Cord Cutting: How to Get High-Speed Internet Without Cable, 2017 Edition

Xconomy National — 

Hey folks. If you’re thinking about breaking away from the cable monopolies and getting your data, music, and video in other ways, congratulations, I’m with you. I cut the cord back in 2009, and now millions of people are doing the same every year.

With the growing interest in cord-cutting, you’d think it would be getting easier to find alternative sources for broadband Internet service. But no, it’s actually a bit more complicated than it used to be, because there are more options to choose from.

Back in 2014, I wrote a column intended to help consumers walk away from their expensive cable/phone/Internet bundles at Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cox and their ilk. Things move fast in the telecom world, and that 2014 article is already pretty out of date. Some of the providers I listed then have gone away, and the remaining providers are offering a wider range of services and, often, making the services harder to unbundle and evaluate.

Except for the WISPs, the wireless Internet service providers. They’re one-trick ponies—but they’re very good at their trick.

When I wrote the 2014 piece I was still living in a loft in San Francisco. I bragged a little about the building’s blazing-fast Internet service from Webpass. The San Francisco-based company was one of the country’s first major WISPs—companies that set up line-of-sight microwave networks, usually in dense urban environments, to beam data from a central tower to buildings around that tower. (Now it’s a division of Google Fiber.)

In San Francisco I was paying Webpass about $42 per month for 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for both downloads and uploads. That was it—I didn’t have a separate cable or land-line phone plan. But I moved out of that building in mid-2014 and found an apartment in a complex in Cambridge, MA, where—much to my chagrin—the only option for Internet service was Comcast. That meant I had to pay more money for slower service. I chose Internet-only service and forked over $55 per month for about 25 Mbps down, and much slower up.

I immediately started bugging the condo association managers here in Cambridge about bringing Webpass or another WISP to the building. In the end, two newer Boston-based WISPs, Netblazr and Starry, beat Webpass to the punch. I’m now a happy customer of Netblazr, paying $60 per month. That’s a bit more than I was paying Comcast, but the service is much faster, about 95 Mbps up and down.

(Geeky aside: The Netblazr installers told me that the connection from their tower to the antenna on my building is actually much faster—300 Mbps. But it’s a circa-1998 building and the Cat3 wiring can’t handle those speeds, so by the time the signal gets to my unit it’s only about a third as fast. The only way to fix that would be to retrofit the building with fiber optic cables, and that’s an expense the HOA isn’t willing to consider.)

The best way to game out your data-related expenses is to look at the bill for your existing TV/phone/Internet/mobile bundle and ask whether you’d be better off switching to an Internet-only service, then paying for premium content through a streaming box such as Apple TV or Roku.

That’s what I do. My total monthly bill for Internet plus video services is $96. The math: $60 for Netblazr, $10 for Netflix, $11 for Showtime, and $15 for HBO Now. I’m not counting the occasional movie rental on iTunes. That’s more than I was paying back in 2014, but it’s still less than the average cable bundle bill in the U.S., which is $103 per month.

I’ll bet you can achieve similar savings, which (while not huge) represent a night or two on the town—plus you’ll have the satisfaction of sticking it to Big Cable. You can still get live or nearly live news thanks to an app for streaming boxes from CBS News. And these days, even fans of live televised sports—who’ve long been trapped in their cable bundles thanks to the exclusive deals sports leagues strike with TV and cable networks—have more cord-cutting options. The streaming service Hulu, for example, now offers access to top sports networks carrying live football, baseball, basketball, and soccer games, both college and pro. You can get “Hulu with Live TV” on your Amazon, Apple, Chromecast, Roku, and Xbox device for $40 per month. Fubo.tv offers a similar service for $15 per month, with an emphasis on soccer.

So, on to the data. My 2014 article included a table listing the major non-cable providers of Internet service, including DSL, satellite, and fiber optic networks, along with their current monthly fees. I’ve updated that information below.

