Spectrum and AT&T effectively own the Los Angeles internet market, given the limitations of franchise areas and difficulty for competing providers to access telephone poles and right-of-ways.
The level of choice has improved in the last couple years however. Depending on your building location and willingness to search manually, some of these options might work for switching over Internet service:
- Sonic: Best AT&T alternative.
- Earthlink: Follow-up AT&T alternative.
- Starry Internet: Best internet alternative for apartments.
- Verizon 5G Home Internet: best fixed 5G service.
Finding internet alternatives in LA
I’m going to assume you’ve already run your address through the FCC broadband map or a similar tool, and now you’re trying to figure out if you seriously only have two options. As recently as 2017, the FCC estimated that 61% of the US only has one internet provider above 25 Mbps. 1
The bad news: internet service in California is a bit of a mess. Even in LA, only half the city has fiber access. The rest of us are stuck paying as much as $100/month for only 35 Mbps upload speeds from Spectrum.
With so much of LA working from home, that’s far from ideal.
The good news: recent developments from local companies like Sonic and Starry mean that you might have internet options that don’t show up in all the online search tools (which are mostly owned by the major providers or their advertising partners, so no surprise there.)
Internet alternatives in Los Angeles boil down to three types of service:
- Internet Resellers: providers like Sonic and Earthlink resell service over AT&T lines in the city. Both providers often drop data limits and offer cheaper pricing to tempt customers, although the biggest draw here for many will simply be avoiding AT&T customer service. AT&T will still do the installation, but after that you just deal with the reseller.
- Fixed Wireless Providers: Fixed wireless is a type of internet that’s delivered wirelessly rather than over telephone poles. It’s different from mobile LTE in that the connection is fixed, meaning you have a reception device on your roof or window with line-of-sight to the provider’s tower. They “beam” the service directly to you, resulting in a more stable connection. Starry Internet is the best example of this type of service in Los Angeles, and has been rapidly expanding in neighborhoods like Koreatown and Hollywood since 2018.
- Fixed 5G Internet Service: 5G cell towers have been going up all around LA (in spite of NIMBY opposition 2), and Verizon is the first provider piloting a 5G home internet service. This is similar to mobile service, delivered over high-frequency waves that allow much higher bandwidth (but struggle to move over long distances like traditional mobile 4G). Similar to fixed wireless, 5G home internet
Internet Resellers in Los Angeles
Sonic is one of the longest-running independent internet providers in California. In Los Angeles, they resell service over AT&T's network. In the Bay Area, they have their own fiber-to-the-home network.
One odd quirk of Sonic service is that they require you to take home phone service along with internet. However, they don't charge extra for this, so the price is still comparable to internet-only service from AT&T. If you're a landline phone user, this is an added bonus.
- Entry price for speeds of at least 25 Mbps: $39.99.
- Benefits: no data caps, local customer service.
Earthlink recently re-launched as an AT&T reseller in 2019. Prior to that, they were folded into Windstream, after many years of struggling to sell dial-up service.
Earthlink is a large national company with a spotty track record on customer service so far. We don't recommend them at this time since they don't offer much advantage over Sonic, who has the longer track record of good consumer reviews.
The main benefit of Earthlink is that they're willing to provision ultra-budget plans that only cost around $15/month. However, these plans offer extremely low bandwidth and aren't useful for homes that stream video or have multiple users.
- Entry price for speeds of at least 25 Mbps: $69.95.
- Benefits: no data caps, avoiding AT&T customer service.
Fixed Wireless internet alternatives in Los Angeles
Starry is a recent entrant to the Los Angeles internet service market, launching a $50 flat rate 200/200 Mbps service for apartment buildings in 2018. They've been expanding throughout the greater Los Angeles area since then.
The main issue with Starry is limited availability. They only serve apartment buildings due to the economics of making a profit over the cost of installing their rooftop equipment.
You can check if your building has Starry at their website, and file a request for service installation if they aren't available. Keep in mind the primary issue Starry has is dealing with landlords, who often don't want to let another provider in the building for logistical or financial reasons.
Starry is in the very early stages of piloting service for single-family homes, but it's not yet widely available.
- Entry price for speeds of at least 25 Mbps: $50.
- Benefits: 200 Mbps upload speeds, simple pricing with no fees.
5G home internet in Los Angeles
Verizon 5G Home Internet
The newest change to the internet market in Los Angeles is 5G. If you're in central LA, you might have noticed 5G small cell towers popping up on top of light posts over the past year.
Verizon 5G service has speeds around 300 Mbps download and upload, making it the fastest internet alternative currently on the market.
Verizon 5G Home Internet service is only available in neighborhoods close to DTLA and the Arts District at this time. It's expected to expand over the next year, with the possibility that other mobile providers like AT&T might also launch competing services. This is likely to encourage much-needed competition on pricing and network investment from incumbent providers like Spectrum and AT&T.
Small regional providers in the Greater Los Angeles area
There are three other providers you should be aware of in the Greater LA area: Beverly Hills Fiber, Google Fiber and Giggle Fiber (that is a real company, not a joke.)
Beverly Hills Fiber is one of a small handful of municipal internet providers in California. When complete, the network will offer publicly-managed fiber-to-the-home gigabit internet service for the entire Beverly Hills city area.
The network has seen some issues with funding and costs which have caused them to be behind schedule on lighting the network. 3
The new expected launch date for service is mid-2021, according to a Beverly Hills city official we contacted when writing this article.
Google Fiber offers fiber to the home service in some parts of Irvine and OC. If you’re in that area, be sure to check. It’s by far the best value for speed you’ll get, especially compared to Cox and AT&T in those neighborhoods.
Giggle Fiber isn’t actually a fiber provider, but they get strong marks for their local customer service, local network management, and affordable internet plans. (Around $40 for speeds above 200 Mbps, making them more cost-effective than Spectrum.)
Why aren’t there more internet options in Los Angeles?
Internet service is limited because the installation of cabling is expensive, and access to telephone poles and public right-of-way to install new cables is difficult.
The difficulty installing Beverly Hills Fiber is a good example of this, as the cost of physically digging up streets and the logistics of negotiating pole access can hamstring private and public infrastructure projects for years.
Add to this the market mechanics of franchise arrangements between cities and incumbent cable providers, and you have the perfect recipe for a monopoly.
The LA market is only starting to open up now thanks to advancements in wireless technology. Just ten years ago, distributing internet service via fixed wireless was an expensive and complex endeavor with low speeds and poor reliability. For this reason, the technology was mostly adopted in rural areas, where wired service was particularly difficult to build.
With 5G millimeter wave technology now maturing 4, providers like Starry and Verizon are able to “skip” the last mile and deliver service wirelessly, which helps reduce the cost of digging up streets and accessing poles.
The FCC has granted some public right-of-way access to 5G providers without the usual red tape of installing cell towers, which has also helped speed up the process of building out infrastructure. 5
That said, fiber lines are still critical, and industry commentators warn that the promise of “solving the rural digital divide” with 5G is likely overpromising on the part of the large mobile companies, in order to win favor with the FCC and get approval for mergers like the recent Sprint/T-Mobile merger. 6
For urban markets, however, the fiber is often already there — so the ability to compete wirelessly is likely to drive further fiber buildouts from incumbents like AT&T and Spectrum, which should ultimately improve the service quality through free market competition.