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Help business clients compare ISPs and choose a provider

Choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) is no easy task when you take into account Tier 1 and local providers, and the range of offerings. Consultants and value-added resellers (VARs) can help their clients sort through the confusion and choose an ISP that best meets their business needs.

Service provider takeaway: Consultants and value-added resellers (VARs) should be prepared to help their business clients rate and choose Internet service providers (ISPs).

Comparing and choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) can be a monumental task for businesses. With numerous offerings from various providers -- national and local -- your client may turn to you to help them rate and select an ISP. As your client's trusted partner, it behooves you to understand how ISPs work and to stay abreast of service offerings. This article provides an overview of Tier 1 ISPs and offers an approach to recommending an ISP that meets your client's business needs.

Internet service providers provide either consumers or businesses access to the Internet. ISPs themselves pay upstream ISPs for Internet access, unless they are a Tier 1 ISP. ISPs that require no upstream, who have only customers or peers are at the top of the ISP food chain and are considered Tier1 ISPs. There are nine Tier 1 ISPs: AOL, AT&T, GBLX, Verizon, Level 3 Communications, NTT, Qwest, SAVVIS and Sprint.

Let's look at market share. In a study done in late 2007 by JupiterResearch, AT&T was the clear leader at 18.2%, with Comcast coming in second at 13%. AOL was third and Verizon fourth. As AOL and Comcast are mostly used for home-use, cable and broadband, let's compare some of AT&T and Verizon's offerings.


AT&T was acquired in October of 2005 by SBC, making it the largest telecom provider in the world with myriad offerings, including DSL, SONET, DS1, DS3 and NAP. One of their specialty offerings is the Global Managed Internet Service, which establishes a dedicated Internet connection to multi-national sites throughout the world. The service provides end-to-end management of your customer's system, starting from their own managed router. AT&T reviews the customer's Internet traffic and then recommends the appropriate bandwidth for the connections. They then configure and implement this managed service, 24x7, with speeds of up to 155 Mbps. For companies that are not global, AT&T offers standard managed Internet service, which is similar in concept.

The most important features for both models include a dedicated port into AT&T's OC48/OC192 Common Backbone (no single backbone point of failure) and flexible access speeds and options, including Ethernet, VoIP and access redundancy options.


Verizon Business came to be through its own merger, where in January of 2006 it merged with MCI. Its ISP offerings include bandwidth on demand (BoD), integrated optical service, LAN extension Service (LES), optical networking, SONET, frame relay and various other services.

Let's look at the BoD service. Verizon's Bandwidth on Demand utilizes Verizon-provided optical transport network with standard network devices that are configured in a SONET topology. This allows the network to automatically perform certain functions, thereby dramatically reducing the provisioning time for circuits that run on the network. It offers customers the ability to order services that remain entirely on the BoD network, DS3, OCn services and Gigabit Ethernet private line services, on a "just-in-time" basis. In some cases, provisioning can be given in the same business day. How is that for responsiveness!

More information
Learn how to calculate bandwidth on customer networks

Learn how to troubleshoot bandwidth issues on VPNs

Recommending an ISP

When it comes to recommending an ISP to a business client, I like to offer choices. While the merges in recent years have certainly cut back on competition in this industry, clients still have many choices. I like to recommend Tier 1 providers to large businesses. Price out the solution that the client needs and see where you end up. Look at the specifics of an apples-to-apples comparison on a specific solution. For example, you've determined that the client requires a DS3, get a proposal from Verizon and AT&T for the services and also one local ISP. I like to price out at least one local one, which keeps everyone honest.

Local ISPs provide access to the Internet from the local area. The local ISP would probably be a Tier 2 provider that connects to larger ISPs such as Verizon or AT&T. Some of my clients actually prefer local ISPs because they offer a higher level of personalized service. Understand that because their operating costs are less, local ISPs can offer very competitive pricing, though one needs to be leery about technical support and service level agreements (SLAs). For many large businesses, a national provider is worth the extra cost because it offers the technical support, added value and credibility that local ISPs just cannot match.

Up to now, we've looked at solutions that are appropriate mostly for very large companies. One should also not lose site of small and medium-sized businesses. While Fortune 500 companies clearly need solutions such as T1 or DS3, small business can usually get by with DSL, cable or better yet, fiber-optic broadband.

If you want fiber-optic, there are only two companies that offer this service. It should not surprise you that they are also Verizon and AT&T.
To sum it all up, the factors that go into choosing ISP include:

  • Speed
  • Cost -- including any set-up fees and hardware fees for network equipment
  • Network topology
  • Reliability
  • Service
  • Static addressing
  • Value added services such as spam blocking and virus protection
  • Length of service contract
  • Provisioning flexibility

At the end of the day, be careful what you recommend to you clients. If you recommend a local ISP because of price considerations, ensure your client understands that there may be a service penalty. While you usually can't go wrong with one of the national providers, make sure that the network topology and speed of access are really what the company requires. Furthermore, try to negotiate an agreement that does not encompass a multi-year commitment. In these dynamic times, I like to have as short of a contract as I can negotiate.

About the author Ken Milberg is the founder of Unix-Linux Solutions. He is also a board member of Unigroup of NY, the oldest Unix users group in NYC. Ken regularly answers user questions on Unix and Linux interoperability issues as a site expert on As a frequent contributor to, Ken often addresses networking channel issues.

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