What is an ISP?

What is an ISP?
Getty Images/Inspurify Images

An Internet provider, also known as an Internet Service Provider, or ISP, is simply a company, organization, or business that provides its customers and clients (both business and personal) Internet connectivity for a fee, usually paid monthly.

The story behind the infrastructure of the Internet

In order to understand how an ISP really works, we'll take a quick look at the infrastructure that powers the Internet as we know it today.

The term Internet backbone refers to the primary system of networks connecting both major network hubs and Internet users to the Internet itself. This system can be compared to a human backbone, or spine, that carries transmissions to many other parts of the body in an organized, efficient manner.

In order to deliver Internet access to millions of users all over the world, the Internet backbone is made up of extremely high-speed connections that link together larger networks and nodes from around the globe. These connections trickle down direct connectivity and data to localized networks, called ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

What kind of services does an ISP provide? 

An Internet Service Provider provides access to the Internet through a variety of intermediaries, including (but not limited to):

  • Dial-up, also referred to as Dial-Up Internet Access, is a form of Internet access that requires the use of a telephone line and a computer modem. Dial-up Internet access is typically slower than other forms of Internet communication, such as broadband.
  • Wireless modems
  • Broadband technology gives users extremely fast access to the Internet via a high bandwidth network connection. Broadband networks make it possible to send and receive tremendous amounts of data at high speeds with maximum efficiency while on the Web.
  • Cable modem
  • DSL

This access to the Internet can include a modem (hardware used to connect to the ISP and the Internet), email, a private username and password, file storage, and website hosting.

Most Internet Service Providers provide access via the Internet to anywhere in the world. The speed and ease of connectivity to the Internet depends on the subscribed level of access. For example, a subscriber with a dial-up modem will experience significantly slower access times than a subscriber with a cable modem. Users should check with their local service providers to understand which Internet access options are best for their particular needs. Read Before You Buy Internet Service from an ISP to get a good idea of what you should be looking for in your Internet Service Provider.

Are ISPs regulated? Are there rules for Internet access?

While there is no central Internet governing body, or a King of the World Wide Web (so to speak), there are Internet regulation bodies that work behind the scenes to keep everything running semi-smoothly. Here are the main Internet regulation entities:

Internet Regulation Groups

  • The Internet Society: Provides leadership in addressing issues that confront the future of the Internet, and is the organization home for the groups responsible for Internet infrastructure standards.
  • The Internet Architecture Board. Responsibilities include Internet standards and oversight.
  • Internet Engineering Task Force. A large open international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet. It is open to any interested individual.
  • InterNIC. Provides public information regarding Internet domain name registration services.
  • PFIR-People for Internet Responsibility. A group of people concerned about the present and future operations, development, management, and regulation of the Internet.
  • ICANN.org. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a technical coordination body for the Internet.

    For more about Internet regulation, and the fight to keep the World Wide Web a neutral entity, read What You Should Know About Net Neutrality; this is a brief yet comprehensive overview of the ongoing struggle to keep the Internet neutral and free to use. For more information about the Internet and how it got started, read A Short History of the Interneta look at how the Internet began as well as how the Web and the Internet fit together.