You’ve heard the rumors. Providers brag about lightning fast speeds, and streaming in HD without a whisper of latency. But where is this miraculous Internet service of your dreams? One that will allow you to live a fantasy digital life in the wonder of the cloud. The lone Internet Service Provider (ISP) provider in your area seems to bog down at the first sign of traffic, and if tech support tells you to reboot your modem one more time, you’re going to scream. Why isn’t there more choice and competition among Internet providers in your area? This isn’t an isolated issue. Most regions of the country are serviced by just a handful of big name broadband providers. Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable have massive footprints that loom over an inordinately large part of the map. When the FCC was considering approving a merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable back in 2015, The Huffington Post warned that we would be facing “The United States of Comcast”. Today’s ISP map isn’t too far off that assessment, with four major ISPs eating up tremendous slices of the high-speed Internet market. Statistics from the FCC indicate nearly 30 percent of Americans don’t have a choice when it comes to their Internet provider. Another large portion of the public, which estimates place at 37 percent, only have two options. To get a better handle on what Internet service across the United States looks like, visit the National Broadband Map, maintained by the FCC and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). How did we end up here, with limited choice and virtually no competition in large swathes of the United States? To answer that, you’ll need to understand how the Internet reaches your home. It’s a complicated digital exchange through a labyrinth of networks and providers that you’ve likely never heard of. Follow me down the rabbit hole for a minute, my friend and I promise you’ll emerge a savvier Internet consumer.  

How does the Internet get to your home?

Unlike the claims of some politicians, the Internet does not reach you through a series of tubes. It begins on the global level through a Tier 1 network– cable wires that cross continents and oceans, conveying digital pulses of light. Chances are, these do not belong to your local ISP. Much of this major infrastructure is owned by global companies like AT&T who then lease usage of those Internet pipelines to Tier 2 providers. Tier 2 providers are the major telecommunications companies across the nation that bring Internet from the global pipelines into metro and regional areas. Providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox pay for transit on these uber fast global lines. Gizmodo gives a more detailed explanation of  Tier 1 and Tier 2 providers for those who might be interested in tracing the convoluted digital handshakes that transmit data from one part of the world to another. Much of the Internet delivered through Tier 2 providers is in fact broadband or DSL because that infrastructure already exists, humming below the ground and delivering your cable TV and phone service. Where your Internet bogs down and service slows is when data passes from these neighborhood hubs into your home. The telecommunications industry refers to this as “the last mile”. Much of this last bit of signal transmission is across ancient lines that have deteriorated over time and no longer support the speeds modern technology requires. Upgrading this piece of the infrastructure is the final challenge in ensuring high-speed Internet reaches every corner of the country, and it’s one of the big reasons there are isolated pockets of only one or two Internet service providers in large areas of the United States.  

Expensive Infrastructure

Upgrading that last mile of Internet infrastructure is a costly endeavor. While the utility poles are public property, the lines and wires are owned by specific companies that may have traded hands dozens of times over the years. If you are receiving DSL Internet, that technology comes into your home on ancient copper phone lines. These are likely the same lines installed nearly a hundred years ago when Alexander Graham Bell first invented the telephone. If you receive broadband internet, your home was likely wired to receive cable TV sometime between the 50’s and the 80’s. Because cable technology is more advanced, Internet via broadband delivers higher speeds. Neither technology approaches the capabilities of fiber-optic, however. The difficulty becomes the cost. DSL and Cable Internet providers utilize existing lines, sometimes paying to lease them from the original companies that still own them. Fiber-optic providers have to start fresh, absorbing the cost of running new lines and connecting each household to the larger network. Once they’ve made this investment, they’ll have to lure away a significant amount of the high speed Internet customers in that area to turn a profit. Cable and DSL providers will often simply undercut the new kid on the block by promoting package deals and bundles that price the fledgling company right out of the market.  

Regional Franchises

To further complicate the matter, there are some legislative actions that have encouraged the sparsity of providers. The 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act allowed cable service to be determined by each municipality. This resulted in a patchwork of regional providers that made cost-effective deals with certain cities, allowing them to control local pockets of service almost exclusively. During the 90’s consolidation of these markets began in earnest. It was more cost effective for smaller companies to merge and create larger entities that could cover a larger area of service. The Wall Street Journal documented how, in a matter of two decades, 40 regional providers coalesced into just four telecommunications giants. At that juncture, the Internet was still a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, but the cable wires that would deliver broadband all across the nation were already in the hands of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and Cox.

