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Internet Service Providers

bullet Introduction

While it is possible to access the Internet at a number of public locations - hotspots, kiosks, libraries, schools, universities, hotels, airports, train stations - home users access the Internet by purchasing access from an Internet Service Provider.

The Internet is a system of interconnected computer networks that use the Internet protocol suite. The computer networks within the Internet form a hierarchy; with the most important computer networks referred to as backbone networks: which means they control the Internet's primary data routes. The Internet's backbone networks tend to be large telecommunications companies; these networks are also referred to as tier 1 networks.

These tier 1 networks - through peering agreements with one another - do not pay a fee to transfer data across each other's networks. Below tier 1 networks there are tier 2 and tier 3 networks: the majority of Internet Service Providers are tier 2 and tier 3 networks. Tier 2 and tier 3 networks have to pay the tier 1 networks to transit data across their networks. Below tier 2 and tier 3 networks is the end-user; likewise the end-user (member of the general public) has to pay the tier 2 and tier 3 to transit data across their networks.

Therefore, it should become clear, that unless an end-user owns a tier 1 network (highly unlikely) they will have to pay for access to the Internet (specifically to transfer data across the networks which comprise the Internet). The computer networks that sell access to the Internet are called Internet Service Providers (ISP). ISPs vary in their scope: some offer a range of technologies to access the Internet, whereas others offer one. Some ISPs do not own a network infrastructure, but rent it from another ISP: they are simple a third party reseller, known as a Virtual Internet Service Provider.

bullet ISP Access Technologies

At present (2014), the most common type of access technologies provided by UK Internet Service Providers are:

  1. DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) (broadband)
  2. Cable (broadband)
  3. Fiber Pptic (broadband)
  4. Satellite
  5. Dial-up
  6. Mobile
  7. Dedicated interconnects or a wireless connection (mobile networks)

By far the most popular technology is broadband provided through a landline (copper telephone line). The DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology - (ADSL) is a type of digital subscriber line - is the technology used to transmit digital data across landline telephone lines in the UK. However, "superfast" fiber optic networks is currently (2014) being laid across the UK and should surpass and replace the DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology at some point in the future. Fiber optic networks provide the most reliable and fastest download and upload speed.

Once the access technology has been chosen by a user, the ISP then has to activate the service by provide the user with an access account. With dialup and mobile access, a user can typically begin using their account immediately. With broadband, it may take upto 12 days (in the UK) for an ISP to activate the service on a landline telephone network. The speed with which a user can download and upload data tends to be limited by where the user lives. The further away from the telephone network exchange (especially for dialup and dsl) the slower the speed of the connection. ISP's usually stipulate a 'bandwidth limit' for accounts: which means that a user can upload or download a specific amount of data per month.

bullet Hierarchy of ISPs

ISPs are categorised into a range of tiers; the top being a 'Tier 1' carrier (network). The typical definition of a 'Tier 1' carrier (network) is that they do not have to pay for 'transit' of data. Tier 1 status is very desirable, because the ISP does not have to pay another ISP (further up the "food chain") for upstream data transit across the Internet. Tier 2 carriers need to purchase upstream access/transit from Tier 1 carriers; though this can be mitigated by using peering agreements and Internet Exchange Points. At the 'bottom' of the hierarchy are virtual ISPs, who buy all their infrastructure and services from another ISP.

Tier 1 carriers tend to be located in the United States (where the Internet was originally developed). As an end user, it is extremely complex to decipher which ISP is at which tier; but it's commonly believed that AT&T, Qwest and Sprint are Tier 1 carriers; amongst others. The majority of national telecommunications companies in Europe are not Tier 1 carriers, such as: BT and France Telecom; who are believed to buy their upstream IP access (transit) from the Sprint Nextel Corporation.

Lower tier ISPs typically use Internet Exchange Points (IXP) to exchange data across their networks. This enables hundreds of smaller ISPs to exchange data without being charged transit by a higher tier carrier network. In the UK, the London Internet Exchange ("LINX") is the most important Internet exchange point (IXP). Internet Service Providers can signup for membership of the LINX - the membership fee helps to fund the hardware upgrades of LINX and it's operating costs - and together the members of the LINX collectively own the company. LINX has lowered the transit costs of UK ISPs and in turn has lowered transit costs for UK end-users.

