We asked readers to rate their Internet Service Provider based on price, performance, reliability and support. Here are the results for one of the country's oldest communications companies: AT&T.
Last month, we reached out to our community, asking readers to tell us what they thought about their Internet service providers (ISPs) in a survey rating price, performance, reliability and customer service. We have the results, and it's time to reveal your ISP ratings with our Tom's Hardware ISP Review!
Our survey garnered over 3100 results, with 271 votes reviewing AT&T. We arrived at our scores by calculating an average from the total score for each individual ISP and category using a one- to five-star rating, rounding to the nearest ¼ star. However, we also provide the mathematical average of each ISP’s survey results, for the sake of comparison later. It may become a very close race to see which ISP provides the best service.
The first company we're looking at is a mainstay in the communications industry with more than 130 years in the business. That makes it older than any of the other companies we are reviewing. That impressive claim is true...technically. However, the AT&T we know today isn't the same organization now as it was more than a century ago.
The American Telephone and Telegraph Co. began as the Bell Patent Association, a legal entity created in 1874 with the goal of protecting the patent rights of the telephone system's inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. The company was formalized in 1877 and dubbed the Bell Telephone Co. Five years later, a project known as "AT&T Long Lines," the first of its kind, was commissioned to create a nationwide communication network with a viable cost structure. The project was incorporated into a new company in New York state in 1885.
AT&T developed and maintained a monopoly on phone services in the United States and Canada throughout most of the 20th century by buying up small communications companies and making a pact with the government to maintain that monopoly status legally. That's not the greatest (or fairest) way of doing business, and in 1984, the massive communications giant was broken up into seven regional companies, referred to as the "Baby Bells."
Between 1996 and 2006, a company called SBC Communications (which itself was originally Southwestern Bell Corp., one of the seven companies created from the break-up) acquired four of the seven regional Baby Bell companies, and reincorporated as AT&T Inc. in 2005.
When AT&T was considered a monopoly, the government had to step in and break it into seven companies. But rejoining five of them under a new name seems to be fine for now. The company thrives today, boasting an impressive 12.2 million "U-verse" high-speed Internet customers, warranting its spot in our review.
Although AT&T is starting to offer fiber-optic Internet service in some regions, it is not widely available yet, and the majority of AT&T's customer base (and our surveyed readers) seem to be using its affordable U-Verse DSL options, offering varying plans with speeds from 1.5 Mb/s to 45 Mb/s.
(Per Month, Non Promotional)
|Primary Service |
|1.5, 3, 6, 12, 18, 24, 45||$25, $30, $35, $40, $45, $55, $65||AL, AR, CA, FL, GA, IL, IN, KA, KE, NC, NV, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, WS||DSL|
Pricing: 2 ¼ Stars
Unfortunately, our efforts to contact each ISP about their "just for Internet" and "after promotional rate" pricing ended with disappointment. Most websites insist that you input a valid address to determine if they can even provide you with service before revealing what you'll pay, and direct calls/emails to non-sales representatives yielded few results.
However, after much digging (and providing the address of a friend who was in a serviceable region), I found a page buried in AT&T's website detailing the different tiers and individual pricing for all of its Internet plans. Not all of these plans are available everywhere AT&T Internet service is offered. Below are AT&T's complete DSL Internet service offerings, with unbundled pricing and terms:
|AT&T DSL Plans||Speed||Promotional Rate Term||Minimum Contract Term||Stand-Alone Price||Price to Performance|
|Express Internet||Up to 1.5 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$25/month||$16.66 per Mb/s|
|Pro Internet||Up to 3 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$30/month||$10 per Mb/s|
|Elite Internet||Up to 6 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$35/month||$5.83 per Mb/s|
|Max Internet||Up to 12 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$40/month||$3.33 per Mb/s|
|Max Plus Internet||Up to 18 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$45/month||$2.50 per Mb/s|
|Max Turbo Internet||Up to 24 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$55/month||$2.29 per Mb/s|
|Power 45 Internet||Up to 45 Mb/s||12 Months||12 Months||$65/month||$1.44 per Mb/s|
Our readers were quick to point out their disappointment in the price-to-performance ratio of AT&T's DSL Internet service, with our survey results showing AT&T with a mediocre 2 ¼ (2.32, actual average) stars on a scale of five stars for pricing, and only 2 ½ stars (2.54) for performance. With only a few dollars separating each plan's modest bandwidth, a standalone bid for monthly Internet service doesn't seem like a great offering.
