Internet service providers 101

Internet service providers, or ISPs, bring a larger internet network to consumers in their home or business. If you are thinking about changing your internet service, you may have questions about ISPs. Let us give you a helpful overview of what internet service providers do, how they connect you to the internet, and how you can choose the right one.

What is an ISP?

ISPs do exactly what the the name describes: provide internet service to customers, in both residential and commercial environments. Internet service providers first emerged in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when internet access first started becoming widespread.

Initially, telephone companies operated as ISPs, due to the prevalence of dial-up internet. Later, these companies expanded into broadband providers of DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, cable broadband was introduced, and many cable television companies began offering internet service alongside TV and voice services.

Today, there are hundreds of different internet service providers, and they can be commercial companies, non-profits, or even publicly-owned utilities. Depending on where you are in the country, you may have a number of different ISPs to choose from to get internet service.

How do ISPs connect you to the internet?

The internet basically comes down to millions of computers that “talk” to each other, using a worldwide connection. When you send or access a piece of data over the internet (such as a website, a photo on social media, or a video), it's transmitted over an internet line that your ISP connects directly to your home. 

For a real-world analogy, think of ISPs as railroad companies. Your data is a train, but it has nowhere to go unless it can get onto the railroad track. You pay the ISP a small fee to use their “tracks,” which in turn link to a massive interconnected series of tracks, allowing your train to travel back and forth, wherever you want it to go. You pay to use the tracks just as you pay to ride a real train, because a lot of money was invested up front to build the entire infrastructure.

Types of ISPs

There are several types of internet service providers that have somewhat different ways of operating:
 

  • Access ISPs are the most common type of ISP. They use dial-up or broadband internet connections, such as DSL, fiber optics, cable, or satellite to deliver internet to residential and business internet consumers.
  • Mailbox ISPs specialize in providing email services for customers using special types of servers to store, send, and receive mail. Most Access ISPs also offer this service.
  • Hosting ISPs host (or house) websites, files, “virtual machines” and cloud-based servers, and are typically used by businesses and companies, not individuals.
  • Transit ISPS specialize in connecting hosting ISPs to access ISPs, moving traffic from one ISPs infrastructure to another.
  • Virtual ISPs purchase or rent services from other ISPs to provide internet access, rather than building their own internet infrastructure.
  • Free ISPs are a type of access ISP that offer services free of charge, using advertisements to make money on the web traffic of their customers.

High-speed internet providers

Today, most ISPs are high-speed internet providers, because they offer broadband internet through DSL, cable, satellite, or fiber optic infrastructure. The connection speeds for these technologies is much faster than older types of internet connections, like dial-up.

How to choose an internet service provider

Now that you know more about the types of internet providers, you may be wondering how to choose one. The truth is, the types of networks and services available vary quite a bit based on your location, so it's always best to start by searching for local ISPs, using an internet search such as "internet service provider near me" or "internet provider in [name of city or town]."

The next step is to determine how much bandwidth (speed) you need for your household, and then look at all of your local options to compare rates and contract types, check reviews, and look for any special promotions on installation and modems.

CenturyLink is a high-speed internet service provider with residential and business internet service offerings. We are also expanding our fiber internet network throughout the country. Check availability now to make CenturyLink your next internet service provider!

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