How Do I Pick the Right Internet Speed for My Family?

Slow internet speeds can make getting online frustrating, but many households have more speed than they actually need. As a result, they are paying a lot more for Internet service than they should have to. Before selecting an Internet plan, review your household's actual usage of Internet service, which should be based on both on activity and number of devices used.

There are few things more annoying than slow Internet: Nobody wants to have to wait for a web page to load, pixilated graphics, or to experience buffering when streaming a video. The truth is, however, that many households are overpaying for Internet speeds that they simply don't need. Before signing a contract with your local cable company or Internet service provider, take stock of your household's Internet usage and do some research. You may be able to save hundreds of dollars annually on your Internet connection.

Internet Package Selection: What's at Stake

As you make decisions about home Internet service, you'll likely encounter a range of package offerings that emphasize data speeds. You'll also notice is that faster speeds typically cost more, sometimes significantly more, than those packages with slower speeds. While it is easy to assume that faster is better, the truth is a bit more complicated. In many cases, individuals and families are paying for home Internet speeds that are unnecessary in light of how the Internet is actually being used by household members.

In many cases, consumers never realize that they are paying for a bloated Internet package. Occasionally, however, they do become aware that they no longer need the level of service that they are paying for. The trouble is that many Internet service providers make it very difficult to downgrade Internet service packages, particularly if the package is part of a bundle of telecommunications services, such as cable television, home security, or phone service. While it is possible to negotiate lower rates or cancel some services, many consumers report experiencing a real struggle in doing so.

For this reason, it is often best for Internet users to avoid packages that offer excessive speeds when signing up for new service. After all, service providers are more than happy to upgrade service if the current level of speed is not sufficient. They aren't so happy when you want to cut back.

Calculating Speed Needs

There are two factors that you should consider when calculating the level of Internet speed that your household needs:

  • How many devices are regularly used in your home at the same time?
  • How do you and your family members use the Internet? For example, do you mostly get online for shopping, social media and reading the news? Or are you someone who relies on the Internet for streaming television shows, movies, videos and games?
  • What about the other people in your household? If you aren't up on how your spouse or kids use the Internet, take some time to ask them about their habits and preferences.

Understanding speed needs is not always as straightforward as it seems. For example, many people operate multiple Internet-connected devices at once: One member of the household may be on his computer chatting with friends via a Facebook group, while streaming music through Spotify over his phone. At the same time, another family member may be watching Netflix on the family Smart TV while scrolling through Twitter on her tablet and still another household member is participating in a PlayStation game tournament while streaming background music through an Amazon Alexa device. All the while, the family's connected home security system is also running.

While there may only be three people in the household, there are at least seven devices running at the same time, and several of these devices are streaming high bandwidth content. In this kind of scenario, logjams could easily happen, causing frustration for everyone involved.

Let's look at another household with three family members: One parent works from home as a freelancer but primarily uses the Internet for email and uploading finished projects to a managed online workspace. The family's 10-year-old daughter goes to school and the other parent spends most of the day at her office. While the parents each have a cell phone, neither one has a social media presence and they sharply restrict their daughter's screen time to what is necessary to complete homework and an additional an hour a day for playing a game or watching videos. The household does not subscribe to any streaming services, such as Netflix or Hulu, relying on a basic cable plan for catching on-air news and entertainment.

For this family, a premium-level Internet plan would likely be a waste of money. If they ever decided to stop paying a premium price for service that they aren't using, they'd probably have to spend hours trying to negotiate with their cable company or even cancel their current service and go through the hassle of transferring to a competitor.

Situations like these illustrate how important it is for consumers to investigate their Internet needs before committing to a plan. If you plan to get new Internet service because you are relocating or you've already decided to switch to a new provider, check your online account for details of your average daily Internet usage.

In general, you'll want to consider the number of devices plus usage. If you have one or two devices operating at the same time and generally focus on social media, answering email, shopping online and occasionally watch movies, speeds of up to 25 Mbps should be sufficient. Once you have three or more devices operating at once, plus streaming 4K or enjoying networked gaming, 50-100 Mbps plans are a good idea.

If there are more than five devices in your home, and you also do a lot of live streaming or watch a lot of movies, go with a plan that provides 150 -200 Mbps.

What About Gigabit Plans?

Many Internet providers are now boasting of gigabit plans that offer hyper-fast speeds. In some cases, these plans are offered at extremely attractive introductory rates. As noted in this article, however, these introductory rates are just that: you may find that your monthly rates go up considerably once your introductory period is over. If you are considering a gigabit plan because of its introductory rate, not because you actually need this level of speed, make sure that you understand how long the introductory period is, the expected cost of your plan after the introductory rate expires and what your options are for keeping costs down.

Some people have had success in calling their Internet service provider near the end of their introductory period and persuading the customer service representative to continue to honor the same rate. Others, however, may have to accept a significant rate increase or move to a different provider.

Warning: Before you Upgrade

If you plan to upgrade your Internet speeds because you feel as though your current package doesn't perform well, there are a few things you'll want to check before calling your ISP's customer service department. The problems you are experiencing may have nothing to do with Internet speed. Instead, the issue may be equipment performance.

First, use an online Internet speed check service to determine exactly your current speeds. It may well be that your current speeds are lower, or higher, than those promised by your plan. If your speeds are lower than you expect, and you are using a computer that is connected by Wi-Fi to perform the test, try connecting the device (using an ethernet cable) to your router. Perform the test again. If you are getting higher speeds when connected to the router, the problem may be with your Wi-Fi distribution or the router itself.

Next, check your equipment. If your modem or router is old, it may be in need of replacement. You cannot rely on your Internet service provider to let you know when your rented equipment is out of date. Instead, call your ISP and request an updated router. Another option is to buy a new modem or router and avoid paying monthly rental fees to your provider.

Check to see if your speeds change depending on where you are in your home. If you notice that your speeds get better the closer you get to your router, you may need to take steps to improve Wi-Fi connectivity around your place. It is possible to purchase Wi-Fi range extenders that you can plug into outlets around your home. The extenders boost reception in the rooms where they are present. In some cases, Internet service providers, such as Comcast, sell these devices themselves. In addition, retailers such as Amazon also sell extenders manufactured by third-party consumer electronics companies.

One word of warning: Some consumers have reported trying to purchase extenders from their Internet company only to be up-sold to a more expensive Internet package. If this happens to you, politely insist on purchasing the extenders. If the customer service representative continues to give you a hard time, and the call and purchase extenders through a third-party retailer.

Another option is to request a technician's visit to determine if there is a problem with your connections, equipment or environment that might be interfering with Internet speed. In some cases, this can be a gamble: Your provider may charge you a technician's fee if it is determined that problems with connectivity are not due to wiring or provider-owned equipment. On the other hand, however, the cost of one technician's fee may be far less than the cost of unnecessarily upgrading to higher speeds.

The Bottom Line

As more people get online and use multiple devices to do so, it's not surprising that consumers may experience a need for higher Internet speeds. Unfortunately, service provider practices can make it difficult for individuals and families to determine speed needs or retroactively adjust service plans. A bit of advance planning, plus a willingness to test slower speeds, can pay off in lower rates that can be sustained over the years.

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Asked 7 months ago
Updated 7 months ago
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