How to get the biggest bang for your broadband bucks

I lived in Paris for five years before moving to San Diego at the end of 2012. During that time, I got used to the idea of having half a dozen choices for home broadband service, most with up to 100 Mbps of bandwidth and costing perhaps $30 a month for a combination of internet, phone, and TV.

So it was a rude shock to return to California, where one can easily pay five times as much for equivalent service, and where many people are lucky to have two providers to choose between. In my neighborhood, the only options were Cox (cable modem service) and AT&T (DSL and U-verse fiber-optic service).

Still, those two providers fight furiously to capture each other’s customers. Thankfully, I know a bit more about this stuff than the average customer. I did my research and picked the service that’s best for me. But even after I’d made my decision, I spent months saying, “No thanks” to the guys I didn’t pick; they persisted in the hard sell (and in the process distorted the facts). Had I been less tech-savvy, I might well have fallen for their sales pitch, even though it would have left me paying more for less. Here’s my story plus some tips to avoid falling into a similar trap.

Up and down

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For me, the biggest consideration was bandwidth—and not just download speeds. Sure, my family consumes more than its fair share of streaming video, and my work frequently involves downloading multi-gigabyte installers and other gargantuan files—a task I can’t afford to waste time on. But because I use online backup services extensively, upload speeds are even more important to me.

Cox’s current maximum bandwidth in my area—assuming, of course, that you purchase the most costly package, and that conditions are ideal—is 100 Mbps downstream, 20 Mbps upstream. AT&T’s U-verse (which is faster than the company’s DSL) maxes out at 45 Mbps downstream, 6 Mbps up. (By the way, I had to do some digging to find out those upstream figures; AT&T doesn’t mention them anywhere on the U-verse site.)

On that basis, Cox was clearly the better choice for me, even though the Internet portion of my service alone (not counting cable TV) costs $100 per month. Assuming both providers actually delivered the maximum throughput they claim, I could upload a 5GB file in about 37 minutes with Cox, but it would take more than two hours with U-verse. Backing up a full 500GB hard drive might take as little as two and a half days with Cox, but nine days with U-verse.

Still, every few weeks, AT&T sends me an email about U-verse, calls me, or even sends someone to my door. Some months ago, an AT&T rep showed up on my front porch, asked about my Internet service, and gave an impassioned sales pitch for U-verse. Did I not realize I was spending far too much money on Cox? Did I not want the most modern fiber-optic technology? Did I know I wasn’t getting my promised speeds?

I explained that I was getting far more bandwidth with Cox than was even possible with U-verse. The rep tried to convince me that I was wrong, because Cox’s published maximums are nowhere near actual speeds. I assured him that I had tested my connection using Speedtest.net and knew exactly what my speeds were. (For the record, I typically get about 77 Mbps downstream and 23 Mbps upstream, which I can’t really complain about.)

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Don't take your broadband provider's word for it—use a site like Speedtest.net to test your own download and upload speeds.

Then he insisted that my tests were misleading, because of Cox’s PowerBoost feature (licensed from Comcast), which temporarily increases download and upload speeds by about 25 percent, bandwidth permitting—but only for the first 18MB to 22MB of a file. So if you’re testing your connection only by downloading and uploading small files, you may see an artificially high speed that isn’t sustainable for large transfers.

But, I explained, I have in fact downloaded and uploaded many large files and had experimental proof of my actual overall throughput—and that, in any case, 25 percent slower than my test results for uploads is still about three times as fast as AT&T’s maximum speed. Yet still he kept pushing, until I asked him to leave and closed the door.

Know the facts

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If I hadn’t already collected all the facts, his argument might well have swayed me. It would be great to save money, but for me, bandwidth is king.

If you find yourself facing an intransigent broadband salesperson, keep these tips in mind:

  • Do your homework. Research the maximum download and upload speeds each provider claims, and test your own actual speeds using Speedtest.net or any of numerous similar sites.
  • Don’t be swayed by the word “fiber.” It’s true that fiber-optic connections have greater theoretical throughput than copper phone cables or coaxial cable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see those benefits as a customer.
  • Remember that fast download speeds aren’t the only measure of a speedy connection—especially if you rely on cloud backup, syncing, or sharing services, for which upload speeds are also important.

Having said all that, I know that both AT&T and Cox have plans for gigabit fiber service in San Diego. I would be thrilled to get more than ten times my current speeds. If AT&T happens to offer me that—along with excellent upload speeds—at a reasonable price, I’m in. But you’d better believe I’ll check the numbers both before and after signing up.

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