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Technology How we review internet service providers

23:35  10 june  2021
23:35  10 june  2021 Source:   cnet.com

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I've been reviewing tech for CNET for nearly eight years now, and I've never had an assignment quite like writing reviews of internet service providers.

a van parked on the side of a road: Ry Crist/CNET © Provided by CNET Ry Crist/CNET

From refrigerators, waffle makers and toasters to smart speakers, light bulbs and security systems, the common thread tying everything I've ever reviewed for CNET together is testing. Our team prides itself on finding smart, effective means of putting products to the test, uncovering the key data that separates the good options from the bad ones, and sharing those insights with our readers.

a car parked on the side of a road © Ry Crist/CNET

ISPs are an entirely different problem.

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Your first problem is that internet providers are regional, so if you wanted to test a provider's quality of service, you'd need a home in whatever part of the country they cover. Even then, a single location wouldn't really cut it, because service offerings and available technologies vary wildly by address. On top of that, testing the quality of a given home's internet connection means accounting for all sorts of variables that are completely outside of your control, things like service disruptions, infrastructure failures, interference from nearby networks and more. Finding a way to test internet providers that's fair, repeatable, thorough and helpful to the reader is a logistical nightmare, to be frank with you.

With the help of David Anders and Trey Paul, two new additions to our team with years of experience writing about internet providers, we've been grappling with this challenge for months. Now, after lots of legwork, we're ready to give you a broad look at broadband, and we'll soon start publishing our full, scored reviews of all of the top ISPs in the country, from big-name providers like AT&T and Comcast Xfinity to little guys like Rise Broadband and WideOpenWest. Here's how we're tackling that challenge, and what you can expect from us with every piece we write.

AT&T vs. Spectrum: Which is best for your home internet connection?

  AT&T vs. Spectrum: Which is best for your home internet connection? Both offer fast speeds and reasonable terms, but which provider you should go with really depends on which plans are available at your address.All told, each provider offers service to more than a third of the US population, so that means that there are an awful lot of us choosing between AT&T and Spectrum for our home's internet connection. If that sounds like you, and you're looking for a quick breakdown of how the two providers stack up, you're in the exact right place -- keep reading for a look at each company's coverage map, plans, prices, terms, fees, customer service track records and more.

a antenna on a grassy hill: We'll continue to go hands-on with new internet technologies like 5G service and Starlink's satellite internet whenever we can. John Kim/CNET © Provided by CNET We'll continue to go hands-on with new internet technologies like 5G service and Starlink's satellite internet whenever we can. John Kim/CNET

OK, but seriously -- how are you testing them?

As I laid out in the intro, there's no good way for us to test internet providers in a way that's comprehensive, repeatable and applicable to the entire category. Yes, we can go hands-on with certain providers to offer readers our impression of a given service -- and we're doing that whenever it makes sense, as Rick Broida did with T-Mobile's new 5G home internet service, or like John Kim did when he tested out Starlink satellite internet service from SpaceX. Both of those are great reports that offer a helpful glimpse at the practical realities of the respective provider's service -- but you can't build your reviews around tests like those. Rick's place is a totally different environment than John's, the sample size is much too small to represent a broader experience, and repeating the process for every provider on our list is an unrealistic goal.

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So, how do you review something that you can't really test? The answer is to remember why you test in the first place -- to generate objective data to inform your subjective opinion. And, fortunately, there's already lots of data for our team to pick through and scrutinize. That's where we begin.

map: The FCC's ISP database gives us a look at the scope of each provider's coverage, and key details on which percentage of each provider's footprint has access to the fastest speeds available. FCC/Mapbox © Provided by CNET The FCC's ISP database gives us a look at the scope of each provider's coverage, and key details on which percentage of each provider's footprint has access to the fastest speeds available. FCC/Mapbox

First up is the FCC. Providers are required to disclose metrics about the scope of their coverage and the quality of their speeds every few years -- that gives us a look at where each provider offers service, what their speeds are like, and how fast their technology seems to be improving. The data is notoriously flawed (and as of writing this, it's also almost two years out of date), but it still sets the table with a good bird's-eye view of the category.

From there, we put each provider's slate of advertised speeds and plans under the microscope, digging into the fine print on all of their deals and offers to determine what you'll actually end up paying, and what you'll actually end up getting. It's a big job, and it makes up the bulk of what we've been working on these past few months. For instance, ISPs will often try and lock you into pricing schemes that regularly cause your bill to increase. Exposing practices like those and helping you to steer clear of them is one of our top priorities.

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There's also a lot we can learn from examining each provider's customer service track record with reputable organizations like JD Power and the American Customer Satisfaction Index. On top of that, we're taking publicly available data on each provider's speeds and outage history into account, as well as industry efforts to improve access to broadband speeds. You can expect our approach to evolve as we continue seeking additional sources of data to inform our reviews.