A Natural Monopoly

It has been a perfect storm of expensive infrastructure, legislation, and growing media conglomerates that have resulted in what many industry experts refer to as a natural monopoly. Prohibitive costs and a consolidated network of providers effectively controls the market, making it virtually impossible to foster the healthy competition necessary to ensure better service and reduced costs for the average consumer. Many have argued that to bring cost-effective, high-speed Internet to more Americans, the government will have to intervene not only to incentivize innovation but also to help smaller companies make the necessary investments in infrastructure.   “The great danger to the consumer is the monopoly — whether private or governmental. His most effective protection is free competition at home and free trade throughout the world. The consumer is protected from being exploited by one seller by the existence of another seller from whom he can buy and who is eager to sell to him. Alternative sources of supply protect the consumer far more effectively than all the Ralph Naders of the world.” Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist   Frustrated with your provider and looking to make a change? Use our high-speed Internet provider tool to see a list of providers in your area, compare packages side by side, read real customer reviews, and decide which provider is the right one for you.   [zipfinder] From the inexpensive DSL to popular cable, there’s an Internet option for any user’s preference. One of the newer and lesser known options is fiber Internet. Instead of running through a phone line or cable cord, fiber-optic Internet data is carried by light through glass fiber cables as thin as a human hair. Information can travel at lightning fast speeds over long distances, resulting in a high-speed connection. For those interested in fiber Internet, this article will provide a more in-depth look at fiber services and explore offerings from some of the bigger providers in the industry. g

The Benefits of Fiber Internet

The top benefit of fiber Internet is its high-speed capacity. Subscribers can reach download speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second, which is around 100 times faster than the standard 11.7 Mbps most U.S. consumers have. This makes fiber Internet ideal for subscribers who frequently stream HD movies, download large files, and play web-based games. If a user wanted to download a two-hour HD movie — a file size between 3 and 4.5 GB — with a 5 Mbps broadband Internet connection, for example, it would take 72 minutes to download the file. Even if a subscriber could reliably get speeds up to 20 Mbps, such a sizeable download would still take 60 minutes. With a 1 Gbps fiber connection, however, the file would be downloaded in just 25 seconds. Additionally, fiber Internet is extremely reliable — more so than DSL, satellite, and cable. This is largely because fiber Internet is what is called a “passive system” that doesn’t require power to be applied within the network. And since the cables are made of glass, the transmission fibers remain immune to most types of interference. With proper backup power for in-house electronics, a fiber subscriber could potentially stay connected during a storm with limited concern about lightning-related damage, unlike DSL and cable users.  

The Disadvantages of Fiber Internet

The biggest sticking point of fiber Internet is the price. Fiber Internet is currently more expensive than most DSL, cable, or satellite Internet plans due to the fact that usable fiber infrastructures don’t widely exist. As fiber providers work to expand their networks, though, subscribers can expect costs to drop somewhat, as the setup is easier to maintain than other options. The second biggest drawback to fiber Internet is its availability. As of 2014, the United States has just 7.7 percent penetration of fiber-optic links, trailing behind more than a dozen other developed countries. Installing a new fiber-optic network is a time-consuming process for service providers, especially when so many consumers continue to rely on DSL and cable Internet. However, as more users recognize the advantages of fiber Internet and demand the service, more companies are planning to install fiber-optic networks to meet the demand.  

The Best Networks for Fiber Internet

Currently, there are more than two dozen fiber or fiber-hybrid Internet providers available in various areas across the U.S. A few of the top players are AT&T, Frontier, and CenturyLink.  

AT&T U-verse

AT&T U-verse® provides TV, Internet, and Voice services to customers in more than a dozen cities across the United States. Through its AT&T GigaPower™ option, the company offers fiber Internet with speeds of up to 1 Gbps for around $110 per month for 12 months with a one-year term, though there are smaller plans available as well. In regard to bundles, the Double Play package includes fiber Internet and TV services for $120 per month for 36 months with a one-year term, while the Triple Play package includes TV, Internet, and Voice services for $150 per month for 36 months with a one-year term.  As an added bonus to the company’s already solid offerings, AT&T is currently working to offer fiber Internet to 38 new cities.  