Side note: BT Wholesale (who created a "stir" with content connect) supports and fixes most of the landline infrastructure issues for UK ISPs.

bullet Choosing an ISP (UK)

The UK has a wide selection of Internet Service Providers; which all differ in the connection packages they offer. When choosing an ISP, a customer should consider:

If you are dissatisfied with your current ISP, and wish to switch broadband providers, then the easiest way to do so is by using a MAC code. The majority of large ISP's (BT, Sky, Virgin) have signed up to Migration Authorisation Code system. The MAC system allows users to switch ISP without losing access to the Internet; the MAC system seamlessly switches ISPs. There are plenty of websites which provide a comparison service for ISPs.

While the vast majority (estimated to be 95%) of UK Internet users are termed "light" users, there is 5% who use a considerable amount of bandwidth (downloaded/uploaded data). To combat the usage habits of this 5%, ISPs usually have a 'fair usage policy': which means, once a user downloads a certain amount of data per month, their access will either be cut or throttled. Throttling is where an ISPs imposes a low download/upload speed to a specific account.

ISPs have come under criticism from parents and parental groups for the lack of "controls" they put in place to stop children from viewing content they should not. That said, a number of ISPs, most notable AOL, have attempted to create 'walled gardens' to protect children and give parents a measure of control.

bullet How ISPs are Evolving (UK)

Broadband overtook dial-up (May 2005) as the most popular technology used to access the Internet (in the UK). Broadband usage nearly doubled to 8.1 million: from January the 1st (2005) to June the 30th (2005). As already stated, Dialup was previously the most popular access technology. The drawback to dialup is it's download speed: limited to 56k; and it monopolises the telephone line. The "basic" download speed of broadband should be 256K (10 times faster than dialup), and is capable of 24Mb (480 times faster than dialup). Broadband is a generic term that can refer to a number of technologies: dsl, fiber optic, cable and mobile. However, Broadband should have a minimum download speed of 256k, and should be capable of supporting multiple signals/channels/bands.

The drawback to broadband is it's coverage, from 2000-2013 many rural areas in the UK did not have access to it. This led a 'prospective' Conservative government to promise (in 2009) a nationwide superfast broadband network; with a speed of 100Mbit/s to most homes by 2017. In 2009, ISPs could not "promise" a download speed of 2Mbit/s to every home (the BCS took an interest in whether this ambitious plan could be achieved). The Conservative party eventually formed a coalition government in 2010.

In 2012, an organisation was formed called Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK): The ambition of BDUK was two-fold (by 2015):

  1. Provide superfast broadband to 90% of homes in the UK.
  2. Universal access to standard broadband (download speed of 2Mbps).

You may be wondering what is the difference between superfast broadband and standard broadband. In the UK, standard broadband usually refers to the DSL technology; which is a technology that works on the traditional copper landline telephone network. Superfast broadband refers to fiber optic networks; fiber optic is a glass/plastic cable that is superior to copper cable in a number of ways. Fiber optic is: more reliable; cable lasts longer; carries more data; more data over long distances; does not corrode; electromagnetic interference does not occur; and is resistant to crosstalk. In the UK, fiber optic networks come in two types; FTTC (overlaid on the copper network) and FTTP (pure fiber optic). FTTP is superior.

bullet ISPs: What can be found on the Internet

The most popular services are: Email, Newsgoups (Usenet), Online Gaming, Voice and Video communication, and the World Wide Web. What is available on the Internet may expand with the possible development of quantum computers.

bullet Frequently Asked Questions

bullet What is a wireless ISP account?
bullet Measuring the speed of an ISP account?
bullet Advice for moving to a new ISP?
bullet Do ISPs give free laptops when signing up?
bullet What's Digital Britain mean in relation to ISP coverage and speeds?
bullet Do UK ISPs have fibre optic networks?
bullet What is MiFi? (mobile ISPs)
bullet Can you give a defintion of mobile broadband?
bullet Can multiple users connect to a single ISP account?