Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Why do I need an ISP?


I connect to the www through a hosting company (www provider) through my
router; I have a fixed IP address. Question how does this hosting company
connect to the www and why can’t we mortals do that directly from home IP to

Well, you can, if your wallet is big enough.

But the real problem here is that there’s a misunderstanding of just what
the internet is. For example, “www”, or World Wide Web, is just a part of the

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

This starts to sound kind of Zen, but the internet is everything, and the
internet is nothing.

There is no single thing I can point to and say “this, this thing right here
that your ISP connects to, that is the internet”. It just doesn’t work
that way.

If we look at it differently, your ISP is the internet. When you
connect to your service provider, you are connecting to the internet right

Think about it — if you send email to a friend of yours that uses the same
service provider that you do, that email goes from your machine to the service
provider to your friends machine. It never had to go anywhere else that your
service provider might be connected to, and still, it did go over the
internet – your service provider’s little corner of the internet.

The internet isn’t really a thing that ISPs hook up to. It’s more like a
side effect of the fact that all the ISPs are connecting to each other in
various and fairly random ways.

Now, in the case of a small ISP, they may get their connectivity to the rest
of the internet by purchasing a connection from a larger ISP. Typically it’s an
extremely high speed or high bandwidth connection. A good ISP will connect to
the rest of the internet using more than one such connection, from more than
one provider, to balance the load, and provide fault tolerance should one of
the connections drop.

“The internet isn’t really a thing that ISPs hook up to.
It’s more like a side effect of the fact that all the ISPs are connecting to
each other in various and fairly random ways.”

Larger ISPs, such as AOL, earthlink and others may not have a need to
connect to an upstream ISP, since that’s already them. Instead, the larger
ISP’s negotiate connectivity between themselves. This allows you, through your
little ISP to get connectivity to everyone that your ISP, and your ISP’s ISP,
(and perhaps your ISP’s ISP’s ISP, and so on) can connect to.

The point is simply that there’s no central point.

One of the reasons the word “web” is so appropriate in World Wide Web is
because that’s a much more accurate picture of how things interconnect. Between
any two points on a spider web, there are hundreds if not thousands of ways to
get from point A to point B. The internet works (roughly) the same way.

So, could you connect directly to whomever your ISP connects to? Probably.
In fact, that’s what many large corporations do … they skip the low level
ISPs completely and purchase bandwidth in bulk from larger service providers.
You could do that to, provided you were willing to spend the money to do so,
and have the technical ability to set up your side of the connectivity. It’s
rare that the upstream network providers are set up to also deal with single
user / home / small business connectivity.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

17 comments on “Why do I need an ISP?”

  1. My ISP is, and my access is from Qwest on DSL. I pay Qwest monthly, and have purchased the DSL modem. US Family charges annually. I don’t need any of the USFamily services, my mail is hosted at work. Why can’t I drop USFamily and just keep the access with Qwest?

  2. Dear Leo,

    I think the question Lon has (and which no website ever seems to answer) is:

    Many of the wires we do our web surfing on — residential phone lines, as well as T1 lines —
    are owned by telephone companies.
    Let me illustrate: Consider what happens if I browse to and retrieve their home page:
    my HTTP request goes over my home phone line, to the telephone office,
    through perhaps a few more steps which I don’t understand yet,
    onto a T1 (or broader) line, travels cross-country, and ultimately ends up at Yahoo,
    through a series of wires (mostly owned by telecoms), laid end-to-end, connecting my computer to the destination.

    I think what people want to know is:
    Why do we introduce a break in the telecom-owned wires and insert an ISP?
    What if any essential service does an ISP add to this connection?
    Do we do it for historical reasons, or does the ISP add value somehow?
    Must we divert every Internet communication through an ISP?

    (Btw: In answer to Lon: a Qwest rep told me I don’t *have* to pick a separate ISP — that Qwest can be my phone company *and* my ISP — but I’m still investigating that. Perhaps is the telco and is the Internet provider.)

    — J. E. Brown

    Hash: SHA1

    Well, SOMEONE has to provide you with your internet connection :-).