Gathering all of that information and putting everything into context gives us a thorough look at each provider, and it lets us start to make comparisons. From there, we supplement our research with whatever hands-on testing we're able to complete, whether that's a CNET editor reporting on their experience with a new provider, a rundown of the modem and router each provider offers its customers, or even an investigative look at which providers send potential customers the most spam messages. Reports like those are in the works, they'll continue to be a point of focus for us, and they'll inform our reviews whenever they provide data we can draw comparisons from.

That's also a way of saying that we'll be working hard to keep these reviews current. Internet technology is continuing to evolve and deals come and go, but no matter what, we want you to be able to trust that you're getting information that's accurate and up-to-date.

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  AT&T vs. Cox Communications: Two top internet providers duke it out Trying to choose between AT&T and Cox Communications for your home internet service? Here's how to pick the right provider.OK, OK, so maybe this isn't quite as dramatic as a literal fight to the death, but there's still a lot to consider if you're comparing the two ISPs -- especially if you're choosing between them for your home's internet connection.

Building that trust takes transparency, so let me also explain how these reviews will make money for CNET. This site is free and doesn't charge subscription fees -- to keep it that way, CNET sells ads on the page, and it also uses affiliate links, which means that CNET earns a small share of revenue if you buy a product or subscribe to a service using the links on our site. Those efforts are strictly separate from the work we do as reviewers, and have no impact whatsoever on how we score or evaluate the providers we write about.

How do you score internet providers?

Specifically, we score providers for speed, value and customer care. Here's how we approach each metric:

Speed

It's what you're paying for, after all, so the first thing we consider is whether or not the provider offers a reasonably fast internet connection. It's a question that depends on context -- if you live in a city with access to fiber, then a slower, laggier satellite internet connection would seem like a big step down. If you're in a rural area and your only other option is a 10Mbps fixed wireless plan, then satellite might seem like a godsend.

Our job is to make that context clear for you no matter what your situation is. To get there, we ask the following questions:

  • Does the provider offer a good quality of speeds relative to other providers who use the same technology?
  • What's the quality of speeds relative to all providers?
  • How strong are the upload speeds?
  • Are fast speeds available across a majority of the provider's footprint?
  • Does the provider offer a decent variety of speeds relative to other providers?

Value

Internet plans are notorious for obfuscating their true costs using hidden fees and promotional trap rates that lure you in with a temporary deal. only to jack your bill up a year later. We aim to take all of that into account, make it easy for you to understand the terms before you sign up, and find the plan in your area that offers the most bang for your buck.

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Specifically, we consider the following criteria for each provider we write about:

  • Including fees, how competitive are the typical monthly costs?
  • How does the cost per megabit compare to similar plans and providers?
  • Do customers get any meaningful additional benefits for subscribing?
  • Does the provider offer bundles at an appropriate discount, or are the bundles designed to get customers to pay for more than they need?
  • What sort of assistance does the provider offer for low-income customers or underserved communities?

Customer care

The biggest chunk of each provider's score comes from customer care, and it's the category that raises the most questions. The last one here is really the key: Is there anything about the way this provider does business that we need to warn readers about? If so, we'll tell you all about it.

  • What does the provider's customer service track record look like?
  • Are the provider's plans and prices clear and easy to understand before signing up?
  • Are the provider's fees reasonable? Are the equipment fees skippable?
  • Does the provider offer contract-free pricing? If not, are the contracts reasonable?
  • Does the provider enforce data caps, and if so, are the terms reasonable?
  • Does the provider ever throttle customer data speeds?
  • How does the provider's history of outages compare to the competition?
  • How transparent is the provider about policies, rate changes, fees, etc.?
  • Is there anything else about the provider's plans or terms that we need to warn readers about?

Our aim is to answer each and every one of these questions to the best of our ability whenever we review an internet provider on CNET. You deserve a full understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly before you sign a contract for internet service, so that's what we'll strive to provide.

Our first reviews will be live on CNET in the coming days, with many more set to follow in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. We'll also continue following important news developments in the category, and publishing relevant how-to content, guides, explainers and versus-style provider comparisons. Got questions? Shoot me an email, look me up on Twitter, or let me know in the comments below.

Electricity transformed rural America nearly a century ago. Now, millions of people on farms and in small towns desperately need broadband. .
The true scope of the broadband access problem is unknown because federal data is widely known to underestimate coverage gaps.Becker shuts off the engine of her powder blue Toyota Prius and reaches for her laptop computer. Her two children, Maple and Ted, peer over her shoulder from the back seat.

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