It’s the Catch-22 of cord-cutting: how do you cut the cord when your internet comes through, well, a cord? Typically, when we talk about cutting the cord, we’re specifically referring to the cable TV cord.
Turns out, there are many non-cable ways to get your internet — and some don’t even involve cords at all! The question is, which are available to you and meet your needs?
Table Of Contents
Internet Without Cable: Overview
We’ll explore each of these options and more below, plus provider choices for each type, but broadly, this is what you’re looking at for home internet service in the US:
- Fixed wireless
- 5G/4G home wireless
How do these stack up? Fiber-optic is the best, hands-down, no contest. Unfortunately, it’s also the least available, because laying optic cable is expensive. Coverage will grow, but it will take time. Fiber also tends to be more expensive, but if you can afford it and it’s available, you should go for it.
Cable and DSL come next. DSL can be as fast as cable, but is normally slower in practical terms. Because DSL runs on telephone wires already installed decades ago pretty much everywhere in the US, it covers more households. Both generally offer speeds that are more than capable of streaming video.
If you’re farther away from your provider’s hub, fixed wireless or home wireless services will likely be faster and more reliable than DSL. And if you have access to nothing else, you can pay an arm and a leg for satellite service with uncertain performance.
Kinds of ISPs
Let’s go over the main kinds of internet service providers.
Along with DSL (see below), this is the most common form of residential broadband internet access. It relies on the same cables that deliver your cable TV service.
- Well-established, stable technology
- Fast speeds
- Most homes are usually already wired for it
- Lower speeds during peak usage
- Locked-in contracts and lack of flexibility
DSL (which stands for Digital Subscriber Line) is like cable but uses telephone lines instead of coaxial cables.
- Widely available
- Isn’t adversely affected by network traffic
- Generally cheaper than cable
- Lower speeds
- Service quality decreases over distance from provider
- Susceptible to weather interruptions
Instead of cable (copper coaxial cables) or DSL (copper telephone wires), fiber optics (or “fiber” for short) use glass threads slightly thicker than a human hair to transmit data via light pulses (instead of electric pulses).
- Super-fast symmetrical speeds
- Current providers do not use annual contracts
- Service not affected by weather
- Limited availability
A higher-speed rural option than DSL, service is distributed from a hub to an antenna receiver installed at a business or home.
- Doesn’t require physical lines
- Faster than DSL
- Usually supporting a local company
- Must be within 10 miles of the access point
- Needs line of sight to the access point
- More expensive than DSL
Cosmic internet beamed down to your reception dish from a satellite orbiting Earth. Far out, man.
- Available when other forms (cable, DSL, fiber-optic) are not
- New LEO satellites have potential to improve quality
- Faster than dial-up
- High latency and slow upstream
- Data restrictions
- Won’t work well with a VPN
Personal Mobile Hotspots
This is where you have your mobile phone or tablet with a cellular data plan perform a Vulcan Mind Meld on another nearby wireless device (or devices) to provide internet access.
- Portable and easy to set up
- Mobile data plan consolidation
- Always in your pocket!
- Risk of data plan overages
- Eats battery life
- Lower speeds
Unlike fixed wireless, which sends a targeted signal to your receiver, home wireless uses the same ambient LTE 4G/5G cellular tower network as your phone to provide you with internet, without draining your phone battery or taxing your data plan.
- Works anywhere that has cell tower coverage
- Supports more devices than a personal hotspot
- Faster than DSL or satellite
- Slower than cable or fiber
- Only as reliable as your cellular signal
- Expensive, and data is capped
This is wireless internet provided for you by a third party, either as a free service or for a fee. This is the kind of internet you find in libraries, cafes, and airports.
- Gives your data plan a break from the heavy lifting
- Your non-data wifi devices get to be more than paperweights
- Often free (especially if you’re patronizing the business)
- Requires leaving the comfort of home
- If there’s a fee, it’ll be eye-popping
- Free service often slow and/or spotty
Now we’ll look at the specific internet service providers you can use.