FiOS from Frontier

FiOS® from Frontier offers at least three fiber Internet packages to customers in more than 25 states. The most popular package is the Simply FiOS Broadband 50/50, which starts at $59.99 per month for upstream and downstream speeds of up to 50 Mbps. This plan also comes with a 3-Year Price Guarantee with No Contract. These fiber Internet speeds are slower than some other fiber providers, but the lack of a term contract on certain services is a big selling point. Additionally, FiOS customers receive free 24/7 tech support, Frontier Mail with eight additional email accounts, and 5 GB of storage on each account. For a bit of a discount, customers can bundle services with the FiOS Broadband 30/30 + Digital Voice Unlimited. The plan starts at $55.98 per month and includes Internet speeds of up to 30 Mbps and a phone line with unlimited local and nationwide calling. Another popular package, the FiOS Broadband 30/30 + FiOS Prime HD + Digital Phone Unlimited, starts at $89.99 per month, and it includes Internet speeds of up to 30 Mbps, 225 TV channels, and a phone line.  

CenturyLink Fiber Internet

CenturyLink offers fiber Internet connections in more than 10 major cities and is working on expanding its network even further. For residential services, packages start as low as $29.95 per month for speeds up to 40 Mbps with a one-year contract, depending on the area. Prices and speeds jump up significantly from there, with the next available tier running $69.95 per month for speeds up to 100 Mbps on a one-year contract. Gigabit speeds, where available, cost around $109.95 per month with a one-year agreement. Commercial businesses can also take advantage of the company’s high speeds — in fact, the company recently announced that its continued fiber network expansion will cater to business needs.     Although fiber is the most expensive Internet option and isn’t available in all areas, the perks outweigh the cons for many regular Internet users. For those who require fast Internet for a household with multiple users or who want to avoid lags and possible power outages, fiber Internet is the best choice. Interested consumers should check to see if fiber Internet is available in their area and, if so, which providers offer the best packages. If fiber Internet isn’t available, fear not. Fiber is quickly expanding to new locations and, for now, there are plenty of cable, satellite, or DSL companies providing services in the interim. *Pricing and speeds are current as of writing. Pricing and speeds are subject to change. Not all offers available in all areas.

Cable Internet v. Fiber Internet

It’s great to have choices; but the more options you have, the more difficult it can be to make a decision. When it comes to the Internet, especially, the wide variety of service types and providers can make it hard to know if one kind of connection is better than another.

Whether you’re getting Internet service for your home or your business, you need a connection that’s fast, reliable, and affordable. To help you make the best Internet choice for your unique needs, we’re breaking down two of the most popular types of Internet: cable and fiber-optic.  

Connection Basics

Unlike dial-up connections, cable and fiber Internet are both considered “always on” services, meaning that there’s a constant open link to the provider’s service hub. That’s where the similarities end, though, as the network makeups differ significantly between the two connection types.  

Cable

Cable Internet is offered through coaxial cable networks, just like cable TV services. Subscribers can usually choose between purchasing cable Internet as a stand-alone product or bundling it with other services, including TV, phone, and even security monitoring, from the same company. Additionally, cable Internet connections are shared among all subscribers within a specified service area — there’s very rarely a designated connection. This can make for some congestion during high-use periods.  

Fiber

Fiber Internet uses fiber-optic cables to deliver Internet data. Information is carried via modulated light along a thin glass strand. Each of these lightweight fibers can be as small as a single human hair, and they’re able to deliver digital information over extremely long distances. Most fiber connections, regardless of whether they terminate at a node in the neighborhood or directly in your home, see significantly less traffic-caused slowing during busy times of day. If you live in a particularly crowded area, fiber will likely be more consistent.  

Equipment and Installation

Both cable and fiber connections rely on a network of wires or fibers to deliver data between subscribers and providers. But the in-home equipment used to transmit that data — and the installation process for that equipment — varies quite a bit.  