Performance: 2 ½ Stars
Further disappointing customers, the price-to-performance ratio is staggering, topping out at over $16 per 1 Mb/s for basic Internet purchased by itself, explaining the 2 ¼-star price rating and 2 ½- star performance grade, with some of our surveyed readers describing the service as "low-speed and high-priced compared to competition," and having "exorbitant pricing for low DSL speeds." If that’s not bad enough, AT&T caps every plan at 250GB of data each month, with no clear documentation on the pricing of overage fees.
However, if you are lucky enough to have access to AT&T's Power 45 Internet service, the 45 Mb/s for $65 per month rate brings that ratio to a much more reasonable $1.44 cents per Mb/s, per month. Unfortunately, not many surveyed readers indicated they had access to this service, but it should be noted those users generally rated the price and performance of AT&T’s best offering above three stars.
Pricing for these DSL offerings are only slightly lower than the average cable Internet deals, with speeds nowhere in the ballpark of a cable connection. Why are so many people paying so much for less?
It's all about availability. AT&T is more accessible where some mainstream cable and fiber services aren't. Most of our surveyed readers who rated pricing at three stars or lower complained that it was the best they could get, with one respondent explaining, "It is just an average ISP [out of] very few available in my area." It should be no surprise that performance was rated the least-important factor when choosing an ISP by our surveyed AT&T users, as most seem complacent to pay for these services when there aren't many other options.
On a positive note, the promotional rates are the same length as the contract. Customers can choose to cancel their service after the promotion expires without getting slammed with a termination fee or being forced to pay higher prices for the same services for another year (like many ISPs).
Reliability: 3 ¼ Stars
Some of our readers were once again harsh with AT&T for its reliability, citing frequent outages and less-than-advertised speeds. However, at 3 ¼ (3.17) stars out of five, reliability was the company’s highest-rated category from our survey.
Overall, the latest FCC study on ISP reliability shows that the majority of DSL service providers fall a little short of advertised download speeds, with AT&T performing as low as 79 percent of advertised speeds on its lowest plan. However, this improves as the bandwidth goes up, and even shows that customers on the Max Plus (18 Mb/s) plan enjoyed slightly higher speeds than advertised. Here's what the 2014 report, titled "Measuring Broadband America," found:
|Actual Sustained |
|Express Internet||1.5 Mb/s||1.18 Mb/s||79%|
|Pro Internet||3 Mb/s||2.52 Mb/s||84%|
|Elite Internet||6 Mb/s||5.56 Mb/s||93%|
|Max Internet||12 Mb/s||11.63 Mb/s||97%|
|Max Plus Internet||18 Mb/s||19.25 Mb/s||107%|
|Max Turbo Internet||24 Mb/s||23.20 Mb/s||97%|
This study is slightly dated, with the information collected in September 2013 and not published until October 2014, so it isn't necessarily indicative of current performance levels. However, it does provide a base data set to compare with, and it illustrates a slight peak bandwidth loss for the majority of plans and speeds (except for the 18 Mb/s option). DSL may occasionally suffer from these kinds of bandwidth losses depending on your distance from the central office, as we noted in our ISP review launch.
Downtimes don't appear to be a measurable statistic for ISPs (at least not from reputable sources we can cite), with the Federal Communications Commission ambiguously leaving out any data of that nature in its report. However, this shouldn't be a surprise because there isn't really a way to fairly judge an ISP's dependability based on downtime and uptime.
Downtimes are caused by a variety of factors, and are often isolated to either individual homes or areas, making it difficult to gather data on the frequency, length and reach of such outages. Furthermore, how would user error (we all know a guy that blamed the ISP for weeks about a modem he mistakenly plugged into the wrong port) be fairly applied to data of this nature? Without a truly unbiased way to measure outages, it would be difficult to put a grade on it.
That's not to say this isn't an important factor; at one point or another we've all watched that blinking LED, wondering when our connection would spring back to life. Some of our readers certainly were not shy in their disapproval for AT&T's downtime, with one commenting that "overall service is spotty at best, with frequent line drops," and another stating "I can't remember ever thinking 'what a fast, reliable connection I have.' In fact, as I was doing this, my Internet dropped for a few moments."