Cable. Yeah, that’s right, we said it: cable. You might think we’re splitting hairs here (and maybe we are), but there is a difference between cable TV and cable internet. Typically, when we talk about cord-cutting, we’re specifically talking about cable TV
As this article explains, you may have other options. But if cable is the best value option, you shouldn’t suffer expensive and poor-quality internet on principle. Depending on where you live, you may have both cable and DSL as options, with the possibility to upgrade to fiber. But if you’re a little farther out from a DSL hub, cable is faster, without the limitations of fixed wireless and all the many downsides of satellite.
Cable is highly regional, but here are the 4 providers that cover over 10 million people in the US:
- Xfinity: Comcast’s cable TV, phone, wireless, and internet services brand since 2010, and the largest cable company in the US. Xfinity Cable Internet starts at $60/mo for the first two years and then $80/mo after that, without any discounts, deals, bundles, or commitments. But you can get it as low as $19.99/mo for at least a year. Xfinity covers over 100 million Americans and offers fiber in some areas. (Check availability)
- Spectrum: In 2016, Charter Communications bought out Time Warner Cable and Bright House Network and renamed the new entity “Spectrum.” Service starts at $74.99/mo, without any fancy stuff, but you can get it down to $39.99/mo for 2 years with various deals and discounts. Spectrum offers free equipment and unlimited data. It covers over 100 million people across the US. (Check availability)
- Cox Communications: Cox gives lots of options, at least five or six speed-based internet plans, starting at $39.99/mo for at least a year, and $54.99/mo after, before discounts and offers. Cox covers almost 21 million, mostly throughout the Midwest and Southwest. It also provides fiber-optic. (Check availability)
- Optimum by Altice: Formerly Cablevision, Optimum is Altice’s contract-free, unlimited data cable plan starting at $34.99 with various deals and discounts. It covers almost 12 million people in the Northeast, plus one county in North Carolina, and also offers fiber. (Check availability)
Being carried on traditional phone landlines, DSL is widely available. Typically you have to get it from a phone company, but it doesn’t (usually) have to be the same company that provides your phone service. They’ll try hard to convince you it should, though.
There are 5 major providers of DSL (defined as covering more than 10 million people) in the US. Here are some details on each:
- AT&T Internet: Technically a hybrid DSL-fiber connection (AT&T’s site will tell you it doesn’t offer DSL anymore), speeds range from 25 to 100 Mbps starting at $55/mo with no annual contract. AT&T internet offerings, available to over 121 million folks in at least 21 states, also include fiber-optic and fixed wireless services. (Check availability)
- EarthLink DSL: Earthlink is the most widely available by land area, and has DSL plans up to 15 Mbps starting at $49.99/mo. Its range covers over 99 million people in 36 states and also offers fiber, 5G home wireless, and satellite service. (Check availability)
- Verizon High Speed Internet: Verizon is best known for its FIOS (FIber Optic Service) network, but it also offers DSL on the East Coast from New England down to Virginia. Plans start at $39.99/mo for up to 15 Mbps and unlimited data. You can also get streaming TV. (Check availability)
- CenturyLink Simply Unlimited DSL Internet: CenturyLink targets rural customers, so it makes sense DSL is one of its top products. CenturyLink keeps it simple with one DSL plan, $50/mo for speeds up to 100 Mbps — no contracts, promo rates, data caps, or other nonsense. CenturyLink also offers a fiber plan in select areas in all fifty states. (Check availability)
- Kinetic by Windstream/DSL: Windstream is another outfit aimed at folks outside cities — in suburbs and points farther. It offers both a very popular hybrid fiber-DSL service called Kinetic and a more traditional DSL service with wider rural availability. Service plans start at around $30/mo for speeds up to 100 Mbps, though monthly prices vary widely by location. Like CenturyLink, it’s also available in all 50 states, but its operations are centered on the Midwest and Eastern US, and it also provides fiber-optic, cable, and fixed wireless internet services. (Check availability)
Fiber-optic is a relatively new technology, and so its reach is much more limited than any of the other forms of internet connection we’ve listed here. There are four major players (over 10 million covered population) currently in the fiber game, and their names will look familiar if you were just looking at the previous section on DSL. Here’s the 411 on major fiber providers and plans:
