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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.

How do ISPs work?

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.