How to Choose an ISP or Internet Service Provider

In this episode of Tech Tuesday, Dave Hodgdon from PCG talks with John Maher about what businesses should consider when choosing an internet service provider (ISP). He covers some of the most important terms businesses need to know when looking for an ISP and gives tips on how long their terms should be, the importance of a back-up provider, and more.

Portsmouth Computer Group · How to Choose an ISP or Internet Service Provider

John Maher: Welcome to Tech Tuesday, brought to you by PCG, a managed services and security provider in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’m John Maher, and with me today from PCG is Dave Hodgdon. Welcome, Dave.

Dave Hodgdon: Good afternoon, John. How are you doing today?

John: Good, thanks. How are you doing?

Dave: Fantastic.

What Is an ISP?

John: Great. So, today we’re talking about how to choose an ISP, or internet service provider. What is an internet service provider, Dave, and how does a business choose an ISP that’s right for them?

Dave: Your internet service provider, John, and they all called the ISP, that’s your gateway to the internet, either that or to your phone. When we say your internet provider, it’s going to be both your voice and data and there are so many providers in this field, but there’s so many differentiators between what they offer and what they can do for you.

They all use different terminology and their fees are different. Some are charging for the equipment, some are not. It is sometimes very difficult for the business to understand that, but an ISP is such a vital part of what you do today with everything moving to the cloud, with your remote workforce, doing more and more online transactions that your internet connection is vital to have that up and running all the time with the right speeds and also to have a backup line, John.

Assessing a Business’s Existing ISP

John: How should a business expect to handle or manage that process of choosing an ISP?

Dave: I think first of all, when we speak to clients, who are you currently with? Are you happy? Are you having any problems right now? Are you under agreement? Are you running both your voice and data? Do you have multiple locations? How are you handling your workforce? But find out what the issue is.

As we go in there and we determine what the speeds are, a lot of times we get complaints from people, this is slow. I can’t access, downloading this takes forever. We hop online. We go to the edge device because you can’t always do the speed test, John.

At the PC, we go directly to the edge device and say someone’s selling you a 200 over 100 circuit. We’re showing speeds of 80 over 20. You’re not even coming close to what you’re paying for and you’re going to see bottlenecks and they’re getting upset at us, but really the issue is the internet service provider, so that is a very important thing you need to look at and you need to know how these circuits are being managed and is there a known agreement in place if something goes wrong?

Terms to Know When Choosing an ISP

John: You just mentioned a couple of things and threw some terms out there, like a 200 over 100 circuit and things like that. What are some of those terms that somebody at a company should know and understand as they’re looking for a new ISP, they want to be able to understand what it is that they’re getting, what it is that they have now, what the differences are. Can you explain some of those terms that people should know?

Dave: Sure, John. That’s great you brought that up because even myself sometimes use these little buzz words, but a lot of people are talking a DIA. That’s a dedicated internet access line.

A lot of people that are on Comcast, that’s considered broadband. It’s a shared signal. In your neighborhood, many of you are on that same circuit. They’re going to tell you, you might get 100 a upload, a 200 download, but you’re really sharing it, and depending if a lot of kids come home and a lot of people streaming. Those feeds are all over the board. There’s no guarantee on a broadband signal.

It’s important to have a managed circuit, just not a broadband circuit, but a managed circuit that you know they’re going to meet the service level agreement (SLA).

They’re giving you X speeds, John, that you’re meeting that and the big thing that we’re all talking about right now is symmetrical. I’m getting the same up and down speeds. Just to explain, up and down download speed refers to the speed at which your internet connection is able to retrieve data from the internet, and upload speed refers to the speed that your internet connection can allow data to be sent to your devices and internet.

So, if you’re on Azure and you’re uploading and downloading stuff, it’s very important to have speeds going both ways. A lot of times you’ll see it’s 300 over 30. Well, that’s great on some things, but that 30 is an absolute hog and it’s not going to meet the requirements for the user there, John. A user is more likely to utilize the download speeds than the upload speeds.

You’ll hear the term edge device. That’s the actual appliance that First Light, Comcast, Spectrum has, that router that’s in place that they own and they manage. That’s the device that’s there first before it goes to your firewall.

We mentioned having a service level agreement. That’s a guarantee for the speed you’re purchasing. It’s not best efforts, Johns, so in today’s world of a business, you need an SLA in place. I’m relying on my 20, 30 employees. They need to have X performance. They’re working from home, they’re VPNing in, we’re living in these cloud applications. I can’t be clicking that window and waiting for the slow internet to go out, retrieve at the cloud, and come back. I could be losing 20 minutes a day.

What Are the Major ISPs in New England?

John: Who are some of the major players in terms of ISP in New England and do customers really have a choice between several of them or are you often stuck with, “Well, I’m in this town, so I have to use Comcast or I have to use Verizon,” or something like that.

Dave: Your last sentence there kind of hit it, that certain areas only have one or two providers. In common areas like here in the Seacoast, I’ve probably got 15 to 20 options, but in certain towns you are limited. Unfortunately, you’re kind of stuck right there and there are some wireless players coming into play, John, but some of the bigger players… Comcast is everywhere. Not only do they offer broadband, they’ll give you the dedicated fiber. They were not a major player in dedicated fiber before, but that’s a new service they’re bringing, which you do want.

Consolidated. They’re the old FairPoint. That was the old Verizon, then it became FairPoint, then it’s Consolidated. You’ve got Spectrum. They’re huge player in Maine. There’s Atlantic Broadband that used to be Metrocast. That was kind of like North Dover to Rochester, up that way, so they’ve got that area, that niche in place. Comcast is not there yet. You’ve got Time Warner, a very, very big player in Maine. You have Cox, a very good cable player heading down south of Boston.

