US.
How we rate internet providers
Whenever we get a chance to do hands-on testing with different internet providers, we jump at it. Our team tests our own home networks regularly—that’s why you’ll see me share personal experiences about Xfinity—and we also reach out to people living in different areas to test out ISPs we don’t have access to.
From our hands-on testing we can build up data on billing, customer service, installation, outages, and even how fast (or not so fast) a specific ISP is. We also take a long look at millions of Reviews.org internet speed test results from across the country that you all provide us to get a bird’s eye view of an internet provider’s performance.
On top of this, we use outside data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), HighSpeedInternet.com, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to round out our view of an ISP. (Keeping in mind that FCC data is flawed and doesn’t include every ISP.2)
We’ll also dig into Better Business Bureau, JD Power, and Consumer Affairs comments and ratings, and we aren’t afraid to peek into Reddit or Quora threads for additional personalized insights into new ISPs or technology.
By balancing our own proprietary data with learnings from outside sources, we’re able to give you a better answer to the following questions about internet service.
Is it a good value or not?
We wish internet providers would advertise straightforward prices, but so far that’s a dream that hasn’t come true.
Pretty much all ISPs will jack up your price after a time—a few do offer a “price for life” deal on certain plans. And some providers charge an arm, a leg, and a “Gotcha!” when it comes to installation or equipment fees.
We try to make it easier for you to compare the true cost of internet service by digging into the fine print. (You know, those Terms of Service almost no one reads.) Here are the questions we ask when judging an internet provider’s value:
- How does the price for the speed and data you get compare to alternative providers in the same service area?
- How quickly does the promotional price go up?
- Do you have to sign a contract to get a lower price?
- How much is the equipment rental fee? Can you bring your own equipment instead?
- Is the installation and/or activation fee reasonable when compared to other providers?
- Does the ISP regularly offer deals or discounts on internet plans or bundles?
- Are there reasonably priced low- and high-speed plans that don’t require a family to pay for more speed than they need?
Does it live up to its internet speed promises?
The biggest concern with internet providers—aside from price—is speed. Mainly we focus on download speed, but we also take a look at upload speeds and data caps. We analyze speed test data and hands-on service testing notes to determine whether an internet provider generally delivers the speeds it promises.
We also keep in mind that internet speed performance depends a lot on what connection type the provider uses. Folks who enjoy streaming and online gaming might cringe at the thought of a 25 Mbps DSL connection, but for anyone who’s suffered through slower speeds than that would jump for joy.
Here’s what we ask ourselves when rating an internet provider on speed and data:
- Does the ISP tend to deliver internet speeds that match or exceed what it advertises?
- Are there a variety of fast and slow download speeds so a family can choose the right speed for their needs?
- Does the ISP offer plans with fast upload speeds?
- Is there a data cap? If so, does it match what similar providers cap their data at? Is there a way to get unlimited data?
- Are there issues with latency that might affect certain activities like streaming or gaming?
- Does the provider ever throttle internet speeds?
Does it take care of its customers?
We’ll be the first to admit that internet providers aren’t known for great customer service. Sure, we’ve experienced a few excellent calls with our providers, but sometimes all it takes is an installation tech not showing up or a bogus bill to put a bad taste in our mouths.
While it’s hit or miss with most providers, we’re always on the lookout for anything sketchy. Basically, if we’d tell our moms to avoid this ISP at all costs, we’ll tell you why you should avoid it too.
- How good or bad is the ISP’s customer service rating compared to other similar providers?
- Is the provider transparent about pricing and speeds on its website? Does it require you to enter your address before revealing any information?
- How does the provider handle and communicate changes to its internet plans or terms of service?
- Has the ISP committed a recent major faux pas, like getting sued by a state government for not delivering speeds it promised?
- Is the ISP actively expanding or upgrading its network to better serve current customers and reach new, underserved customers?
We know that not every ISP is all that and a bag of chips. But because most of us have one, maybe two choices for internet, that means we need to choose the lesser of two evils. Er, not-so-great internet providers. Knowing that, we’re still here to keep you in the loop. Because internet is a necessity, not a luxury. And we want you to get the internet service that keeps your family connected.
- Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, “Charter Charges More Money for Slower Internet on Streets With No Competition,” May 2021. Accessed June 14, 2021.
- Ben Miller, GovTech, “Microsoft Speeds Show Broadband Use Is Far Lower Than Access,” March 2019. Accessed June 14, 2021.