For the past eight years, I've been bouncing back and forth from one ISP to another, trying to find one that actually feels worth the load of money I pay for it.
I've used a variety of services from both of the main St. Louis area providers (AT&T and Charter Communications), and am testing Clear wireless (a new game in town, but one that's been around in Chicago and other larger cities for a year or more). I've paid anywhere from $15/month to $90/month (for Internet service alone—I've never participated in the 'Charter Bundle,' 'Uverse' or any voice/data/video bundles).
I'm going to go through the reasons why I've tried all the different services, and what I've liked—and hated—about each. As a prelude, I am still not pleased with the performance I've received from any of the providers (at least, not for what I'm paying/have paid!).
AT&T 'High Speed' DSL
I've tried AT&T's DSL service in three different parts of St. Louis: North county, the Central West End, and Shrewsbury. In all three areas, I've encountered the same problem—an unreliable connection.
I've been through many support calls, and in all cases, when a technician is sent out, he says the line signal is perfect. Go figure. I've used a few different modems, some rather expensive, and they've all exhibited these problems.
The unreliable connection is inconvenient, but the slow speeds are the worst part of the equation. You'd expect that, if you can purchase Uverse and get 24 Mbps, why is there no option for regular DSL at that speed... or Uverse with only Internet service? I'd be willing to pay for it, so that's not the issue... I just want raw speed.
So, I've always been limited to 6 Mbps down, and 1-2 Mbps up, which is acceptable, but can feel pretty slow sometimes. When the connection is live, the speed is always pretty stable, which is a plus.
AT&T's customer support is worse than abysmal, and getting an actual human on the phone or online is a bit of a challenge. When canceling my account (both times), I had a lot better support, and they were all but falling over themselves with flattery.
Charter Communications High Speed Internet
I've tried Charter Internet both in the Central West End and in Shrewsbury, and my experiences have varied quite dramatically. The first time I tried Charter, I cancelled after about three months, because no matter how many cables I tried, no matter how much I babied the modem, the connection would never remain stable—this was inside a large apartment complex.
The second time was/has been much improved, but is leaving a rather bad taste in my mouth. I'm getting 10 Mbps reliably (I used to be on the 20 Mbps plan, until they jacked the price up double what I was originally paying), and the connection only seems to drop out once every month.
I have two huge problems, though, with Charter:
- Their customer support—with the exception of support via Twitter (more on that in a sec)—is abysmal... and it's even more challenging to talk to a knowledgable person at Charter than it is at AT&T.
- Any time my connection is flaky or drops, they want to send a technician... and not today, but maybe a week or so from today. What the heck? I was paying for their most expensive Internet plan, and they wanted me to have a full 25% of a month without service? No thanks.
The redeeming grace of Charter (besides the speed, for which you pay) is their service via one of their Twitter accounts. They have a great service called Umatter2Charter, which is basically a team of Charter support staff who prowl Twitter for #Charter topics, and respond to customers with problems.
Just a few days ago, after having spent over an hour on the phone with a Charter support rep, unplugging and replugging my modem, turning on and off my computer (wowee, like that's going to help... I have a Mac! ;-), etc., a Twitter support rep took only 3 minutes to respond to my DM with "it looks like your line is having a pretty bad upstream SNR" (Signal to Noise Ratio). I moved the modem to another cable connection, and replace the cable, and voila! It worked again (but for how long...).
So, Charter—you have a great opportunity to impress me by making your support options over the phone or via live chat as good as your Twitter team. I'm literally *this close* to discontinuing my service. I might as well, since my price is through the roof.
Clear Wireless - 4G Wireless Service
Clear Wireless uses a new '4G' network, which is like the 3G I can get and share on my iPhone 4 using MyWi, but faster :-)
The service starts around $30-40/month, and I signed up for the simple personal hotspot, as I would like to use it not only around the house, but also at work, at friends' houses, etc.
The biggest issues with Clear is the fact that (a) they're a new game in town, and haven't yet proven themselves reliable/a good long-term solution, and (b) the signal is, at times, so finicky, that it can take longer to find a good spot for the modem than I actually need the signal.
In many buildings, the hotspot only works on one side of the building, so the signal coverage from cell towers is obviously not saturating like the 3G signal I get on my iPhone, which gives 3-5 bars almost anywhere I go (even inside thick concrete buildings).
At my condo, there's a little sweet spot on my window sill where I can reliably get 3-5 Mbps down, and the maximum 1 Mbps up, but getting power to the modem is a chore, since I have to run an extension cable over there (tacky, I know).
Once Clear gets more towers running, I think they'll be more able to compete with the reliability and speed (for the price) of Charter and AT&T. For now, the Clear spot is still a fun diversion for me. (In a few areas of St. Louis, I was getting 12 to 14 Mbps down!).
So, who am I sticking with?
Well, that's a funny question. I just ordered AT&T Elite DSL yesterday because they're running a special - $20/month for a year. I still have my Charter $65/month 10 Mbps Cable, and I have my 0-12 Mbps Clear hotspot sitting on my desk.
Here's my conclusion:
- Charter is the best option for pure speed and (maybe, depending on your neighborhood) reliability.
- AT&T is best if you want Uverse with TV, Phone and Internet (but who does that nowadays? TV? Either buy a $2 antenna and get it OTA, or watch things on Hulu). And buy a mobile phone.
- Clear is looking very promising—they just need more signal saturation, and a little better price. I'm cheering for them, but can't yet declare them a winner.