Cable

Cable Internet requires a modem that subscribers can lease from the Internet Service Provider (ISP) or purchase on their own. Most cable Internet comes with specific requirements for modems, so consumers should check for compatibility before buying their own device. The same goes for routers. In terms of installation, cable customers may have the option to set up their own connection using a self-installation kit provided by the cable company. If a house or apartment hasn’t had cable before, however, the cable company will probably need to set up a time to have the cable line run and installed by a professional. In general, cable installations are usually pretty straightforward and shouldn’t require a large investment of either time or money. Some providers even offer discounts on installation for new customers.  

Fiber

Fiber connections also require a modem of sorts, but instead of translating electric signals into readable computer data as a traditional modem does, a fiber modem works to translate light signals into readable information. Because fiber technology is newer and more complex than cable technology, your provider will likely require you to rent or purchase a service-specific modem with your fiber plan. When it comes to installation, most fiber Internet connections are set up by a professional. Some companies do offer self-installation options, but it may impact the terms of the service contract. If a new fiber connection doesn’t need to be installed, the setup should be fairly simple. However, if there’s no existing infrastructure at your home or business, it can take up to several weeks for the provider to run lines and install the necessary wiring.

Download Speeds and Usage

When it comes to an Internet connection, speed is usually a top priority. Depending on how many people and devices are using the Internet connection, fast speeds can be a necessity. Fortunately, both cable and fiber connections offer download speeds that are fast enough to accommodate the Internet needs of an average household or small business.  

Cable

Cable Internet providers offer speeds that range from 20 Mbps to 250 Mbps. Those speeds are fast enough to keep an average home of casual Internet users online around the clock. However, a household of four that wants to be able to surf the Internet, update social media, stream videos, and play online games all at once should look for packages at the higher end of those speeds.  

Fiber

Even though cable Internet is fast, fiber is usually faster. Users can get download speeds ranging from 150 to 1000 Mbps from fiber-optic Internet. Upload speeds are faster too — usually 65 to 100 Mbps. With speeds that fast, you could stream HD content in multiple rooms at the same time, including online games and movies.  

Availability and Provider Options

It might seem like the Internet is everywhere, but that’s not actually the case. There are still areas across the country with limited access to Internet providers and connections. Depending on where you’re located — i.e., if a given service isn’t available in your area — limited accessibility may eliminate one service option entirely.  

Cable

Fortunately, cable Internet is one of the most widely accessible Internet options. If your home or business can receive cable TV, you can probably also access cable Internet. You may be somewhat limited in terms of which providers actually offer services to your residence or business, as the current cable industry has effectively drawn up turf boundaries from area to area. Despite this lack of options, though, as long as you live in a populated, non-rural locale, you’ll likely be able to find a plan that meets your basic connectivity needs.  

Fiber

Fiber is becoming more prevalent, but it isn’t currently available in as many places as cable. Because fiber Internet requires the installation of fiber-optic cables, its reach will remain limited until new lines are put in. Luckily, many more providers are exploring fiber offerings as demand for fast speeds grows. Before setting your heart on fiber Internet, though, be sure to find out if fiber-optic Internet is available in your area.  

Safety and Reliability

Both cable and fiber Internet options provide more reliability than other options out there — satellite Internet can be fickle about equipment angle, and dial-up connections aren’t functional unless there’s an accessible phone line. However, there are some small differences in terms of overall safety and reliability between the two service types.  

Cable

In general, cable Internet service is considered highly reliable. Just like with cable television, sometimes there are outages due to technical problems or weather interference, but issues are fairly limited. Because of the possibility of an outage, businesses that rely on their Internet connection to operate should have a backup in place just in case. Additionally, there is some risk of surges during electrical storms, as coaxial cable is a good electrical conductor.  

Fiber

Fiber Internet is just as reliable as cable, with one distinct difference: Fiber-optic Internet is a passive system, which means it doesn’t operate using electric signals. That means that outages are less likely. In addition, because the conductor is glass, it doesn’t generate electricity. Thus, fiber is less vulnerable to interference from high-voltage power lines or equipment, and subscribers can enjoy an added layer of protection against damage from power surges.  

