Q: How do I choose an internet provider for my home?
A: The first question is "can I get service at my house?" If the answer is yes, then the next criteria is speed of the service. If you are happy with the performance, then the next criteria might be price. And, layered over all this is reliability.
Q: What service can I get at my house?
A: If you are in a rural area, you usually have two types of service from which to choose - private microwave service from InterMax and service from either one of two satellite service providers - HughesNet or Wild Blue. In the more densely populated areas like Coeur d'Alene, Hayden, Post Falls, or Rathdrum, you might be able to buy DSL service from the phone company (Verizon), or cable data service from the cable TV supplier (Time Warner).
Both DSL and the cable service are absolutely "location specific" to populated areas. Some cell phone companies are also promoting "broadband cards" for your laptop. This service runs on the cell phone network and offers at best the same reliability as your cell phone. Think about how you have come to tolerate dropped calls and service "holes" with your cell phone. That quality of service may not be suitable for your internet connection.
Satellite service - HughesNet and Wild Blue - this is a connection to a satellite 22,000 miles out in space much like a TV satellite connection. It is a satisfactory alternative for TV because the signal just comes down to your house in a stream and time delays caused by distance don't matter. In the internet use of this technology, the signal begins as an inquiry from your computer, goes up 22,000 miles to the satellite, is processed by the computers in the satellite, then goes down to earth another 22,000 miles with your inquiry. Then your inquiry goes over the earthbound internet system to get your answer, then back over the earth system to the outbound satellite system, then up 22,000 miles to the satellite, processed there again, then down 22,000 miles to your computer. Whew... are you tired yet? It is like driving to Spokane via Los Angeles. So while the service is slow, and is sometimes sporadic, it is faster than dialup and if it is all you can get, it becomes your best choice.
Q: OK, what do I consider next?
A: The speed you need depends on how you use the internet connection. Most internet uses have a lot of graphics (color, shapes, pictures, etc) so dial up service is not very satisfactory. If you use the web for shopping, business, homework, searching, exchanging photographs of grandchildren, etc. then you need a "broadband" connection. That means you need a fast "high-speed" connection.
Q: What do those numbers mean?
A: Bandwidth numbers mean speed. That translates to how fast messages and images can reach your computer and how fast they can go out. The first number is usually the incoming speed (called download speed) and the second number is outgoing speed (called upload speed). The common measure is bps (bits per second). Dial up service is often quoted at 52k bps (52,000 bits per second) but often runs at 28.8 kbps. Faster service is dimensioned as Mbps (million bits per second). 1 Mbps is sometimes called "one meg" which is short for one megabit per second. Good service for a residence is higher than one meg. Slower works for many uses but falls short for large file handling, very slow for downloading photographs from email or video data. Among the list of suppliers the fastest are the Intermax private microwave service and in some locations (but not all), the cable company service. Dial up phone connections usually run at 33k, a speed possible for short email messages but woefully inadequate for almost everything else.
Q: How do I decide what to believe?
A: There are lots of advertising claims out there - some believable and some are a real stretch. Most of the national companies advertise their maximum speeds and most of them have weasel words in the fine print about "no guarantees about speed". Most connections don't achieve the advertised speeds; some less than half of the advertised. Be aware that most speed claims are download speeds and the ads are silent about upload speeds. Most networks are biased to the download side so the upload is usually much slower. So, be skeptical about the speed claims.
Q: What kind of customer service can I expect?
A: When you subscribe to a big, national company, your call probably goes to their national call center. Hopefully you get someone who cares about you. You probably never get the same person twice. Sometimes they have a heavy accent, sometimes they are in India. Most of the answers follow a script book. That is, the customer service rep types your question into their computer, then reads you the answer. That way less experienced people can be hired to answer questions. Local companies answer their own phones and you talk to someone who lives here and usually you reach the same person if you have to call back.
Q: What are the ranges of price?
A: The cheapest advertised prices are usually from the phone company DSL service - Quest (Spokane only) and Verizon in the urban areas. Often they are in the $30/mo range but that doesn't include the fees and taxes. All costs included, the price usually winds up $35 to $40 per month. The cable companies - Comcast in Spokane and Time Warner in Coeur d'Alene compete head to head with the phone companies so it is a dogfight on price claims and promotion "specials". Many of them offer a short time of a low price and then the service quietly goes to their regular (higher) monthly rate.
Rural service requires more equipment, the customers are far apart and it costs more. The range of price goes from $49/mo for slower service, $59/mo for the best value on price vs speed, both from the private microwave suppliers. The satellite services are often $10 to $20/mo more.
Q: What about installation charges?
A: Rural service usually requires equipment at your house. The install cost ranges from $299 to $500 or even $1,000 in some cases, depending on the complexity of the install. Intermax installations are almost always $299, with some exceptions for homeowner-requested accommodations.
Q: Who fixes it when it doesn't work?
A: All the suppliers will usually fix whatever is wrong with getting the internet signal to your house. Problems with your computer or your wireless network within your house will need to be fixed by your computer service company or dealer.
Q: I still don't feel confident with this shopping problem.
A: Call a local supplier and talk through your questions.