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Internet Service Providers

bullet Introduction

Internet Service Providers (Access ISPs) are organisations who operate IP computer networks and sell access to their network. Customers who purchase access from ISPs are referred to as subscribers. Before 1988, the Internet was a research / educational system of computer networks (using TCP/IP) that restricted commercial access. The organisations who operated the backbone infrastructure of the Internet were funded publicly and did not permit commercial companies to profit from a publicly funded project. In the late 1980s, the decision was taken by U.S. politicians to transition the Internet's backbone infrastructure from the NSFNET backbone to a backbone of autonomous commercial networks; who were capable of selling access to the general public and the business community.

The first ever ISP is usually claimed to be @TheWorld; which was selling access by late 1989. Some other early ISPs include: Compuserve, Earthlink, AOL, PSINet and UUNet - they were mostly located in the United States of America. The first UK ISPs were: Pipex (1990), Demon Internet (1992), ExNet (1992), Pavilion (1993), Zetnet (1994), Easynet (1994), and Flexnet (1995). These UK ISPs only offered dial-up access, and were probably unknown - at the time - to the vast majority of the UK population. These ISPs were, however, crucial in developing the current infrastructure of the UK's Internet: Pipex and BT were involved in helping to develop the London Internet Exchange (LINX); a peering service for ISPs which enables them to freely transit data across each others networks and cut costs. By the late-1990's, professional large-scale ISPs were available in most developed countries.

Truck laying fiber optic cable for a superfast broadband network
(Pictured: Truck laying fiber optic cable for a superfast broadband network)

The first UK ISP to come to national prominence was Freeserve (1998): founded by the Dixons Group plc and was promoted on TV and in their Dixons electrical stores. Freeserve were the first UK ISP to offer Internet access without a monthly subscription fee. In the 1990s, there were far more ISPs in comparison to the present day; however, the service quality provided by them varied wildly, many quickly went out of business, leaving subscribers stranded without access. By the noughties, smaller ISPs were being purchased by larger telecoms companies; for example, Pipex were purchased by Tiscali in 2007, Tiscali were purchased by Carphone Warehouse in 2009, and the Carphone Warehouse ISP was rebranded as TalkTalk in 2010. This evolution of smaller ISPs being 'eaten up' by larger competitors, until there was only a handful of major ISPs, occurred in all developed nations.

While smaller ISPs still exist, as do niche ISPs (Satellite and Radio), the vast majority of ISP subscribers (roughly 20 million subscribers) are customers of the four big UK ISPs: BT (PlusNet, EE), Sky Broadband, Virgin Media and TalkTalk. ISPs vary in their scope, some offer a range of Internet access technologies and some only provide one. Many ISPs do not own their own network infrastructure, but rent access from other operators. Size does not always equate to quality: many small ISPs have received a higher online user rating for their service, support, speed and value. Presently, most ISPs sell access on a monthly or annual contract basis: the average price per month is between £20-30, and most contracts provide an unlimited download limit (but contain a fair usage policy). Many major UK ISPs are telecommunication, cable, and satellite companies who package Internet access with telephone services and television subscription services. Alongside Internet access, some ISPs provide email, web hosting, and domain registration services.

bullet Hierarchy of ISPs

The Internet is a system of interconnected computer networks that use the Internet protocol suite to communicate and share data: within this hierarchy of networks, the most important computer networks are referred to as backbone networks, which are the primary data routes / capacity. Backbone computer networks tend to be large telecommunications companies; these networks are also referred to as tier 1 networks. The typical definition of a 'Tier 1' carrier (network) is that they do not have to pay for upstream transit of data; this means that becoming a Tier 1 network is highly desirable, because the ISP does not have to pay another ISP (further up the 'food chain') for data transit, and they only have customers.

Tier 1 carriers have tended 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 a tier 1 network, but it's commonly believed that AT&T, Verizon, Telefonica, Orange, Savvis, Qwest and Sprint are Tier 1 carriers. The majority of national telecommunications companies in Europe are not Tier 1 carriers - such as: Vodafone, BT and France Telecom - who are believed to buy their upstream IP access (transit) from the Sprint Nextel Corporation.