Price and Bundling

No matter what bells and whistles an Internet plan promises, money is often the ultimate deciding factor when it comes time to pick a package. Shrewd homeowners and business managers need to provide the best Internet connection without blowing the budget out of the water. While pricing for both cable and fiber Internet varies based on location and the plan selected, there are some general distinctions you can expect.  

Cable

Most homes and businesses can find cable Internet packages ranging from around $20 to as much as $100, depending on the speeds and any other promotions or offers. As you’re looking at prices, don’t forget to find out about installation fees, as those can add to your upfront costs. Equipment rentals — including modems, routers, and set-top boxes, where applicable — can also run the monthly payment up. Faster speeds tend to cost more, and contract lengths can make a difference as well. In general, cable is usually an affordable option that can meet the requirements of nearly any budget, but consumers can save even more depending on if their selected plan is bundled with TV or phone packages. Bundles usually end up saving money, so they’re worth looking into.  

Fiber

Because faster speeds means a bigger bill, it’s no surprise that fiber-optic Internet — with its higher speed capacities — is usually more expensive than cable. Most fiber Internet plans start around $50, though some stand-alone fiber Internet plans can top out over $100 per month. In addition, fiber Internet usually requires extensive installation, which adds to the overall price you’ll pay. Fiber Internet providers also offer contracts and introductory specials and discounts for customers. It may be worthwhile to commit to a two-year contract if it keeps your monthly bill from increasing. In addition, look for promotions that may reduce or completely eliminate the installation and activation fees. Bundles, though often less extensive than cable bundling options, do exist and can help cut costs further.   After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of both options, it’s time to make a decision. Determine what’s most important to you, figure out what kinds of speeds make sense for your household or business, and start shopping for providers in your area today.   With apologies to Dr. Evil, I have one simple request: Internet with frickin’ lasers. Lasers are cool. The Internet is cool. Combining the two sounds like one of the best ideas since peanut butter and jelly. But, until recently, the problem was that practical industrial lasers have been more sci-fi than not. Now, though, the technology is real. The military is already using a laser communication system, and like all military projects, it has an appropriate acronym: the Enhanced Air Ground Lasercom System (EAGLS). Aoptix, the company that designed EAGLS, claims its laser Internet technology has the potential for 2-4 Gbps speeds, double to quadruple the current fastest speeds available in this country. Technically, Aoptix wants to deliver Internet via laser and radio, as the two technologies have to work literally side-by-side. Each technology is susceptible to different forms of weather interference so together they provide redundancy. Raindrops can affect radio, but not lasers, and fog can affect lasers, but not radio. The company says their dual transmitters can reliably send data up to 10 kilometers between relay towers already built and in place. And in case you’re wondering, the laser operates on a non-visible portion of the light spectrum, so you won’t have to put up with looking into the Eye of Sauron to get a fast connection. Here’s how the laser portion of the transmission works: Sure It’s Cool, But Why This Particular Wireless Tech? Like other companies with fiber network alternatives, Aoptix sees infrastructure cost savings as the primary benefit of wireless networks over fiber. There aren’t miles and miles of trenches to dig or fiber to lay. EAGLS has proven the technology works, and the fact that it can work with existing infrastructure means that implementing the laser/radio broadband network should be very inexpensive. Three U.S. carriers are currently in talks with Aoptix, and the system is already in use with Car-Sa, an Internet provider in Mexico. Aoptix has even installed a laser/radio link between NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange, where an even slightly faster connection can result in increased profits for stock market traders. Unlike other fiber alternatives that require some infrastructure cost, the fact that Aoptix uses existing towers to relay their signals means that this could be a great way to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas that already have radio and cell towers. Installation should require little more than putting transmitter relays on those towers. It’s Okay to Geek Out a Bit With these real-world trials already under way, it shouldn’t take long to determine whether lasers are the answer to the wireless broadband question. But take a step back, and forget the science. Forget the infrastructure. We live in a world where nothing amazes us anymore, and there’s a company installing lasers that will let us interact and share content faster than ever. Sure, it’s always smart to be a bit skeptical over promises of better mousetraps, sometimes it’s hard not to get excited. Especially when lasers are involved. Commercial Internet by laser isn’t available quite yet, but if you can’t wait until it is, enter your zip code below to see high-speed plans that are available in your area. Image by Andrew Adams/Flickr [zipfinder]
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