Choosing an internet service provider (ISP) can sometimes be an overwhelming decision. There are over 800 ISPs operating in Australia. Most offer a number of internet access arrangements. Before you make a decision about an ISP, it is worth spending some time to think about the arrangements that best suit you. These days there are plenty of sources of information available in the market to help consumers make an informed choice before they select a product - some examples and hints on what to look for are listed below.
Some key factors to consider when choosing an ISP include:
- price and billing;
- help and installation;
- communication; and
- security of service.
It is unlikely that any single ISP will be the most efficient at all of these key features of providing an internet service. Instead, in such a competitive environment, it is likely that many ISPs will seek to cater for niche markets. It's a good idea to think about which of these features is most important to you.
What is an ISP?
An ISP supplies, or arranges to supply, a service that enables end-users to access the internet. It may own the facilities it uses to deliver a service or it may use the facilities of another provider (in the case of a 'virtual ISP').
Price and performance
You should reasonably expect to make a trade-off between price and performance, and can expect to pay more for faster internet performance.
How much do I have to pay to access the internet?
There is a vast range of pricing options available. When choosing an ISP be sure to check:
- any usage limits that apply to individual sessions, such as data transfer, download, upload or time limits;
- the period of any contract you may sign;
- any minimum charges you may agree to pay over the period of a contract; and
- any charges that apply if you terminate a contract before it expires.
You may also want to check what information the ISP provides about availability restrictions, billing arrangements, ancillary services and access for users with a disability.
More information on internet costs is in the ACMA fact sheet A guide to internet costs.
Which technology should I choose?
Internet services are provided by either dial-up connection or broadband. Broadband services can be delivered via:
- cable broadband;
- asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL); or
- satellite broadband.
These technologies are more fully explored in the ACMA fact sheet A guide to internet technology.
When choosing an ISP, ask for an indication of the level of performance you will receive. Finding a simple, understandable measure of performance is not an easy task. A typical consumer should know the following:
- The user's experience in getting online. In other words, what is the likelihood that you will get connected the first time when you dial-up your ISP and not receive an engaged signal because their modems or access servers are full?
- Once you are online, what data speed can you expect to receive? In other words, how long should it take you to download a particular file or page? and
- What is the risk of your connection to your ISP being disconnected or 'dropping out' as a result of an ISP's management of customer traffic in its systems?
Sometimes the answers to the second and third questions can be hard to obtain as performance in these areas is not always within the control of your ISP.
This is due to:
- factors such as the time of day and traffic on the internet causing variations in the internet's performance;
- variations in the performance of the location, equipment and communications devices of different users; and
- variations within the performance of the ISP's equipment.
However, your ISP should be able to give you information about connection speed and drop-outs. Ask your friends and colleagues about their experiences. You can also read about other people's experiences and recommendations on websites such as Whirlpool, and customer satisfaction surveys conducted by AC Nielsen.consult and Computer Choice magazine.
Help and installation
For some users, installing and setting up an internet connection may well be the most daunting part of getting online. Many people highly value support in dealing with problems. If these matters are important to you, you can ask your ISP for information about the assistance they offer in setting up your connection and the type and availability of ongoing help.
There are many ways that your ISP will communicate with you and vice versa. You may want to ask your potential ISP to identify all the communication options available, for example, post, email or free call 1800 numbers.
Security of service
It is important that you have realistic expectations about what your ISP can do to help recover any lost data. You should not expect that ISPs will be able to recover an email that you delete. However, ISPs may be able to provide information about how you can back up your data and what steps they take to recover your data if things go wrong at their end. If this is important to you, you should ask your ISP to provide information about security services offered and how the customer is able to control use of their account by other parties.
Internet assistance program
Users of the internet are encouraged to use the Internet Assistance Program (IAP), a joint initiative between Telstra and the Commonwealth Government, to help solve problems that are beyond the immediate influence of the ISP. The IAP offers a help service to provide practical information to internet users and a technical support service to solve more difficult problems. You can contact the IAP Online Help Service Centre on free call 1800 427 457.
Industry codes of practice
ISPs have responsibilities and obligations under existing legislation and industry codes of practice. These responsibilities are documented in:
- Telecommunications Act 1997;
- Trade Practices Act 1974;
- Disability Discrimination Act 1992;
- Fair Trading Acts in each state and territory; and
- codes of practice developed by industry organisations such as the Communications Alliance Ltd (formerly ACIF) and the Internet Industry Association (IIA) about matters such as prices, terms and conditions, billing, complaint handling and adult content. The Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code sets out some of the minimum consumer protections that providers of telecommunications services (including ISPs) must adhere to.
The ACMA has fact sheets on a range of topics.
Please note: this document is intended as a guide only and should not be relied on as legal advice or regarded as a substitute for legal advice in individual cases.