- AT&T Fiber: AT&T’s fiber network covers over 38 million, mostly in major cities in Arkansas, Alabama, and California. All plans regardless of technology or speed start at $55/mo, with Fiber offering up to 5 Gpbs (that’s Gigabits per second, or 5,000 Mbps) and unlimited data. AT&T also offers DSL and fixed wireless services. (Check availability)
- Verizon FIOS: Verizon is known for its FIOS network, which is available mainly in metro population centers on the Eastern Seaboard. Plans range from 300 Mbps for $39.99/mo to 1 Gbps for $89.99/mo. All include unlimited data. Verizon DSL is often available in the areas of this region where FIOS doesn’t reach. (Check availability)
- EarthLink HyperLink: Earthlink is the 2nd biggest fiber provider by coverage area. Fiber plans start at the same price point as DSL, $59.99/mo. The ISP also offers DSL, cellular home wireless, and satellite service. (Check availability)
- CenturyLink Fiber Gigabit: CenturyLink’s fiber service is one of the cheapest around if it’s in your area. It’s just $65/mo for 1 Gpbs. CenturyLink also offers a more widely available DSL service. (Check availability)
- Google Fiber: This is a great service at a good price. The problem is that it is not widely available and it doesn’t seem to be growing. But if it is available where you live, you should consider it. (Check availability)
Fixed wireless is gradually evolving into cellular wireless, which has fewer limitations. However, without 100% LTE coverage across the country, there will still be areas that may be better served by traditional fixed wireless.
Fixed wireless tends to be a locally owned-and-operated business. Here are a few of the bigger providers are:
- Rise Broadband: Rise operates largely throughout the Midwest, Texas, and the Rockies, with its top regions being Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Colorado Springs. Its fixed wireless service runs up to 50 Mbps for $25/mo, or $55/mo for unlimited data. (Check availability)
- Etheric Networks: Etheric serves the Bay Area of California, and provides custom, high-performing fixed wireless service. Despite its high costs ($100-140/mo or more, plus installation), its customers rave about it. Etheric also provides fiber where available. (Check availability)
- AT&T Internet: AT&T once again keeping it simple: $69.99/mo, with speeds up to 10 Mbps and a 350 GB data cap. AT&T also offers DSL and fiber-optic, depending on location. (Check availability)
- Starry Internet: Starry Internet is a rising star going head-to-head with the big guys like Verizon and AT&T. It specializes in apartment buildings and public housing, and its signature plan, Starry Plus, is $50/mo for 200 Mbps. (Check availability)
Cellular Home Wireless
Available wherever you can get a cell connection, which turns out to be pretty good availability.
- T-Mobile 5G Home Internet: T-Mobile regularly bills itself as the largest 5G network, and now it’s making good. Covering 30 million households, its plan is $50/mo for up to 182 Mbps and unlimited data. (Check availability)
- Earthlink 5G Home Internet: Plans start at $64.95/mo for 50 GB of data. For reference, HD video streaming uses about 3 GB per hour. Earthlink also offers DSL and satellite. (Check availability)
It’s unfortunate that satellite, the last option for many in rural areas with no other options, does not itself offer many provider choices.
- HughesNet: HughesNet offers fairly consistent 25 Mbps starting at $64.99/mo for 15 GB/mo of data. Plans cap out at $159.99/mo for 75 GB. Requires a 2-year contract, $99 installation, and $14.99/mo equipment rental or $450 one-time purchase. (Check availability)
- Viasat: Viasat has a bit more versatility in plans, with higher data caps and a max speed of 100 Mbps. Plans start at $69.99/mo for 40 GB. (Check availability)
- Starlink: Owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink is experimenting with low-earth-orbit satellites to bring satellite service more in line with terrestrial ISPs, without sacrificing the near-universal coverage of satellites. Bleeding-edge tech isn’t cheap, though. Service costs $99/mo for 200 Mbps or $500/mo for 500 Mbps, with up-front equipment costs of $500 and $2,500 (not a typo) respectively. But there are currently no data caps. (Check availability)
Considerations When Choosing an Internet Provider
Depending on where you are located, some of these considerations may swamp all the others. But if you can, you should consider them all.
Obviously a big one. You can’t get a service that just isn’t offered in your area. This is a particularly big factor at the extremes: fiber-optic (which is limited pretty much to cities currently) and satellite (which is typically considered the ISP of last resort, because the biggest thing it has going for it is that it’s available pretty much anywhere).
