Rich Warren | Window shopping for internet connection Science-technology

Imagine choosing your water supplier. Instead of being restricted to Illinois American Water, you could select among a handful of companies offering to pipe water to your home. Further, try to envision them tearing up the streets so each could lay its own mains to your block. Even more fascinating, conceive that each water company pumped from basically the same aquifer, with the main difference being water pressure and price.

That’s a near-perfect analogy for internet connectivity in Champaign-Urbana and environs. It wasn’t long ago that the franchised cable or phone company provided your only connection to the internet. Prices were high with frustrating customer service.

A flood of federal money has recently poured into smaller cities and rural areas enabling new internet service providers to compete with entrenched (in this case, quite literally) ISPs. Thus, many residents can now choose among multiple ISPs, offering varying prices, speeds, reliability, customer service and quantity of data. It absolutely pays to shop around for your internet connection. Always read the fine print before signing on the dotted line.

Now people realize they no longer need the programming packages supplied by cable and satellite. You can pick and choose the internet streaming services you want or select bundles from Hulu, YouTube and others. With various streaming sticks such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV as well as smart TVs, viewing from the internet is every bit as easy and convenient as with cable or satellite.

Mediacom (now marketing under the Xstream name) owned a near-monopoly on my block for decades, with Frontier coming in a distant second. Mediacom, not always reliable, offered the worst customer service while being ridiculously expensive. Even if you saw a broken cable, you had to deal with a clueless person in India. Frontier’s internet speeds were so slow, it seemed like earthworms could deliver data faster.

Two years ago, in a flurry of activity, CCG / Pavlov burrowed fiber-optic cable through faster than a mole on meth, closely pursued by Volo. More recently, Mediacom and Frontier upped their game with new coax and fiber cables. Inherently fast fiber offers little incentive for companies to market different speeds, so 1 gig (1,000 megabits per second) became the de facto speed for CCG and Volo. They vary on the quantity of data for which you are charged. CCG and Volo run fiber right into your home, while Mediacom and Frontier still mainly rely on coax for the final leg. The more fiber, the better.

Most surprisingly, wide variances in pricing differentiate these companies. On my block, Volo charged about two-thirds of what CCG charged. CCG charged about half of what Mediacom charged for high-speed connections.

While Volo doesn’t always deliver the promised 1 gig speeds, its impressive reliability and customer service compensate.

This from a reader: “I thought you might be interested in looking at this document. Champaign County is looking at a broadband project for the rural areas. If you recall, we had a conversation a little over a year ago about trying to get internet up at my place north of Mahomet. We have since gotten Volo installed, and it has been pretty reliable. ”

The report to which the reader refers (prepared by CCG) opens with, “There is a big disparity in the county between broadband speeds in towns and cities and speeds in rural areas. The best visual demonstration of this is the map created from the survey conducted by the Farm Bureau that shows broadband speeds dropping at the outskirts of every city. ” To read the entire report, which is quite interesting, go to tinyurl.com/mr28khrc.

At the moment, rural internet resembles the old original “Lassie” TV show where they had to hand-crank the phone to make a call. There’s no excuse for the lack of rural broadband in the second fifth of the 21st century.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at [email protected]

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