The major changes since 2014: WISPs are proliferating around the country and are now a viable category, at least in a few big cities; Boston, in particular, has a bunch of options. The number of satellite Internet providers has dwindled (Dish got out of the business) but the surviving services have gotten a bit faster, and are now priced mainly by download volume rather than speed. Fiber optic service is available in more cities now, and at speeds approaching a gigabit per second. And unsurprisingly, it’s getting harder to find old-fashioned DSL service.

A technical note: where available, I’ve included data for both download speeds (“down”) and upload speeds (“up”). Upload speeds are usually slower because Internet service providers dedicate more bandwidth to downloads—which makes sense when so many people want to use their home Internet connections to stream movies and music. A slow upload speed shouldn’t affect you much unless you have a home business that requires lots of videoconferencing or file sharing. (If unspecified, the speeds below refer to download speeds.)

DSL

Verizon
0.5 to 1 Mbps $25
1.1 to 15 Mbps $35

Earthlink DSL
Up to 15 Mbps $15*
*Introductory offer for the first 3 months. Standard rate not published.

CenturyLink*
20-40 Mbps $45
60 Mbps $55
*Available in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, North Caroline, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Ohio.

Satellite

HughesNet Satellite
All plans offer 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up
10 GB/month $50*
20 GB/month $60*
30 GB/month $80*
50 GB/month $100*
*Introductory rates for the first 24 months; long-term rates not published

Exede Internet (by Viasat)
12 Mbps down, 12 GB of “priority data”* $50
12 Mbps down, 25 GB of “priority data”* $75
12 Mbps down, 50 GB of “priority data”* $100
25 Mbps down, unlimited data $150
* Speeds drop after priority data is used up

Fiber Optic

AT&T Fiber
100 Mbps, 1TB data cap $50*
1000 Mbps, unlimited data $70*
*Prices only available when customers bundle their Internet service with another AT&T service such as TV, telephone, or wireless. AT&T Fiber is available only in select cities in Alabama Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin; coverage map here.

Verizon Fios*
50 Mbps down and up $40*
940 Mbps down / 880 Mbps up $80*
*Two-year promotional prices. Additional plans are available as part of Internet/TV/phone bundles. FiOS is available in 20 cities: Albany, NY, Baltimore, MD, Boston, MA, Buffalo, NY, Harrisburg, PA, Norfolk, VA, Philadelphia, PA, Pittsburgh, PA, Providence, RI, Richmond, VA, Syracuse, NY, Washington, DC, and all of Delaware and New Jersey.

Google Fiber*
100 Mbps up and down $50
1,000 Mbps up and down $70
* Bundled TV and phone services are also available. Google Fiber is available in Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Charlotte, NC, Huntsville, AL, Kansas City, MO/KS, Louisville, KY, Nashville, TN, Orange County, CA, Provo, UT, Raleigh-Durham, NC, and Salt Lake City, UT. It’s planned for San Antonio, TX.

Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs)

Note: Most WISPs are small and locally owned; there are too many to list here. To search for a WISP in your area go to the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association Find a WISP page.

Starry*
200 Mbps up and down $50
*No coverage map available; limited mainly to Boston and suburbs

Netblazr*
500 Mbps up and down $60
*Coverage limited to Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, and Arlington, MA

Webpass*
100 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps (speeds vary) $60**
*Webpass, now a subsidiary of Google Fiber, is available in Boston, MA, Chicago, IL, Denver, CO, Miami, FL, Oakland, CA, San Francisco, CA, and Seattle, WA.
**$550 when paid annually

 

No doubt I’ll need to come back and update all of this again before long. Starting around 2020, the existing 4G LTE data networks that connect to our smartphones, tablets, and watches will be upgraded to 5G. The new 5G networks are expected to be way, way, way faster than 4G—potentially as fast as 10 gigabits per second, or 100 times faster than my current Netblazr connection.

That’s so much faster than every previous wireless technology that 5G could replace cable, fiber optic, and microwave connections to homes and even make your home WiFi network obsolete. 5G is sure to rock the whole Internet and device ecosystem, further tilting the balance of power away from cable companies and toward AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and the makers of 5G-compatible phones and other gadgets. So keep your seat belt on!

Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash.

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