Generally speaking, the higher the speed, the higher the price. Service is usually offered in tiered plans offering incrementally higher speeds for incrementally higher monthly fees. Most telecom companies that offer internet also deal in TV and phone service, with discounts for bundling two or more services. Don’t be pressured into getting phone or TV service you don’t want or need.
Beware of introductory deals! If a company is advertising a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Check for any asterisks or fine print. Or if you’re talking to a rep, ask what the catch is. Often you’ll be locked into an annual (or even 2-year) contract, but the low introductory rate that lured you in is only for the first 1-3 months. Always find out the regular price, when it kicks in, and what your options are at that point.
Also look out for hidden fees. The company advertises a price, but by the time you add in all the taxes and communications fees, plus whatever “service fees” it adds on, plus any equipment rental fees (see below), it’s way over that. Always ask for an estimate of what your total bill will be, and prepare to hold the ISP to that.
Bandwidth for modern internet connections is measured in Mbps (megabits per second).
Here’s a breakdown of typical maximum speeds by ISP type:
|Fixed Wireless||100 Mbps|
Wifi hotspots can vary wildly, depending on who’s providing them and how much they — or you — are paying. A mobile personal hotspot or home wireless depends on your data plan, network coverage, and your connection strength at that particular point in space-time.
There are two main considerations when it comes to speed: what you are going to be using your internet for and how many people (and devices) are going to be using it at any given moment. Getting stuck on tvtropes.org for hours or checking Facebook is only 3-5 Mbps (5-10 Mbsp if you don’t want your gifs to lag). But if you want to participate in a Zoom sales meeting or have a conversation with your Grandma on Skype, you’ll need more like 10 to 20 Mbps.
This speed will also cover HD 1080p video streaming. Playing a seamless match of Fortnite, Call of Duty, or The Division needs 25-35 Mbps. And streaming video in glorious 4K deserves 35 Mbps.
One hundred Mbps sounds like plenty, right? That’s where the number of people using it comes in. Consider a family:
- Mom and dad are watching a video (10-20 Mbps)
- One kid is streaming on the iPad (10-20 Mbps)
- Another kid is playing a multiplayer game on the PC (25-35 Mbps)
- Dad’s checking Twitter every few minutes (10 Mbps)
- Mom’s chatting with a friend on WhatsApp (10 Mbps).
That’s 65-95 Mbps — bumping up against that 100 Mbps limit. Remember, too, that’s a maximum under best conditions — chances are your average speed will run a bit below that.
A further concern is upstream versus downstream. Think of your internet like a major highway running in and out of your home. Downstream would be the homebound traffic, and that’s the speed you’ll see paraded around by the ISP in its ads. It’s the speed that you can download stuff at, and years ago it used to be most of what you needed.
But the internet has become steadily more interactive over the years, and that’s why you need to take upstream into account as well. Upstream is all the traffic going out of your home and back to the internet, the things you’re uploading. Even if you’re not explicitly sending files or attachments, anything you do online that involves “streaming” requires a constant back-and-forth between your machine and the streaming provider.
This is even more true for video conferencing or video games. If you’ve got heavy gamers in the household, or you do a lot of video meetings, you’ll want a robust upstream.
A symmetrical connection is one where the upstream is the same as the downstream. Asymmetrical connections tend to have pretty abysmal upstream speeds, and that’s why Grandma keeps asking you to repeat yourself when you Skype with her. You look fine to yourself, but to her, you’re a mush-mouthed, lagging blob of pixels out of sync with your audio.
Latency is the length of time it takes data to go from point A to point B. There are a lot of factors that can affect latency, including distance and equipment, and it’s endemic to some flavors of internet, like satellite.
It’s particularly noticeable while gaming (“lag” being the bane of online gamers everywhere), but all internet use will be slower with high latency, regardless of bandwidth.
Data caps set a limit on the amount of total data you can transfer. If you go above this, you either get charged extra or see your speed greatly reduced (throttling). This used to be a lot more common, but it’s mostly seen these days with extremely low-cost plans or internet service types that only have so much to go around (satellite).
Unlimited data is best, of course, but if it’s not available (or affordable), make sure you set your cap as high as you can. Going over is either prohibitively expensive or means slow (or even no) internet for anyone in the house for the rest of the billing period.
