It’s easy to overlook the role of ISPs (internet service providers) in our world. ISPs play an increasingly important role in our constantly connected lives, and we don’t really think about them until we have an issue with our internet.
So, what do ISPs do exactly? Here, we break down the role of ISPs and how you can compare different providers to choose a good one.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
What do ISPs do?
ISPs provide internet access to businesses, households, and individuals for a fee. They rely on a range of technologies – fibre optics, copper wiring, satellite, wireless, and others – to deliver internet access. This access usually comes in the form of a plan, which specifies bandwidth, speed, contract or no lock-in contract, and price.
Bandwidth is the number of data uploads and downloads your ISP provides you within a given period of time. It’s usually expressed as a number of gigabytes in a month. Some plans give you unlimited bandwidth or data.
Your Internet-connected devices access the internet through an ISP so you can do things like view websites and download files. In turn, the servers supporting your website views and file downloads do so through their own ISP.
For your household or business, you only need to pay one ISP for the one connection. Then you can set up a network or allow multiple devices to access your connection through Wi-Fi or Ethernet cables. You can also get mobile broadband on your phone, tablet, and computer.
What information do ISPs keep?
ISPs can potentially know just about everything about you depending on what country you’re in. ISPs in the US are allowed to collect and sell detailed information on their customers.
ISPs don’t have as much power in Australia. Local ISPs are required by law to collect only the metadata of their customers, for a minimum of two years. According to the government, the data collection rules were introduced to facilitate national security and criminal law enforcement purposes. Certain government agencies can access this data without a warrant.
Metadata includes your name, date of birth, and your other account information. It encompasses the time, date and duration of your communications and whether the communication is phone, text, email, or some other medium. ISPs will also collect metadata relating to your IP address and your bandwidth usage. It covers your email addresses and phone numbers and those of your recipients. It will also incorporate the location of the communication equipment you’re accessing, like the relevant cell phone towers. Plus, make sure to be aware ISPs have been hacked.
If you’re worried about privacy, using exempt services like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, SnapChat, Skype, and FaceTime can help you get around the metadata collection. Using a VPN (a virtual private network) could give you extra protection in terms of privacy.
How to compare and shop for the best ISPs
When it comes to plans, connection quality, and service, ISPs can range considerably. The most important step is to work out what you want from your internet service, whether that’s some light browsing or unlimited data allowance for gaming and streaming.
Availability and type of connection
Start by considering whether the ISP services your area and connection types offered. The type of connection is largely determined by your location, but you’ll generally need to switch to the nbn™ within 18 months of it becoming available in your area. Options available could include cable, satellite, ADSL, fibre optics, mobile, and more. ADSL relies on copper wiring technology, which is slower than fibre optics. The largely fibre-optics based nbn™ network is replacing ADSL across Australia, but some of the old copper wirings will remain for connection types of FTTN (fibre to the node).
On the other hand, cable broadband uses coaxial cable and tends to be faster and more reliable than ADSL as quality and speed don’t depend on distance. nbn™ connections likely offer the best connection options, with FTTP (fibre to the premises), FTTC (fibre to the curb), hybrid fibre coaxial, and other connection options offering fast and reliable service standards. Mobile broadband is another connection option that’s great for on-the-go internet access.
Combination of speed, bandwidth, and price
Balance the ISP’s offerings in terms of price, speed, and bandwidth rather than opting for the cheapest plan. A cheap ISP might end up costing you more if the speeds are slow or unreliable. At the same time, you want to ensure the ISP’s plans offer sufficient bandwidth for your requirements, whether that’s light browsing or streaming videos most nights. Check the ISP’s evening speeds for an indication of what peak-period speeds will be like.
Consider customer support and how easy it will be to get customer support if you have any issues. If you’re a business, do you need a plan with priority support?
Terms and conditions
Whether you live in a small apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota or a huge house in Australia, it makes no difference and it’s important to consider additional terms and conditions like whether a new router is included with your plan. Weigh whether you’re happy to be locked in for a long-term contract or whether you need an ISP that offers no-lock-in plans.
You might be looking for options and add-ons like a bundled phone line, static IP addresses, and mobile broadband – so, does the ISP offer these? Other features and freebies could make certain plans more suitable for you. For example, you might get free sport and music streaming if you use certain services, without the data counting towards your limit.
ISPs play a big role in our everyday lives, and your choice of an ISP has a huge impact on your internet service. Compare how prospective ISPs measure in key terms such as speed, price, and bandwidth. Review additional terms and conditions, and check out their customer support system to get a good idea of how they measure up against each other.