FirstLight is a major carrier. They’re all through New England. In my opinion, they have some of the better services out there for managing those circuits. There are quite a few players out there and it’s really based upon the address. Once you know the address as a partner with all these players, John, we have the ability to say, “Once I know the address, here’s my four players. All right, let’s engage those four players. Here’s what I need,” and these are the things we do for our clients. That’s the value of dealing with a managed service provider. Once we know what you want, then we can go to these players and at that point, work them for the best value for the client.

Why Are Symmetrical Up and Down Speeds Important?

John: You mentioned before the symmetrical service, meaning the same up and down speed. Why is that so important these days? Is it because we’re doing all of our work in the cloud now where we’re running our servers, instead of having a server in the closet and in the back room where we have our servers basically up in the cloud, and so it’s important to be able to send data to that service, that’s why we need a faster upload speed?

Dave: Correct. You hit the big one right there, and the more we move to the cloud, it becomes very important for those download speeds. It is nice to know that my symmetrical speech, when I get a hundred- hundred, I am getting a hundred-hundred. If I want to go to 200-200 or 300-300. Each one, John, of course, you’re going to pay an extra fee.

I’m a believer, start at the one that we think is right. Don’t overuse it, manage it, watch it, and if you’re starting to hit those thresholds, you have the ability to turn that up, but having that symmetrical service, it’s nice to know that you’re getting what you should have for a great user experience.

Why Do Businesses Need Managed Circuits?

John: What is a managed circuit and why do you want that?

Dave: They’re going to guarantee the speeds, John. A lot of times, if it’s broadband or signal it’s best efforts, the customer service is not there. You don’t have a dedicated line. If you have down time, there’s no guarantee that there’s a period of time they’re going to fix it.

With a managed circuit, you’re guaranteed your speeds, you’re guaranteed a response time. It’s similar to having a managed service provider. You’re having known expectations.

What ISP Term Agreements Should Businesses Consider?

John: In terms of term agreements, I know that a lot of these companies want you to sign for a year or even two or three years, what type of term agreements should your business be looking at?

Dave: A lot of it will depend on your area, John. The goal, hopefully, is how much negotiating power do you have? They all want you to get to three years, but we’ve seen the prices change. A dedicated circuit in the old days, they called it T1. When we first started, this industry was over $2,000.

It really, that speed doesn’t even come into play anymore, John, right now. You don’t want to get stuck too long, but you want to make it worth your while to get the best speed, and if they’re not delivering, you have a way out, but I would say one year is the minimum, three years seems to be the sweet spot, but don’t lock into three, four, or five years. There’s too many other players, too many speeds coming into play. You’re not sure how your business is changing, but I think three years is a good number to look at.

Can Businesses Run Voice and Data on the Same Circuit?

John: Okay, and can you run both voice and data on the same circuit?

Dave: Absolutely, especially if it’s managed. If it’s the right speed, upload and download, but if your speeds are average at best, and you’re on a hundred over 30 and you’ve got 20 users on the phone and data, that’s not going to be a good experience. Sometimes it makes sense to separate those, John, so if I do have a lot of users and my voice quality is critical, we have two circuits here. I think it’s nice to separate it. It is a little extra cost, but with the right services in place, you easily have the ability to run the both on there.

How Can PCG Help Businesses Choose an ISP?

John: How does PCG help with this process and help me to determine what I need from an ISP?

Dave: I think once we understand what’s in place for your infrastructure, your users, your firewall, your line of business application, your remote workforce, we pretty much have the ability to start watching the traffic of what’s coming and going from your network.

And then, we’ll look at your current bill of what you have and see if they’re even close to one another, and then we’ll assist you. As we mentioned earlier, let’s find out what carriers are available. Let’s get some things on the table and negotiate with you the best value, and then at that point get you to your next ISP vendor.

Do Businesses Need a Back-up ISP?

John: Finally, should businesses have a backup internet service provider, so if their internet service provider, their ISP goes down, and this plan is going to be down maybe for a day or something like that, they have another service that they can roll over to?

Dave: John, that’s an absolute, yes. I think every business, similar to your home, you have a lot of people now that have the generator so it’s not an automatic failover. You got to start up with the gas. A lot of homes now have the built-in generator. It’s complete that you know your power is always on.

It is imperative to have that backup internet service provider. They’re not that expensive, but it’s insurance that, should your main one go down, you could be losing thousands of dollars per hour. Your staff can’t work. You can’t take care of your clients. It’s a part of doing business. All your data is moving to the cloud and the main service goes down, you’re kind of hosed.

Think of it as you’re driving on the highway and there’s a lot of paths. If there’s a traffic jam on 95, you’ve got all these other applications, like waving and telling you, here’s different ways to get there. You can’t always just stay one direction. You need to be flexible and you need to be operational, and having that second circuit is critical today.

Why Reliable Internet Is Critical for Businesses

John: Like you said, with everything being in the cloud now, it used to be, if your internet was down for a few hours or for a day or something like that, you’d say, “Oh, all right. Well, no big deal. I’ll just go do this other work that I need to complete,” but now if 90% of what you do for your job is all online, you can’t even do your job at all.

Dave: Right. I can’t emphasize enough that people, if they can’t get to their email, can’t get to the line of business, can’t do transactions, having that second circuit up, it’s pretty much, it’s under $100, John, to have that second circuit up and running, and it’s something you need to have if the primary goes down.

Contact PCG for Help Selecting an ISP Today

John: All right. Well, that’s really great information, Dave. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Dave: My pleasure.

John: For more information, visit the PCG website at or call 603-431-4121.