Anyone who watches regular television has seen at least a few commercials for Internet service. In my area, AT&T, Centurylink, and Time Warner Cable dominate this area of advertising. Each one promises a fast, reliable internet connection, and for the most part, that’s what you get.

I’ve worked for Centurylink and Time Warner Cable, two major Internet Service Providers. I’ve seen the pros and the cons of each service, and each service type (cable and DSL).

It’s true that in most cases, you don’t have much of a choice when it comes to Internet service. If you want cable, you have to go with the cable company that is in the area, since cable companies typically do not overlap each other’s territory. The same goes for DSL. Since DSL runs through the phone lines, you have to go with the phone company in the area. I suppose you could go with Satellite internet, but that’s just hilarious to even consider.

That being said, if you’re moving or getting Internet service for the first time, or perhaps switching to another company, there are a few things to consider.

Get what you actually need

A lot of people just assume every Internet service plan is the same. It isn’t. AT&T, Centurylink, and Time Warner Cable each offer different plans at different rates. These plans come with different speeds and it’s important to realize this because it will affect how you use it.

These days everything is connected to the Internet. Right now, I’m working from home using my laptop. In front of me is my smart TV and my Playstation 3. Both are capable of connecting to the Internet to stream video from sources like Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. I also have 3 other desktops, my phone, and two tablets that are connected.

This is just a list of the devices that are on right now. I have several more that may be powered on at any time and working from the same Internet connection.

If you use more than a few devices simultaneously on a regular basis, you need to consider faster speeds than the baseline packages. Many DSL and Cable Internet providers start their service speeds at 2 – 3Mbps. If you want to use a streaming video service like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, play online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, Ark, and Call of Duty, or want to load pages faster than a few seconds, then you need to get a faster Internet speed.

Are you signing a contract?

Many Internet Service Providers require you to sign a contract to get service at their advertised prices. This is their way of forcing you to stay with them for a set length of time, typically 12 to 24 months.

Under a contract, you typically receive a particular service and speed for the same price during your contract period. Unfortunately, this is often the only way to get the advertised price. It also means that you can’t drop the service without paying a large fee. You would need a major reason for quitting to avoid the fee (such as moving out of the serviceable area), and not liking the service isn’t going to fly.

Before signing up for a service, make sure you know what you’re getting into. Make sure you know the following:

  • If you are signing a contract and how long the contract term is
  • How long is the price good for (it may be introductory and increase during your contract term)
  • What happens if you cancel early
  • What if you move out of the serviceable area
  • What if you begin to have irreparable issues

Pay attention to what the advertisement doesn’t focus on

Internet Service Providers like to boast about two things: what you can do with the service and the price of the advertised package. Here are a few things they save for the fine print:

  • The speed they are advertising at such a low rate is their lowest speed
  • Performing all the activities they advertise simultaneously, would seriously degrade your speed and performance, possibly to the point of being impossible to use
  • The price may be dependent on you signing a contract
  • There may be a data cap, meaning you can only use a certain amount of data before you are cut off or charged a higher rate

AT&T runs an advertisement where a couple is trying to agree about which feature they like the most. While they disagree with each other, the fine print pops up to let you know about the other things you’re agreeing to, such as a 250GB data cap. That means you can only use 250GB of data during the month. Any more than that and they charge you an extra $10 for each 50GB of data you go over. However, you’ll have a hard time reaching that limit anyway since you’re buying a 3Mbps service, the lowest speed they offer on their website. At this speed, it’s like calling a 10-year-old Nissan Sentra with 3 flat tires fast. Don’t expect to do much in the way of streaming video or online gaming.

In May, I used over 1TB of data transfer, mostly from backing up my computer to a cloud storage provider. That is 4 times the limit AT&T imposes on their plans. I would have ended up spending an extra $160 on just my Internet account. Centurylink has a similar data cap, though based on the information on their website, they only cap downloading and don’t actually charge you anything for going over. However, going over the limit 3 times in a rolling 12 month period can get your account disconnected if you don’t upgrade.

This is very useful information to have when selecting an Internet service provider, especially in an era when streaming video has become the norm. It’s also information the service provider hopes you ignore, which is why they leave it in the fine print.

So if you’re looking for an Internet Service Provider, make sure you look into their service beyond the price. The one they flash on TV is the deal they use to get you connected, possibly signed up to a contract for 12 months. That’s not the deal you’re going to want to keep unless you barely use the Internet for anything much more than surfing Facebook and checking your email.

Update: Since writing this, AT&T has increased their data caps, but only slightly. The one I referenced above has been pushed from 250GB to 300GB.