Earning

3 things to consider when buying internet for your home office

Twenty/20

Remote work has become the norm for a significant chunk of the workforce because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it could remain that way for many workers. In mid-May, 68% of American employees were still working from home to avoid the virus, according to a recent Gallup poll. Plus, several major tech firms have announced that they'll either substantially loosen or make permanent their current remote work policies. 

If you plan to work from home for any length of time, one of the most important things to consider is what connects you to your employer and clients: your internet service. The kind of connection you need, and the ease with which you can get it, can vary a great deal depending on where you live, who you live with, and what kind of work you do.

Here's what you need to know when purchasing an internet plan that will enable you, and everyone else in your household, to work remotely.

You probably don't need a blisteringly fast connection

Most internet providers advertise download speeds, or the volume of data that can be accessed from the internet per second, as a way of judging how fast a connection is. That makes sense, since most internet activity — visiting a website, checking an email, streaming a video — is technically a download.

The Federal Communications Commission defines a broadband connection as one that can download at least 25 megabits per second, or 25 Mbps. But connection speeds exceeding several hundred megabits are not uncommon around the country, and gigabit connections, which are among the fastest available, can download over 1,000 Mbps per second. 

According to FCC guidelines, one individual remote worker or student likely doesn't need more than a 25 Mbps connection to do their work. Browsing the web and downloading files only requires a small portion of even that.

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The only times you'd need to worry about a faster connection is if your work requires you to routinely download large database files or high resolution media, or if you have to share it with multiple people, according to Tyler Cooper, editor in chief of ISP comparison and research site BroadbandNow. If you have a larger home, it's important to put your router physically near your home office.

Costs can vary wildly between cities, but in Philadelphia, a 200 Mbps connection from Comcast costs $40/month, while a gigabit connection costs twice that. Comcast also offers a 25 Mbps connection to the city's low-income residents for $10/month.

Pay attention to upload speeds

While download bandwidth shouldn't be a major concern for most users, upload bandwidth — which you need to send an email, back up a file to the cloud, or call into a Zoom conference — tends to be more scarce. Internet providers almost always devote much a larger portion of their bandwidth to download speeds and advertise them more prominently.

But decent upload speed is important for a lot of services that remote workers depend on.

"For something like Zoom, or other types of two-way communication, upload speed is essential," says Cooper. "You can have 1,000 Mbps download speeds, but if you have less than 1 Mbps upload, you're still going to have some problems maintaining HD video chatting, things like that."

For something like Zoom, or other types of two-way communication, upload speed is essential.
Tyler Cooper
Editor in chief, BroadbandNow

To make a group Zoom call in high definition, you need an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps. In 113 of America's largest cities, every one but Albuquerque has a median upload speed higher than that, according to BroadbandNow's data.

However, if you have to share that connection with roommates, a spouse, or kids Zooming into remote school classes, you may need to seek out something faster.

"If you had a city where it only has 5 Mbps per second upload speeds, and you have five people trying to get on [at the same time in your household], you can quickly see how that could become a problem," says Cooper.

In Philadelphia, that $40/month Comcast plan has an upload speed of 5 Mbps, while the $80 plan gets you 35 Mbps. If you qualify the low-income plan, you get up to 3 Mbps

Affordable broadband is easier to find in some cities than others

While finding a sufficiently fast connection may not be difficult for most Americans, finding one that's affordable might be. In over half of America's 113 largest cities, broadband coverage for under $60/month is available in over 70% of households. That includes near-universal coverage in smaller cities like Toledo, Ohio — which Grow ranked as the #1 city to work from home — and larger ones like Philadelphia and Queens, New York.

There is a small but significant number of cities where affordable broadband is much more scarce. Those include Denver, Boston, and Seattle, where under of 8% households are covered.

Cities with lots of competing providers, or publicly owned and operated municipal providers, tend to have better and more affordable internet, according to Cooper. In cities with high prices, there are often only one or two providers, many of whom are holdovers from the old Bell System monopoly that was broken up in the early 1980s.

"In areas that have a public option, prices are lower and speeds are higher on average," says Cooper. "In virtually every area that has a municipal network, we get feedback from consumers every single day writing into us that they're happier with that service than they've ever been with a traditional provider."

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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