Choosing an Internet Service Provider

Lasa Logo  By Lasa Information Systems Team

This article walks you the through areas to consider when choosing an ISP (Internet Service Provider) for your organisation.

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What is an ISP?

An Internet Service Provider is the company that takes care of the technical aspects of connecting your computer(s) to the internet. Enabling your computer to access the world wide web, email, newsgroups and other Internet resources.

What are the choices?

Business vs Home packages

Packages are often divided up between those targeting home users, almost always the cheapest, and those catering for businesses, which offer more features at a higher price. Small voluntary organisations often sit between these two categories, and can be tempted to go for the cheaper option. A low-cost home package may restrict future development, such as use of a domain name. The key deciding factor should be service quality and the ability to alter the package at a later date, to meet your developing needs.

Dial-up

Until a few years ago Dial-up was the main mechanism for connecting to the internet. This is really just like a simple phone connection. Because dial-up access uses normal telephone lines, the speed and quality of connection is very basic. Having a dial up internet connection also means your phone line is tied up when you're connected to the Internet so this can be a problem if you only have one phone line.

Increasingly dial-up is seen as a back-up or secondary connection method.

Broadband

Broadband is the term used to describe a high speed Internet connection. There are two main types of broadband connection, ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) and Cable, for the purposes of this article the term broadband will be used to cover both types of connection. Over the last few years the price of Broadband has come down dramatically. It is the most prevalent type of connection to the internet, for this reason this article will focus on broadband when looking at choosing an ISP.

Other options

Both Dial-up and most broadband connections rely on having access to a BT line. If this is not possible there are other options such as 3G phones and satellite broadband. The I Can't Get Broadband - Help! article on the Knowledgebase goes through the alternative ways of getting connected.

Considerations

There are so many ISPs out there offering a bewildering array of packages the best approach is to focus on some key considerations to enable comparison between different providers.

Terms and conditions

Always check! Areas to look out for include - length of contract (do you have to stay for a given amount of time), switching providers (what will you have to pay to terminate contract) and connection or any other hidden charges.

Support

Hopefully you will not need to call on support from your ISP. If you do clarify what support is offered - 24 hours a day? 7 days a week? Is this done through a premium rate phone number? When thinking about support also consider the skills and knowledge you have within your organisation.

Length of contract

Many ISPs ask you to sign up for a specific time - usually a year or eighteen months.  They may offer a discounted price to customers who do this.  If you are not given the choice, make sure that you can get out of the contract if the ISP does not deliver the service they agreed to.

Free services

Nothing in life is truly free. All ISPs have to make money on service somehow. "Free" services may do this through advertising when you connect or more likely an expensive technical support line.

Connection Speed

Although broadband is considered a fast Internet connection there are still differences in speed. This can vary from 512Kb to 8Mb connections. Exactly how important speed is depends on intended use of the connection. Generally speaking, 512Kbps should be more than adequate for 90% of Internet tasks (website browsing/updating, e-mails).  However this will be affected by factors like the number of computers sharing the Internet connection within your organisation, the type and amount of content you need to download, and contention (see below).

If you're likely to need to download larger quantities of data (e.g. large documents, audio and video content, or  to use your connection to make cheaper Phone calls over the Internet?) then 2Mbps or greater should be the aim. 2Mbps is essentially four times the speed of a 512Kbps connection and is generally adequate for most online content and downloads.

Uptime/Service levels/contention issues

As with purchasing any service you want to know about what level you are going to get.

Uptime

This is the percentage of time the Internet service provider's (ISP's) service is running properly. Establish what uptime figure the ISP claims for its services. Will it guarantee this uptime and discount your account if it fails?

Contention

Each ISP will have a contention ratio; this means the number of connections sharing an exchange. A ration of 50:1 means that the exchange could be shared between 50 different users, the level of this ratio may affect how much of full broadband speed is achieved.

Service levels

When considering a service level agreement, it is particularly important to bear in mind two things. First, that allowance should be made for any planned downtime for maintenance of the server which should be excluded from the calculation of the time during which the server is unavailable. Second, it is not possible for anyone to guarantee a 100% connection success rate

Download caps or Fair Usage Policy

Although broadband is an always available service some providers limit the amount of information you can download in a given time period (this is usually monthly). If you use your connection for browsing the Internet and sending/receiving emails then a service capped at 5Gb will usually be adequate. If you are downloading a large number of files this could be an issue but there are packages allowing up to 30Gb per month. Some ISPs will allow you to go over this download limit but will charge for doing so, for example a charge will be levied per Gb over, as well as and administration charge.

Some providers who do not issue a specific download limit often use the term "Fair Usage Policy". It is essential that you check the small print to determine what this level is. The problem is that most Fair Usage Policies fail to identify a specific level of consumption, so you can be left with no real practical basis with which to asses their expected usage against the ISP's limitations.

Pay as you go

Traditionally pay as you go was the method for dial-up connections. This is still available and could be a consideration for organisations who intend to make very little use of the Internet. Plus a pay as you go service with no set up charge can be set up as a useful back-up for your organisation.

Email addresses

Most ISPs will set up an email address when you activate your account. This would appear something like name@isp.co.uk. This email will change if you switch provider. For this reason it is worth considering purchasing a domain name, see the knowledgebase article What's in a Domain Name?

Web space

Most ISPs will offer but there may be limitations on how appropriate this is for your organisation. See the knowledgebase article Choosing a Website Host

What's the best ISP for you?

This will obviously depend on how much your organisation uses the internet. However before signing up to a package:

  • Be clear about your requirements and make sure your chosen ISP can fulfil them
  • Check the websites listed below for issues with any individual ISPs
  • Last but not least - make sure you read the ISP's terms and conditions.

Treat with caution:

  • Offers that seem too good to be true (e.g. seemingly unlimited download limit at a low price, "free" services - these may be oversubscribed and have poor speeds and expensive support)
  • Excessive fees for exceeding Fair Usage policy
  • Companies that respond slowly to technical support queries or sales enquiries.

Switching Provider

All of the considerations outlined above are important when switching ISP.

If you are switching between dial-up accounts it will be straightforward as it will in most circumstances purely be a case of installing the new dial-up connection and you are ready to go. Switching broadband provider can be more complicated, for more information to help with this see the knowledgebase article Switching Broadband Provider.

Other Resources

There are a number of really useful online resources when looking at choosing an ISP:

Copyright © 2007 Lasa Information Systems Team

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