How-to find the fastest wireless carrier or wired Internet where you live and work

The FCC's National Broadband Map has lots of geeky details, but it's also the best comparison shopping tool for wireless carriers and Internet access in America.

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Getting the best performance and coverage is a key part of choosing a wireless carrier. Yes, there are plenty of other important questions to consider. What phones, smartphones, tablets, USB modems, netbooks, or MiFi cards are available? What individual, family, and business plans are available? Is data use unlimited, pay-per-GB, or throttled after a cap has been reached? What are the international roaming charges?

Whether your phone or device will get coverage where you live, work, and frequently travel, however, is paramount. All the other decisions are secondary.

Up till now, all consumers have really had access to is the coverage maps that carriers provide. Most carriers do a decent job of including zip code and city/town locators that give relatively granular answers to whether or not a given location has coverage (as opposed to just showing a giant national or regional map on a brochure). They also typically illustrate where coverage is limited to voice and 2G data versus 3G or 4G.

What carriers don’t show is how well their data service performs in any given area where they have coverage. Sure, I can look at Verizon's site, for example, and see where 3G/EVDO coverage is and which metropolitan areas I can get 4G/LTE coverage (LTE is a great many miles from where I live in the Adirondack mountains of NY, by the way). What I can't see is how fast the 3G service around my house is likely to be. At best, I can ask my neighbors for their experience, provided they use the same carrier or even use a smartphone or other data-intensive device.

Thankfully, this state of affairs is no longer the case. In order for the FCC to tackle its mandate to create the National Broadband Plan, it had to get accurate information about the state of wired and wireless broadband access across the country. It needed to conduct a broadband census, if you will. Not only did the agency do that, it did it to a very granular level of detail. Then it put that information online for everyone to access. The result is the National Broadband Map.

The National Broadband Map has all manner of interesting statistics and information that you can view. For example, you can see which parts of the U.S. have access to varying types of high speed Internet and at what speeds each operates.

More importantly, you can enter and city/town, zip code, or address in the country and see what the average wired and wireless speed for broadband Internet access is at that location. The best part for consumers is that you can also see the average speeds for every wireless carrier's data service in that spot. That shows you not just if you have data coverage from a carrier, but how fast it is likely to be – and since you see every available carrier, it's a great comparison shopping tool.

Of course, since you can see wired Internet access options as well, it's equally great for choosing the fastest wired Internet connection. You may even find that there are wired providers you didn't even know about.

There are a couple of caveats, of course.

One is that the you see speed but not price. That means the average or potential speeds you see may be speeds you need to pay more to get (particularly for wired access, which is usually priced based on connection speed).

Another is that only the wireless carriers that own the towers and spectrum are listed. Any companies that rely on another carrier's network won't be listed. Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, for example, won't appear because they use Sprint's network (though the Sprint information will apply to them). You may need to do a little homework if you don't see certain carriers to discover who's network they use.

Whatever opinions you might have about the FCC or the National Broadband Plan and its mandate, you have to acknowledge that the agency and program has created an immensely valuable tool for every American consumer.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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