However, the majority of our surveyed readers rated the reliability offered by AT&T as quite high, with one reader noting its dependability. "AT&T is consistent, and that is ultimately what I demand for my day-to-day life." Others were not fans of the pricing or performance, but had to admit that reliability was exceptional. "It’s reliable, but I don't like the price or the speed." Some just had an overall great experience. "[The service is] always on, the modem never needs to be rebooted, and can consistently max the bandwidth and it always exceeds what I'm paying for." An overall score above three stars in our survey makes a strong case that AT&T has better-than-average reliability.
Service & Support: 2 ¾ Stars
Sometimes it isn't how often your service disappoints you, but how your ISP treats you when it does that makes the difference. Support was rated the number-one factor when choosing an ISP, according to our surveyed AT&T customers, and that category received the company's second-best satisfaction rating just above 2 ¾ (2.79) stars.
Customer satisfaction is another hard subject to properly gauge, with reputable studies on the matter being scarce. However, J.D. Power rated AT&T as having the highest customer satisfaction in the western region of the U.S. in its September 2014 "Residential Internet Service Provider Satisfaction study. With our survey score approaching three stars, some of our readers seemed to agree with that assessment.
"Overall, AT&T has been responsive to issues reported to them," said one of our survey entrants. "In the day and age of fiber optics being a norm, charging $55 for 24 Mb/s is robbery," said another price-conscious consumer. The commenter went on to admit, "However, they do have reliable service and decent customer service."
Some readers disagreed wholeheartedly, lambasting the company for a combination of alleged missed appointments, long phone waits and billing issues. Many readers who rated support below three stars detailed a plethora of issues, including defective equipment, outsourced customer support and a feeling of being unimportant to the company.
"[The service is] good overall, but a little pricey for the speeds, given that when something happens, you are a number and not a person," said one customer in our survey.
We have all been there. When our technology fails us, it's never at a convenient time, it never comes back up fast enough and and it's never an important enough issue to the people on the other side of the phone. It could be said all service providers at one point or another have let us down, and likely will again. However, with a score of 2 ¾ stars, our readers ranked AT&T's support slightly above average, and a decent majority of our readers who gave lower scores to performance and price seemed to rate support at three stars or higher.
Overall: 2 ½ Stars
Judging by our readers' responses, AT&T offers middle-of-the-road performance at average access prices with decent reliability and customer service. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that our readers gave it a middle-of-the-road overall score of 2 ½ (2.57) stars out of five, which is close to the actual average of each category.
"AT&T's network is very reliable and reasonably priced, though it won't set any speed records any time soon," said one respondent, who summed up our findings brilliantly. AT&T isn't the fastest Internet access out there. However, it is more widely available than competing broadband companies in a significant number of regions of the country.
As a result of that, many readers indicated a lack of other options, sounding despondent and accepting of less-than-spectacular speeds, support and pricing.
"[I have] slow upload speeds despite the plan, pricing is a bit high compared to other ISPs and support isn't always the best, but it's the only one in my area," said one AT&T customer, who gave the company decently high marks (all but performance was rated three stars or more) despite the dissatisfied tone of the comment.
Our overall survey results for AT&T show a split decision with our readers, with some praising the service in all facets and others detesting their ISP, and still others who feel the company shines in some aspects but could use work in some others. At 2 ½ stars, we seem to have a decent example of a company that does "OK" by its customers, with as many negatives weighing against positives, balancing the proverbial scale evenly.
Our survey provided a lot a useful data on what our readers thought about AT&T's Internet services. It should not be taken for more than it is: a reader survey with a pool of 271 helpful participants that provided a small snapshot of what our community currently thinks about AT&T's Internet service. Here are the full results of the survey, with each category labeled with the results of the most and least important factors when deciding on an ISP, according to the surveyed readers (one being most important, four being the least):
|Performance (4)||Price (2)||Reliability (3)||Support (1)||Overall|
|★★ ½ (2.54)||★★ ¼ (2.32)||★★★ ¼ (3.17)||★★ ¾ (2.79)||★★ ½ (2.57)|
A big thanks goes out to everyone who participated in our survey. Let us know what you think by leaving your comments below, and be sure to check out our next ISP review, which will take a look at one of the largest cable Internet providers in the country, with the most number of our readers responding to the survey: Comcast.
Derek Forrest is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom’s Hardware. Follow him on Twitter.