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Security Tip (ST04-024)

Understanding ISPs

Original release date: July 06, 2011 | Last revised: February 06, 2013

ISPs offer services like email and internet access. In addition to availability, you may want to consider other factors so that you find an ISP that supports all of your needs.

What is an ISP?

An ISP, or internet service provider, is a company that provides its customers access to the internet and other web services. In addition to maintaining a direct line to the internet, the company usually maintains web servers. By supplying necessary software, a password-protected user account, and a way to connect to the internet (e.g., modem), ISPs offer their customers the capability to browse the web and exchange email with other people. Some ISPs also offer additional services. With the development of smart phones, many cell phone providers are also ISPs.

ISPs can vary in size—some are operated by one individual, while others are large corporations. They may also vary in scope—some only support users in a particular city, while others have regional or national capabilities.

What services do ISPs provide?

Almost all ISPs offer email and web browsing capabilities. They also offer varying degrees of user support, usually in the form of an email address or customer support hotline. Most ISPs also offer web hosting capabilities, allowing users to create and maintain personal web pages; and some may even offer the service of developing the pages for you. Some ISPs bundle internet service with other services, such as television and telephone service. Many ISPs offer a wireless modem as part of their service so that customers can use devices equipped with Wi-Fi.

As part of normal operation, most ISPs perform backups of email and web files. If the ability to recover email and web files is important to you, check with your ISP to see if they back up the data; it might not be advertised as a service. Additionally, most ISPs implement firewalls to block some portion of incoming traffic, although you should consider this a supplement to your own security precautions, not a replacement (see Understanding Firewalls for more information).

How do you choose an ISP?

Traditional, broadband ISPs typically offer internet access through cable, DSL, or fiberoptic options. The availability of these options may depend where you live. In addition to the type of access, there are other factors that you may want to consider:

  • security - Do you feel that the ISP is concerned about security? Does it use encryption and SSL (see Protecting Your Privacy for more information) to protect any information you submit (e.g., user name, password)? If the ISP provides a wireless modem, what wireless security standards does it support, and are those standards compatible with your existing devices?
  • privacy - Does the ISP have a published privacy policy? Are you comfortable with who has access to your information and how it is being handled and used?
  • services - Does your ISP offer the services you want? Do they meet your requirements? Is there adequate support for the services? If the ISP provides a wireless modem, are its wireless standards compatible with your existing devices?
  • cost - Are the ISP's costs affordable? Are they reasonable for the number of services you receive, as well as the level of those services? Are you sacrificing quality and security to get the lowest price?
  • reliability - Are the services your ISP provides reliable, or are they frequently unavailable due to maintenance, security problems, a high volume of users, or other reasons? If the ISP knows that services will be unavailable for a particular reason, does it adequately communicate that information?
  • user support - Are there published methods for contacting customer support? Do you receive prompt and friendly service? Do their hours of availability accommodate your needs? Do the consultants have the appropriate level of knowledge?
  • speed - How fast is your ISP's connection? Is it sufficient for accessing your email or navigating the internet?
  • recommendations - Have you heard or seen positive reviews about the ISP? Were they from trusted sources? Does the ISP serve your geographic area? If you've uncovered negative points, are they factors you are concerned about?

Author

Mindi McDowell

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