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 of Internet Service Providers are Virtual ISPs: who buy all their infrastructure and services from another ISP. The majority of Internet Service Providers are tier 2 and tier 3 networks. Typically, tier 2 networks connect to tier 1 networks for upstream transit, and tier 3 networks connect to tier 2 for upstream transit; tier 3 networks can be single or multi homed: which means they can either pay for upstream transit from a single network or multiple networks (to cut costs and improve performance).

Tier 2 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 tier 1 network. In the UK, the London Internet Exchange (LINX) is the most important Internet exchange point (IXP). Internet Service Providers can sign-up 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.

Telephone exchange
(Pictured: Telephone exchanges, as shown above, across the globe, house networking equipment to provide dial-up and broadband Internet services to their wider community.)

In terms of connection hierarchy, below tier 1/2/3 networks is the end-user: individuals and businesses who purchase access to tier 1/2/3 networks through a monthly or annual fee. End-users typically connect to these networks through a landline telephone line that enters their premises, and this line is maintained by BT Wholesale. The end-users network equipment (router/modem) will negotiate a connection with their ISP over their local loop (phone line that loops form customers premises to the local exchange), for DSL connections, the speed of their connection will depend upon the distance the end-user is from the exchange. Telephone exchanges sometimes have Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) operators: these are ISP's who install their own equipment at the telephone exchange and provide (entirely) their own broadband service. End-users cannot contact BT Wholesale directly -- to solve line issues (local-loop) -- they need to contact their ISP, who will then contact BT Wholesale to arrange an appointment date to rectify the issue.

It should be clear that unless an end-user owns a tier 1 network, they will have to pay for access to the Internet (specifically to transfer data across the networks which comprise the Internet). While it is possible to access the Internet for free at a number of public locations -- hotspots, kiosks, libraries, schools, universities, hotels, airports, train stations -- home users will need to subscribe to an ISP to gain access to the Internet.

bullet ISP Access Technologies

The following access technologies have been provided by UK Internet Service Providers:

bullet Wireless
- Satellite: VSAT, TDMA, SCPC
- Mobile (mobile / cellular networks): 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G
- WiMax (fixed wireless): IEEE 802.16 (802.16/d)
- WiFi (fixed wireless): IEEE 802.11 (802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ac-2013, 802.11ad)

bullet Wired (broadband)
- DSL (digital subscriber line): (ADSL , SDSL)
- Cable (cable television infrastructure etc): DOCSIS
- Fiber Optic: FTTC (fibre to the cabinet), FTTP ( fiber to the premises), FTTB (fiber to the building), FTTH (fiber to the home)
- Leased line (private data line): T-1 (T1) and E-1 (E1)
- Broadband over Power Line (BPL): PoE, PDSL, PLN

bullet Wired (narrowband)
- Dial-up: v.22, v.27, v.32, v.34, v.90, v.92
- Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN)

Since the advent of the first commercial ISPs in the early 1990's, ISPs have used a wide variety of technologies to facilitate access to their networks. From 1990-1998, the vast majority of Internet users connected to ISPs using wired narrowband technologies -- sometimes referred to as a 'fixed internet service'. The most popular wired narrowband access technology was dialup: restricted to a download speed of 40-56 kbit/s, the dialup technology established an Internet connection by dialling a telephone number on the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and could not be used at the same time as the telephone. Another early wired narrowband access technology was Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN): ISDN was expensive, it was mostly used by medium-large business subscribers, and was only marginally faster than dialup (64 kbit/s or 128 kbit/s).

From 2000-2004, DSL broadband -- and to a lesser extent cable broadband -- slowly replaced narrowband technologies (dialup and ISDN) as the dominant access technology. Broadly speaking, broadband is a technology that is defined as: supporting multiple signals, so that the telephone service can be used at the same time as the Internet connection; it is always 'on'; and provides a download speed that is at least ten times faster than dialup. Broadband is not a clearly defined term and the criteria that defines a broadband Internet connection has changed since the year 2000. From 2000-2017, the most popular broadband access technology has been digital subscriber line (DSL) services: VDSL, ISDN, SDSL, HDSL and ADSL. DSL's weakness and strength is its reliance upon the standard copper line telephone network: that provides excellent accessibility but has a limited data capacity -- the quality/speed of DSL is measured by signal to noise ratio (SNR), sync speed and line attenuation.

(Pictured: a standard home network router that provides multiple wireless and wired (ethernet) connections.)

