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What is an ISP?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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An ISP (Internet Service Provider) is a company that collects a monthly or yearly fee in exchange for providing the subscriber with Internet access. Methods of Internet access include dial-up service, cable, DSL, and more. While some ISPs are local, only serving subscribers in a limited geographical region, others provide service nationally.

When looking for an ISP, consumers will usually start by considering the type of Internet access desired. Some companies only offer dial-up access, which is the slowest — but cheapest — type of connection. Consumers who want cable service will want to check with their local cable TV provider to see if cable access is offered. For DSL service, individuals may have multiple choices, although DSL is not available in all locations. Customers can often call the phone company to ask about service availability or the plans to upgrade local telephone lines.

Every ISP has a privacy policy and Terms of Service (TOS) contract that subscribers must agree to before subscription will be accepted. The privacy policy will state what the company will and will not do with personal information collected at the time of sign-up. The privacy policy should also state under what conditions an individual's personal information might be shared with third parties, government officials, or others.

The TOS contract also stipulates how subscribers can use the service. For example, dial-up access is often sold as "unlimited access," but this is not to be taken literally. Dial-up accounts normally limit access to 250 to 400 hours per month, depending on the company. Truly unlimited access (leaving your computer on and actively connected to the Internet 24/7) is called dedicated access, and is offered by most DSL or cable subscriptions allow dedicated access.

The Terms of Service contract of the ISP will also state rules about hacking, protecting copyrighted materials, denial of service attacks, harassing other people, spam, compromising the service, and many other issues. These are as much for the legal protection of the provider as to let potential subscribers know what the company will and will not tolerate.

Consumers who are planning on using web space provided by the ISP should check for limitations here too. Many companies do not allow commercial websites to be set up on their servers. This usually means that nothing can be sold from a personal website, including a software program that the individual wrote, original music, or any other item. Websites operated through the provider are normally for personal use only, to blog, post pictures, and so on.

Once a customer finds an ISP that offers the services, privacy policy, and TOS that he or she can live with, that person can sign up online through a public terminal or call the provider directly. Name, address, and normally a credit card number are required to establish service. From there, all that needs to be done is to enter the ISP access number and a few other parameters into the networking software on a computer.

Services range in price according to the package offered and type of service. Dial-up is least expensive, but it is much slower than other access methods and often comes with fewer features. Different perks will vary greatly between ISPs, with some offering multiple email accounts, vast amounts of webspace, or discounts for paying in advance. DSL and cable companies will also differ, so customers should carefully read through offerings before deciding. There are many websites that offer reviews from present subscribers of various companies, which might be helpful in making a decision.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon305698 — On Nov 27, 2012

What does DSL stand for?

By gwigwi — On Sep 17, 2012

How can I connect my computer to a modem using


By anon113071 — On Sep 23, 2010

what is the difference between dsl and broadband?

By anon77156 — On Apr 13, 2010

this isp is super good. as a young person i think it will help someone who needs to learn more.

By itsaimee — On Jun 29, 2007

is it possible for more than 1 person who has the same ISP number ??? if its impossible any ideas why its happened to me ?? thanks so much inadvance for the answer!!!

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