How to spot red flags when choosing an internet provider

Ari Howard

Jul 15, 2021 — 6 min read

What to look out for before committing to your ISP

Couple looking over paperwork for their internet service

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Whether or not you have a choice in internet providers in your area, it’s important you determine how transparent your internet service provider (ISP) is about the no-so-great aspects of their service. If you do have a choice between internet providers, you will want to factor in transparency when choosing which provider will be a better choice for you long-term.

Many ISPs will try to dodge your questions and stick to a script for selling you their services. ISPs tend to be particularly elusive about data caps, price increases, speed options, advertised vs. actual download and upload speeds and hidden fees, but that is the information you need to know the most. Here is what we learned about getting the answers you need and spotting your ISPs’ red flags from speaking with the sales members of multiple internet providers. 

Speed throttling and data caps 

Some ISPs will claim they offer unlimited data because they don’t charge an overage fee. However, unlimited data doesn’t always mean what you think it means. In many cases, ISPs will impose a “soft” data cap, which means they won’t charge you an overage fee for going over this data cap, but they will slow down your speeds (known as throttling) for the remainder of the month once you hit your data limit. 

Make sure you know what this data limit is and how much they will slow down your speeds. You will need to specifically ask your prospective ISP in what circumstances they throttle speeds and by how much. Many ISPs will want to focus on the fact they don’t charge overage fees so make sure you stick to your point and get answers about speed throttling. It will also help to find out from your sales rep how often current customers go over their data allowance and whether speed throttling varies by location. They may not always have this data, but try to see how much information you can get from them. 

If you have a choice of internet providers for your home, therefore, take note of which internet provider is more upfront about data caps and speed throttling. You don’t want to choose a provider that makes you feel like you have to beg for basic information about your service. 

Price increases 

Some of the most challenging questions to have answered by many ISPs are how much prices will increase, when this will happen and how frequently it will occur. Unless your speed plan is specifically labeled as Price For Life, you should expect a price increase at some point. Some providers will be upfront about the first price increase. Most price increases occur after the first 12 months and tend to be between a $10 and $20/mo. increase. However, other providers will be hesitant to answer questions about price increases because they don’t have a set increase; their increases are related to the market and what they think they can get away with. 

With providers like these you will need to be extremely pushy to get the answers you need. Instead of asking when your first price increase will occur and by how much, ask when is the first possible time you can expect a price increase and what is the maximum that price increase might be. Explain that you are trying to budget and need to know what you may need to prepare for, even if the price increase isn’t set. This will force them to say more than just “there are no planned price increases.” 

Also make sure you know how frequently you can expect a price increase. Most providers make it seem like there will be only one. This is rarely the case so you will need to ask whether there is a maximum they will ever charge for internet or if they will continue to increase your rates indefinitely. Also make it clear that you expect to be warned before a price increase. If a provider doesn’t want to make any guarantees about maximum price increases or price increase warnings, take that as a major red flag. 

Speed options 

Many people with Wi-Fi in their home don’t know which speed plan they have. Their ISP didn’t tell them there were various speed tiers to choose from and they just took whichever one their ISP offered them. Although sometimes there is only one speed plan available in an area, there are often a few to choose from. Make sure you know which speed plans your provider offers and ask about those plans if your provider doesn’t initially say it’s available to you. You don’t want to choose a faster speed plan than you need. 

Everything you need to know about internet speeds

Hidden fees 

One of the most common complaints customers have with their ISP is that they did not expect their first internet bill to be so expensive. There are often multiple fees ISPs charge, some monthly fees and other one-time fees that can make the first bill particularly expensive. If you are purchasing your own equipment, make sure your ISP knows to subtract the equipment fee from your bill. Although they should automatically do this, some ISPs still try to sneak in this additional monthly charge. You will want to be extremely vigilant when you receive your first internet bill to make sure they haven’t included anything else. If they have, you will want to raise this issue immediately and threaten to switch providers if that’s an option for you. 

Many customers assume that their ISP will tell them the exact price they will see on their first bill when checking out. In reality, however, ISPs often only disclose the advertised price when selling you their service and don’t include any additional fees. You will need to specifically ask, therefore, what else you should expect to pay

You should also ask if there are ways around certain charges. With many providers, you can get activation fees or installation fees waived if you purchase your service online instead of the phone. Have your ISP walk you through all the fees you can expect on your bill so you’re not blind-sided that first month. 

Advertised vs. actual download and upload speeds 

The final red flag you will want to look out for when selecting an internet provider is if your ISP isn’t upfront about what download and upload speeds you can expect. It’s important to know how much speeds can vary from what is listed as the speed plan. If you notice your speeds are below what they said you can expect, you have some leverage to get a better deal or to have your speed plan increased for free. Make sure you ask about both download and upload speeds so you know if your speeds are being throttled or if there is something wrong with your service. 

Notice the difference between how some ISPs answer your questions about advertised vs. actual internet speeds compared to others as well. This is particularly important to ask about if your internet service is DSL since DSL speeds often heavily depend on your neighbor’s internet consumption. The more upfront your ISP is about the degree to which internet speeds fluctuate and when you can expect faster or slower speeds, the better. 

Recap

For many, there is a lot of anxiety that comes with purchasing internet because it’s essential to have but confusing to fully understand. One of the reasons for this is that many ISPs avoid being up front about how much their service actually costs and talking about the downsides to their service. 

For this reason, you need to be on the lookout for red flags when an ISP is selling you their product. This will not only help you pick the best internet provider in your area, but also ensure you get the best deal with your chosen provider. Make sure you come prepared and are willing to be pushy in order to get all of your questions answered

Remember, the biggest red flag an ISP can have is if they continuously dodge your questions or offer you vague information about their service, leaving them room to take advantage of you in the future. 

One of the reasons this poor communication is able to persist is that most areas of the U.S. only offer one internet option, which means ISPs don’t have to worry about competing for business. It’s up to you, therefore, to stick up for yourself and get the answers you need about your service. And if you do have an option between two internet providers, it’s likely in your interest to go with the provider that you trust more. 

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Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari is an Associate Writer for the Allconnect team, focusing on broadband and wireless news, as well as broadband and TV provider deals. She recently graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor’s degree in… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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