Due to its drawbacks -- data capacity and line quality over distance - the DSL technology is slowly being replaced by fiber optic access technologies: fiber optic currently provides the fastest speed and reliability of any fixed wired technology. The fiber optic access technology is a glass/plastic cable that is superior to copper cable in a number of ways: its more reliable; the cable has a longer lifespan; it carries more data; higher speed at a long distance (8km+); it does not corrode; electromagnetic interference does not occur; and it is resistant to crosstalk. Most developed countries have partially implemented a 'superfast' fiber optic infrastructure, and most urban areas in the UK have access to a fiber optic network; rural areas (UK) are currently being connected (2015-2018). In 2012, the UK government formed an organisation called Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), whose ambition 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). Australia are currently (2013-2017) implementing their largest ever infrastructure project: their fiber optic National Broadband Network (NBN) (with some additional access technologies).

While fiber optic is currently the pinnacle of fixed internet services, the advent of smartphones has resulted in mobile/wireless broadband technologies 'eating up' a greater share of the internet service market. Internet users are increasingly switching from fixed to mobile internet; while smartphones are not capable of accessing every service available on the Internet, their processing power is increasing and the popularity of the iPhone has ensured that Apple Computers is the most valuable international company. Early mobile/cellular telecommunications technologies (2G: GSM and CDPD) were restricted to a slow download speed of between 56kbits to 115 kbits, but, the speed of current mobile access technologies (3G/4G/5G: UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, IMT-2020) has increased massively: with download speeds of up to 100 mbits.

Mobile broadband is not the only type of wireless Internet access, the other type is referred to as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and the companies who provide a FWA service are called: Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP). FWA services use a frequency on the radio spectrum to provide Internet access, and have been implemented in rural areas that are not covered by fixed broadband internet services. FWA technologies can be either: 1) wide area (4G and WiMax); 2) short area (hotspot) (WiFi). WISPs can use security technologies like WEP to ensure that only authorised persons can access their network.

Presently (2017), Ofcom (UK) classify broadband into three speed categories: Standard broadband (over 2 mbit/s), Superfast broadband (over 30 mbit/s), and Ultrafast broadband (over 125 mbit/s). Standard broadband usually consists of DSL, Mobile, Satelite and Cable technologies; whereas Superfast and Ultrafast broadband tends to be fiber optic and leased line access technologies. However, improvements in DSL, Mobile, Satelite and Cable technologies, may enable them to exceed 30 mbit/s -- it is more likely that new mobile networks (5G) will exceed standard broadband speeds, rather than DSL or Satelite.

bullet Choosing an ISP (UK)

Once an access technology has been chosen by a user, the ISP then has to activate the service by providing the user with an access account. With dialup and mobile access technologies, 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; even though many ISPs claim their services are unlimited, they are usually subject to a fair usage policy.

While the UK has a wide selection of Internet Service Providers, the majority of subscribers are customers of the big four ISPs (BT, Sky, Virgin, and Talk Talk). Therefore, as with energy providers in the UK, the difference between the packages offered by the big four operators is minimal. When it comes to online reviews, by users and 'experts', the smaller wired UK ISPs tend to receive a higher rating, such as: AAISP, Firefly, uno, Aquiss, Claranet, Falconnet, ICUK, Vispa, Freeola, Gigaclear, Timico, Vispa, Origin, Vivaciti, SSE, Gigaclear, iDNET and Zen Internet. Some of the cheapest wired UK broadband (dsl) packages are currently (2017) provided by: Origin, Hyperoptic, bOnline, Tentel, Direct Save Telecom, Post Office and Onebill. The most obvious things to consider when choosing an ISP are:

- How much it costs each month.
- The cost of support if things go wrong (telephone rate).
- Connection speed (baud rate and ping/latency are also worth examining).
- Reliability.
- Online chat support and account maintenance features.
- Bandwidth and fair usage terms (restrictions in relation to peer-to-peer downloading).
- Parental controls to restrict access for children.
- If they provide a free router/modem for new customers.

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. 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).

One complaint of ISP's (UK) has been their advertisement of 'unlimited broadband' services, which in reality have limitations placed upon them: many ISP's have a 'fair usage policy', which means, once a user downloads a certain amount of data per month, their service will be intermittently cut or throttled. Traffic shaping (packet shaping) is another management method used by ISP's, that has been used to target the use of Internet services like BitTorrent, and has been criticised by advocates of Net Neutrality.

bullet End-user Equipment

Once a user has chosen an ISP, they will need to purchase equipment to connect to the ISP's network.