    You are correct, in many cases a phone company acting to provide you your
    internet is at least a different division. In some cases it might even be a
    technically different company with the same name as I believe Verizon (telco)
    and Verizon (ISP) were or are, (not to be confused with Verizon wireless).

    Providing internet connectivity is VERY different than providing phone. Yes,
    they both travel over the same copper wires, but that’s about it.

    And to further complicate maters, on copper wire in the U.S. the telcos are
    required to allow you to select someone else to be your ISP. But all that is is
    a choice of allowing the telco to act as your ISP or someone else. Either way
    you still have an ISP. (Cable and Fibre-optic does not have this legal
    requirement, and hence your only choice for your ISP using those connections is
    the provider the connection.)


    Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)


  4. I have no phone / cable /dsl, etc. I take my laptop to a cafe/library who ever has free wireless access. Do I still need to be paying a local isp monthly. The only use I have for them – that I see – is my email , which I could do with yahoo or hotmail for no charge. Right ??? or am I clueless here ?

    THANX !

  5. I still don’t quit understand why you need an ISP. I mean does the ISP purchase a certain amount of IP addresses from the government and then just allow you to use one when you log on, or what? Who “owns” the internet? Why can’t you just connect to the mac address of a friends modem? I am going to DeVry University and learning as I go but these questions have not yet been answered. I thank you for your time Leo.

  6. Sorry, I didn’t finish last time. Is an ISP just a bunch of computers with a bunch of hard drives that webmasters upload their webpages to? The web is just a bunch of web pages isnt it? Or does the ISP mearly “patch” you through to the server of the website you are trying to access? The whole world wide web concept is just a little hard for me to wrap my head around. And also if your computer and your friends computer are both connected to the phone line then why can’t you just connect to each other just like you would on a home network? It is all just so much to take in and understand.

  7. Hi My name is sifiso and i am an IT student doing my fist year, i would like to Know where and how do the ISP’s get the internet access from? I know for a fact that i get my internet from my Service Provider but were does my service provider get the Internet

  8. So why and where does the cost come into it all?
    once the ISP has been established and their costs are covered – it’s stil often costly to get access to the internet through them…. they provide the gateway for me to access the www – what does it cost them to provide this? besides covering their set up costs~ specially once those cost are recvovered and their making a profit – where IS the continueing cost for them ? that they pass onto us? shouldnt it be a whole lot cheaper to sign up to an ISP than it is?

    Hardly. Power, lights, support staff, paying for thier connectivity “upstream” to the internet, hardware maintenance and ongoing replacement, system upgrades as capacity requirements grow … the list goes on. An ISP’s costs are definitely NOT fixed, or cheap.


  9. i’m not trying to be redundant, i just want to try to phrase previous questions in a different way. the internet is something, and nothing. the small networks (your computers) hook up to larger networks (small ISPs like insight cable) which hook to larger ISPs (like bellsouth) who own the copper and fiber optic lines that connect to someone bigger who owns the satellites and cables running under the ocean.

    If you own a cellphone, you can use it as a modem to connect to the cellphone satellites that are connected to this GIANT, CONSTANT, ALREADY-IN-PLACE network. cellphone connections are a fairly new connection type, and though they are often slow for various reasons, they are a more immediate connection to the network than going through an “ISP” who connects to someone else, who connects to the same satellite you just connected to through your phone.

    since yahoo, google, ebay and every retard with a “homepage” hosted on geocities wants people to visit their websites, which are stored on their servers, which connect to an ISP who is getting paid, why aren’t there more free ways to connect to this massive network? With so many entry points, why can’t some of the services I already utilize be used to connect to the internet for free? Why must we pay a phone or cable company for 2 services that use the same lines? Why can’t we go to a pay phone, break it open and hard wire a modem to it and hop on the INNER NETWORK?

    in some cases it’s as simple as security or security like features. for instance, connecting through a cellphone usually charges your phone in minutes which you pay for later, especially if you go over your allotted minutes. some cellphone providers even equate transfer size to minutes. 10KB = 1 minute, which severly limits what you can do or download.