Because of data caps, satellite internet is usually not an option for streamers. Although Starlink currently has no cap (but it’s very expensive).
Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some other less critical considerations that you should still be aware of:
- Installation fees: You seriously do not need to pay $50 (or more!) and take half a day off work for some dude to come out and plug a few cables in. Trust us. But if they insist, make sure you find out how much this “one-time fee” will set you back.
- Equipment costs: This depends on your tech ability and network usage. If you’re just poking around Twitter or sending your dad email chain letters, the router your ISP provides is fine, just make sure you find out the rental price (it should be $10 or less — modems and routers only cost $50 – $100 to buy). If you are pretty tech-savvy and you belong to a household full of gamers, you’ll want to buy a more heavy-duty router to help manage the traffic.
- Customer support: Telecoms used to be notorious for this, but many have been trying to turn that stereotype around. Some, of course, have had more success than others. Be careful of customer reviews. Every company has horror stories. Look for reputable consumer comparison sites like Consumer Reports and see how the different companies rate.
- Cancellation: The Mafia has nothing on telecom companies. The only thing harder to cancel is a print subscription to a major newspaper, and that’s only because it’s cheaper. Make sure you clearly understand the minimum period you’re signing up for, what it will cost you to cancel early, any other consequences for canceling (like equipment financing fees, for example), and if you will have to talk to a service rep to cancel.
Choosing an ISP can be really overwhelming. Our advice is to decide how much you can afford to spend per month. Then make a list of the ISPs that serve your home. Now eliminate the ones that are too expensive, and choose the best one that’s left.
Or just figure out directions to the nearest public library (at least it will be quiet) or cafe with wifi (treat yourself to a latte) and head there. But you might want to invest in a VPN before you do so!
Do I need cable to get internet?
You probably do not need cable to get internet. What kind of internet you can get is largely determined by your location. Some kinds, like DSL, are available almost everywhere (everyone has phone lines). And some are newer and not as prevalent (fiber-optics). But while it’s possible that cable is your only option for high-speed internet, it’s unlikely. See above for details on the different types of ISPs and pros and cons for each.
Should I bundle services?
Bundling is up to you, but what you shouldn’t do is let a sales rep convince you that a bundle is such an amazing deal you’d be a fool to pass it up. The greatest deal in the world isn’t a great deal for you if it’s for something you don’t even use. Don’t be distracted by the “savings.” Ask for your total bill with it and without it and make your decision from there.
Do I need a landline to get internet?
You do not need a landline phone number to get internet. Some kinds of ISPs — DSL and fiber optic — require a phone jack to connect the modem or router, but the vast majority of homes in the US are wired for telephone, whether you currently use it or not, so that shouldn’t be a problem. You do not need a phone line like old-fashioned dial-up internet did back in the Dark Ages.
Why not just get satellite internet?
Satellite internet is currently the worst of all options. You will pay through the nose for a paltry monthly data allowance, terrible lag, and unimpressive speeds your grandmother wouldn’t put up with. Why would anyone do that? Because there are some areas where you have no other options for high-speed internet.
What is BroadbandNow?
BroadbandNow is a website that allows you to enter your Zip Code and returns the internet service providers in your area. Its only checks by Zip Code, however, and thus you will tend to get a list of services that is much bigger than you will have available. But it is a decent place to start your search.
What internet speed do I need to watch Netflix?
According to Netflix, you need the following speeds to watch its content:
- SD: 1 Mbps
- 720p: 3 Mbps
- 1080: 5 Mbps
- 4K: 15 Mbps.
Be we consider these minimums. You will generally want double these values. FuboTV, for example, recommends at least the following for streaming with its service:
- SD: 3 Mbps
- 720p: 7 Mbps
- 1080: 10 Mbps
- 4K: 25 Mbps.
Remember, you need your service to maintain these values. If your ISP maxes out at 25 Mbps, you will find streaming 4K video frustrating.
Internet Without Cable
For a long time, we’ve been grappling with the issues that affect cord-cutters. Here are some of our best guides for getting internet without cable:
Most cable companies offer internet-only services:
There are also independent service providers like Frontier. See the article above for more detailed information.