The equipment end-users need to access the Internet can be integrated or standalone: a smartphone (iPhone or Samsung Galaxy) is an example of a fully integrated device, that can be used to connect to 3G/4G and 5G mobile networks. For fixed line access technologies (dsl/fiber/cable), end-users will need a selection of standalone items: computer, cables, router/modem, and an operating system that supports TCP/IP. The first version of Windows 95 did not support TCP/IP, and is an example of a relatively modern operating system that did not come 'Internet Ready'. However, virtually all modern day (Apple, Windows, Linux) computers -- unless someone is building their own system -- will be 'Internet Ready'. Therefore, for fixed Internet services, once a computer is acquired, the only piece of equipment a user needs is a networking device. Routers, modems and dongles are examples of network devices. Network devices are designed for specific access technologies: if a user is connecting to DSL broadband, they will need a DSL router/modem.

There are many manufacturers of networking devices, some of whom are: Asus, Belkin, Buffalo Technology, Cisco Systems, Dell, D-Link, Draytek, Ericsson, Exibel, HP, HPE, Huawei, LANCOM, Linksys, MikroTik, Mitsubishi, NEC, Netgear, Nokia, Sierra, Telco, TP-Link, Ubiquiti and ZyXEL. In the UK, some ISP's supply users with a branded router -- such as the BT Home Hub, Plusnet Router, or Sky Router -- but these routers are made by one of the aforementioned manufacturers; the BT Home Hub 3 was manufactured by Huawei. While there are many manufacturers of ADSL routers/modems (the end-users equipment that connects to the DSLAM at the telephone/network exchange), the majority of ADSL routers/modems use a chipset from one of the following manufacturers: Alcatel, Broadcom, Globespan, Ikanos, Lantiq, STMicro, Thomson and Texas Instruments.

bullet ISPs: Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is a doctrine that most Internet Service Providers adhere to; the definition of the term is fairly self-explanatory: Net refers to the Internet or Network and Neutrality is a word which is defined as 'not supporting either side in a discussion, conflict, etc.; unbiased, impartial'. In relation to Internet Service Providers, Net Neutrality means that ISPs should treat all data (traffic) the same, thereby ensuring that all services that users can access is unrestricted. Net Neutrality ensures that ISPs do not block, hinder, curb, reduce or discriminate users 'right' to access any legal service, app, content or activity on the Internet. Due to ISPs hierarchical network position, and the fact that end-users are at the bottom of the 'food chain', it gives ISPs the power to regulate and censor what data (content, services etc) their subscribers have access to. Net Neutrality is a concept that aims to ensure an 'open Internet' for all users.

Some ISPs have been accused of not upholding Net Neutrality by implementing "throttling" (to slow down access) or deep packet inspection (to block access) to some download services: such as Torrents and peer-to-peer downloading. In 2010-2011, BT (British Telecom) trialled a service named Content Connect: this service proposed that UK Internet Service Providers, who used BT's network infrastructure - sometimes referred to as virtual ISPs - could charge a fee to high bandwidth content providers (Youtube, BBC iPlayer). Critics of Content Connect stated that it would create a two tier Internet. It has been reported that the following UK ISPs voluntary signed up to a code of conduct (2012) that ensured Net Neutrality: BT, TalkTalk, O2, Kcom, Sky, Be, Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Plusnet and Three. Allegedly Virgin Media and Vodafone did not sign up.

Due to the unwillingness of some ISPs to ensure Net Neutrality, some governments have enshrined Net Neutrality to law; the first to do so was Chile in 2010 in law number 20,453. In Europe, the 2009 EU Telecoms Package gave individuals members of the EU their own remit on whether to enshrine Net Neutrality to law or not. The first EU country to do so was Holland in 2011: when they amended their Telecommunications Act. In the United States of America, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled in favour of Net Neutrality: publishing regulations in 2015 that classify broadband as a telecommunications service that is supported by the Communications Act of 1934. However, the U.S. has not enshrined Net Neutrality to law.

In conclusion, Net Neutrality aims to ensure that all users have equal access to the most popular services on the Internet, be it: Email, Newsgroups (Usenet), Online Gaming, Voice and Video communication, or the World Wide Web.

bullet Frequently Asked Questions
bullet Can multiple users connect to a single ISP account?
bullet Wireless access to a landline ISP account?