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Knowledge base What is an ISP?

ISP is an acronym that stands for Internet Service Provider. An Internet Service Provider is a company that provides Internet access to organizations and home users.

What exactly do ISPs do?

In short, an ISP provides you with Internet access, usually for a fee. Without an ISP, you wouldn’t be able to shop online, access Facebook, or read this page. Connecting to the Internet requires specific telecommunications, networking, and routing equipment. ISPs allow users access to networks that contain the required equipment, enabling users to establish Internet connectivity.

ISPs are responsible for making sure you can access the Internet, routing Internet traffic, resolving domain names, and maintaining the network infrastructure that makes Internet access possible.

While the core function of an ISP is to provide Internet access, many ISPs do much more. ISPs also offer services like web hosting, domain name registration, and email services.

What are the responsibilities of an ISP?

An internet service provider’s main responsibility is to provide internet access to the companies, families, and individuals that subscribe to their service. This means that they are responsible for ensuring that the transfer of our data through the internet is instant and safe while maintaining network infrastructures and routing internet traffic. ISPs provide the essential equipment and infrastructure to access the internet at any capacity.

Depending on the price, an ISP provides subscribers with a certain bandwidth amount and internet speed. Internet service providers can also offer phone and cable television services as a part of a bundled subscription. ISPs can offer these bundled services because most internet connections rely on the same infrastructure as these services.

Internet service providers must also go beyond providing access to the internet. An ISP should protect its subscribers from cyber threats and warn them if they are at risk. Internet Service Providers should work together with one another if there is a threat, danger, or emergency that could harm providers. Internet Service Providers also have an unwritten duty to prevent criminal activity on their networks.

How Does an ISP Work?

Internet service providers can supply their consumers with internet access either through a cable, dial-up connection, or a digital subscriber line. A digital subscriber line provides internet through a modem and telephone lines. Internet service providers maintain these structures to ensure this access is stable and uninterrupted.

The internet consists of a network of cables connecting the globe, including copper telephone wires, TV cables, and fiber optic cables. ISPs not only provide entities with access to the internet, but they also maintain the infrastructure that makes it possible. An internet service provider takes the data you are requesting through the internet and sends it to a server that has that information through these cables.

To receive internet from an internet service provider, an individual must enroll in that provider’s service, usually through a subscription. Individuals will create an account and pay a monthly rate for their internet service provider to supply them with any equipment they may need and the bandwidth to access the internet. Larger entities such as companies, apartments, or other businesses will pay more expensive rates to increase their bandwidth and capabilities.

When one subscribes and connects to an internet service provider, they join their network that interconnects with networks across the globe. The internet allows one to access almost any information they need and communicate with those worldwide. The internet and the services that internet service providers supply go beyond the world wide web.

The tiered ISP hierarchy

At the top of the Internet access pyramid are Tier 1 Internet service providers. A Tier 1 Internet service provider is an ISP that has access to all the networks on the Internet using only network peering agreements they do not have to pay for. To help conceptualize what purpose Tier 1 ISPs serve, think of Tier 1 ISPs as the major highways of the Internet. These ISPs connect all corners of the World Wide Web. Some popular examples of Tier 1 ISPs include Vodacom, Bharti, Deutsche Telekom, British Telecommunications, and Verizon.

Internet service provider tiered network
Image courtesy of Privacy Canada.

Tier 1 Internet service providers sell access to their networks to Tier 2 ISPs. Tier 2 ISPs then sell Internet access to organizations and home users. However, sometimes Tier 1 ISPs may sell Internet access directly to organizations and individuals. Additionally, a second intermediary ISP, referred to as a Tier 3 ISP, may purchase network bandwidth from a Tier 2 ISP before selling that bandwidth to end users.

When traffic is routed from your home network to the Internet, it goes through a number of hops before reaching its destination. For example, traffic may travel from your modem, to your Tier 3 ISP’s network, to a Tier 2 ISP’s network, to a Tier 1 ISP’s network, then back down through a different set of ISPs before reaching the destination.

The underlying technology that ISPs use to establish connectivity can be based on analog telephone lines (dial-up), DSL, cable, satellite, Wi-Fi, fiber optics, or other connectivity mediums. The reason many cable and telephone providers are also ISPs is because their underlying infrastructure can accommodate Internet traffic.

Can I connect to the Internet without an ISP?

No, organizations and home users need an ISP to be able to access the Internet. If your ISP is down, you will not be able to access the Internet unless you have access through another ISP. Organizations that require redundant Internet connections may use a cellular service provider or secondary ISP connection to another provider for backup. A popular way for home users to work around Internet connectivity outages is to use their cell phone to continue working or as a mobile “hotspot”.

What is broadband internet?

According to the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband Internet speeds are defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Average broadband speeds across the globe can vary from less than 1 Mbps to over 50 Mbps. The ability to get speeds equivalent to or faster than broadband will depend on the types of service your ISP offers.

Dial-up speeds fall well below broadband speeds. Dial-up depends on older analog technologies.

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and satellite connections are generally faster than dial-up, but still usually fall short of the broadband benchmarks.

Cable connections can well exceed the FCC requirements for broadband Internet speeds and serve as a good choice for reliable, fast Internet connections.

Fiber optic connections are generally the fastest of all the options listed here. If you are looking for speeds in the 1GB or higher range, fiber optic may be the best choice.

Are there any free ISPs?

Yes, there are still some “freenets”. Freenets are ISPs that offer free Internet access. Generally these ISPs offer limited hours of access and limited speeds. Additionally, freenets often include banner ads to generate revenue. Two ISPs that still offer some level of free access, both supported by ads, are Juno and Net Zero.

Selecting an ISP

Selecting an internet service provider depends on location, quality, security, and affordability. The most trusted companies check each box, but there are also more details to consider when selecting your ISP. Where and what you are looking to access the internet determines what internet service provider you should choose.

Initially, there are different internet service providers depending on your location. As previously stated, the primary internet service providers include companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Spectrum.

Companies will tell you if they can provide you with the service you need. However, each of these companies has different areas that they cover. Additionally, even if multiple providers exist in one area, one company may have faster capabilities for a particular part of that region.

If you seek internet service for a larger company, building, or entity, you will need to check out each primary provider’s assistance for your entity type. For any business, it's crucial to focus on finding an ISP specializing in security, as you are more at risk of data breaches and tend to handle more sensitive information.

Affordability is also a factor when choosing the right internet service provider. However, you want to ensure you are not compromising the quality of service with those extra savings. For simple access to the internet with access to e-mail and lower bandwidth needs, most providers have options that make this internet usage affordable and safe.

The United States government offers programs to ensure internet affordability and safety for low-income individuals.

The data and information that one is putting on the internet are often necessary, time-sensitive, and delicate. Therefore, learning about internet service providers, their specific services, offers, and responsibilities is imperative to protecting one’s personal information.

The world depends on the internet more as each day passes. Internet service providers have to ensure the internet continues to be accessible, safe, and effective for all who need it.