What is an Internet Service Provider (ISP)?

An Internet Service Provider, or ISP, is any business or organisation which provides internet access for other individuals or organisations. From the big multinational providers to the specialists, like us, working to connect villages and communities, all ISPs are different. To help you understand what we do to bring high-speed internet to your home, here’s our guide to Internet Service Providers.

What does an ISP do?

The purpose of an Internet Service provider is to provide all the services required for an individual or organisation to access the internet, including:

Tiered internet access

Each provider offers different service levels of internet access based on your location and the amount you want to pay each month. This access was traditionally tiered by the amount of data you were able to use within each billing period (e.g. 10GB per month). However, most providers (like us) now offer unlimited data as standard for home broadband services. Services are now often tiered by your internet’s upload and download speeds (e.g. 135mbps download speed, 27mbps upload speed).

Guaranteed service levels

As part of a Code of Practice set out by OFCOM, your ISP also has certain service guarantees that they are legally required to offer. ISPs must offer, upon request, a Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS) for customers. This enables customers to see if their internet speed is performing as advertised. And if it’s not, they may be able to exit their contract without penalty.

Find out more about why broadband speed fluctuates.

Equipment rental

As part of your contract, your ISP will likely offer the rental of equipment such as modems and routers that allow you to practically access the internet. If you decide to change provider, you normally have to return any equipment you have rented. It’s also possible to use your own modem and router if you have it – and ISPs are no longer allowed to charge you for doing so.

Find out more about the other costs you may incur setting up with an ISP – and how to avoid them.

Billing services

All ISPs will offer billing services, with most now offering a range of payment options including telephone, online and automatic payment from your bank account.

Technical support

Your ISP will also provide technical support to help you deal with any issues you may have with equipment, accessibility or upload and download speeds. Most operators will offer online, telephone and in-person support from engineers to help resolve issues.


How do ISPs work?

Internet service providers offer their services to individuals, households, businesses and organisations who require internet access for business or personal use. The process for a customer looking to connect with an ISP will generally include the following steps:


  1. Finding a provider

When you move into a new property, there may already be an agreement set up with an internet service provider. Or, you may decide to use a provider you’ve used before. Coverage and internet speed will vary depending on your location – especially if you live in a more remote village or market town. So it’s always worth checking using a third-party comparison website (like USwitch) to find the best deals in your area.


  1. Signing a contract and service level agreement

Once you’ve chosen a provider, you’ll sign a contract and set up billing. This contract will include a service level agreement which includes the terms and conditions of your ISP’s service, commitments on the quality and availability of services and any other agreed responsibilities. In the UK, contracts with individuals or households can only last up to 24 months – although businesses are able to commit to longer-term contracts.


  1. Connecting to the internet

Once your contract is signed and billing is set up, your ISP will begin the technical process of setting up your broadband connection. By this point, you will already know what type that is. The most common connection types are:


  • ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line)
  • Cable broadband
  • Fibre optic broadband
  • Wireless broadband
  • Satellite & mobile broadband


Most home broadband connections will either use FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) or FTTP (fibre to the premises) connections. Many homes with ADSL and Cable broadband may use an FTTC connection, meaning you are connected to a shared cabinet close to your home (the green boxes you see at the side of the road). FTTP means your internet is directly connected to your ISP, making your internet connection faster and more reliable. More information on what is FTTC.

Find out more about broadband connection types in our guides: ADSL vs Fibre.


  1. Switching provider

If at any point you wish to switch your internet service provider, the process works the same way as when you switch your electricity supplier. You simply contact your new, desired supplier, who issues a notice to your current one. Both companies then send out ‘switching letters’ detailing any relevant information. After a period of 14 days, during which you can decide to change your mind, your service should have been switched. You may, however, as part of any contractual obligations, still have to pay a fee for breaking your contract or return any rented equipment as part of a switch.


The different ISP Tiers

All ISPs are categorised into three tiers based on their size and access to the internet. Tier 1 providers are the largest ISPs who own and control their own portion of internet access – they are generally very large multinational organisations. Tier 2 are the large, well-known ISPs that most of us know as our providers. Tier 3 features smaller, more specialist internet providers.

While some Tier 2 providers may provide their own access, many of them (and all Tier 3 providers) lease bandwidth from Tier 1 providers. They then sell this bandwidth on to individuals or businesses as part of any contractual agreement. Smaller companies like Tier 3 providers may offer more specialist services such as broadband for rural areas, where access through traditional suppliers is unreliable or unavailable.

Tier 1 ISPs

Multinational organisations such as Liberty Global

Tier 2 ISPs

Large companies such as BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media

Tier 3 ISPs

Smaller, specialist companies such as Broadway Broadband


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FAQs: What is an Internet Service Provider (ISP)?

A VPN (virtual private network) essentially encrypts your internet connection by sending any data to a remote server before sending it back to your device. So, while the VPN does mean they won’t be able to see your browsing data, your ISP will be able to see that you are using a VPN as they will recognise an unfamiliar IP address.
Yes, it’s possible your ISP could block access to your VPN. They do this by blocking the IP addresses commonly used by VPN providers, therefore blocking your access to the internet through the network.
No, not necessarily. Your ISP is the company that provides direct access to the internet through ADSL, cable, fibre-optic or satellite connection. A Wi-Fi provider gives you access to wireless internet – although many providers offer both services at once.
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