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ISP service types

High-speed Internet, also called broadband, has become a necessity for many, but speeds and service can vary widely by company and location. Broadband Internet service is usually offered by or in partnership with the same companies that provide telephone and/or cable TV services, so the world of Internet service providers (ISPs) is complex and ever-changing. Given this fluidity, it's important to look at the most recent information available and check an ISP's website to make sure the data is current.

ISPs are evaluated in part on the connection speed they provide. In general, fiber-optic Internet connections like Verizon's FiOS (*Est. $70 per month) offer the fastest download and upload speeds, but these services are also the most expensive and availability is limited. Next in line in terms of maximum speed is cable Internet, which uses the same wiring as cable television. DSL services connect to the Internet via telephone lines; like cable ISPs they usually offer different prices for various connection speeds. They can be the least expensive choice next to dial-up if you're willing to sacrifice some speed.

Even though it's slow and ties up your phone line, dial-up remains the most affordable and widely available way to connect to the Internet. Satellite Internet connections serve mainly those in rural areas who don't otherwise have access to a high-speed service. Keep in mind that many modern computers and laptops don't include a modem by default, so if you're a dial-up customer buying a new computer, be sure you get a modem.

Finally, mobile broadband services use cell phone networks to connect to the Internet; when you're on the road, they're a good alternative to wireless hotspots like those at Starbucks. For light web surfers, however, this type of service can be a good solution for home Internet. Cell phone carriers provide this service, so if you have good reception in your area, mobile broadband should also be available; you'll need a laptop and a wireless card to get connected. See our separate reports on mobile broadband and wireless cards.

Choosing an Internet service provider is a lot like shopping for home phone or cell phone service: There are many regional differences, and not all ISPs are available in all areas. That's why massive customer surveys are one of the best ways to evaluate ISPs, and we consult several of them for this report. ConsumerReports.org, for example, regularly polls its subscribers on many aspects of ISP performance. J.D. Power and Associates also solicits responses from residential ISP customers each year; almost 21,000 people expressed their opinions in 2012. PCMag.com's annual surveys and speed tests are helpful, too.

At this point, expert reviews of ISPs and especially dial-up services are hard to come by. TopTenReviews.com evaluates ISPs based on specific criteria and Cheap-ISP-Reviews.com rates them on cost alone. Both offer some insights, but other information is dated. ConsumerReports.org presents excellent ISP evaluations, but results are available only by subscription. On the other hand, user reports are plentiful and current, and the best source for those is BroadbandReports.com. Its database of reviews is searchable by city and zip code, and the site compiles user-review opinions into charts that rate relative satisfaction.

ISPs Runners Up:

AT&T DSL $15 per month

1 pick including: PCMag.com, BroadbandReports.com…

Cablevision Optimum Online $30 per month

1 pick including: PCMag.com, TopTenReviews.com…

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