    as far as cable companies, your digital receiver sends and receives through the same fiber optic wires as your cable modem, however the wires are internally divided up into channels. TV uses channels whatever through whatever, and the rest are for other services: internet, phone, etc.

    even if you were able somehow to tap into those channels to try to get free internet, once you connect to the cable company’s network, their security would probably detect that connection and they would either kill it or track it, or both. same with the cellphones. these companies pay their ISPs for their connections to the backbone networks and they do everything they can to prevent people from bypassing their accounting offices.

    i guess my question now is, are there any entry points that have little to no security and would allow you to reach out and touch some larger networks who don’t guard their internet connection?

  10. I’m still wondering about the whole IP address thing… is there an IP Police? Who makes sure no two computers have the same IP? Since corporations often use DHCP to dynamically assign IPs to the computers on their network, is there a way for them to know that all of their computers have unique IPs from every other pc in the world? Is this one of the jobs of an ISP?

  11. Come on people, Someone provides the connections (copper wires, etc..)This is provided by people like you and me who are trying to make a living. They don’t ask you to work 40 hours a week free of service for them do they? The IPS companies employee thousands of Techs and office employees. Like everything the cost for Internet is getting cheaper each year. If your a real cheap ass then just go down to your local libary or coffee shop and use it all you want! Heck alot of people don’t even lock their wireless router. Just buy a high end WiFi booster and steal your neighbors internet! (My version of Free internet)

  12. i think the growth of the internet is outpacing how much security the ISPs can handle. in time, i think internet will be free, perhaps not in our generation, but possibly the next one. there are some city and corporate combined efforts to offer free internet. for example, in san francisco, google is/was supposed to make all internet free in public places. i don’t recall the details of it, but i would guess that the larger players kept it from happening since they would lose a decent chunk of revenue in a rather large metro. i can speculate that google was willing to do so because free internet means more people on the web and likely using google in some way which would increase their revenue and such.

    i’m not a fan of having to pay for internet, but if you think about it, for $30-$60/month you get access to the entire freaking world. and unless you have the money (and authorization to do so) to buy a satellite and setup your own mini web through a system of networks that connects to the great big web that is the internet, you’re going to be stuck paying for it.

    if you want free internet, the only ways that i think are possible without owning a giant corporation are to steal it from your neighbor as someone mentioned above, or have an intricate knowledge of how it all works so you can maximize the inefficiencies in the system.

  13. If an ISP provides the copper for our internet, when when is this copper paid off. We get charged month after month for this copper that is in place and sure server cost money with cooling,repairs and, upgrades. I think the first questions is when will internet be free, since the existing copper lines and fiber optics cables will be paid for eventually, as well as the servers, so only electricity and labor will be the only cost of ISP’s at some point.

    You’re not paying for the wires. You’re paying for the service – the routers and computers and ongoing maintenance and running of the computers at your ISP that provider you your connection to the internet. There’s no such thing as a free internet – it takes money to keep it running.


  14. how can you have free internet? what would you use it on? Do you want free computer systems, free electricity, a free house to use it in? No what we don’t like is the open ended thing of paying an ISP a subscription each month, and if you look at it that way I suppose it’s the single most costly item in our setups, I shudder to think how much I have spent over the 8 years I have been hooked up to my ISP. Currently I pay £28 per month for a 30 meg connection, I have just downgraded from 50 meg which was about £45 a month but was too much for me and quite high, if I had saved £45 in a bank account for 2+ years I could have bought my dream PC, with bleeding edge top end everything. I think I am correct in saying that local calls are/used to be free in the States and that is the reason why the internet took of in the first place, so if this is true there is your free internet, completely unusable by today’s standards, but that what we all fell in love with.

  15. I am hosting two servers, one for a web application and another for svn. In one month I consumed 25$ worth of electricity… There is no such thing as free internet.

  16. The internet is free. What you pay for is access to it via the ISP’s satellites, cables and/phone lines. The only way not to pay is to become a multi-billionaire and lay some lines and/or launch your own satellites. In a nutshell of course.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.