Type the words "local internet providers" into your favorite search engine and it will typically generate a list of the big names everyone knows - AT&T Internet, Comcast Internet, and maybe a couple of national satellite providers.
What you may not know is that those aren't the only local ISPs available in many areas. Should you prefer to avoid patronizing the large conglomerates, you may have other options for affordable high-speed internet.
There is a catch, of sorts. It can be more challenging to find your local independent internet providers than it is to find the big guys. For those who are unenamoured by the sometimes impersonal, often automated experience that comes with dealing with a major internet company, taking the time to research local internet providers can be worth it.
In this guide, I'll explain how independent ISPs work, how to find them, and what to expect in terms of pros and cons.
How to Find Local Internet Providers - In This Guide
How Local Internet Providers Work
If you're under the impression that the big name internet providers control the infrastructure that makes up the information superhighway, you're correct - to an extent. Local internet companies leverage the power of the internet backbone to offer regional service to a specific area.
What is the internet backbone? Techopedia defines internet backbone as:
"...one of the principal data routes between large, strategically interconnected networks and core routers on the Internet. An Internet backbone is a very high-speed data transmission line that provides networking facilities to relatively small but high-speed Internet service providers all around the world."
Essentially the internet backbone is the collection of technology and infrastructure which makes up the root of all internet access. Everything that happens on the world wide web must be facilitated through the backbone. So where do local internet service providers fall in the hierarchy of the structure extending out from the backbone? Communications companies are divided into tiers, in a semi-fluid system with the largest, most powerful at the top and those which rely on the large companies for access at the bottom.
Related: What Is an ISP?
Tiers 1, 2, and 3 - Where Local Internet Providers Stand
Internet access is sort of like a waterfall. The top - and largest - section of the falls represents Tier 1 providers. These companies provide data and voice access to everyone else and do not have to pay for the privilege of using the internet backbone. Tier 1 companies include, but are not limited to:
Various areas of the world have their own Tier 1 providers. Tier 2 companies are like a hybrid of Tier 1 and Tier 3 - they may have some of their own access, but also obtain access through Tier 1 providers. These Tier 2 companies are like the smaller falls coming off large boulders below the main falls. Tier 3 companies get all of their access from Tiers 1 and 2. Tier 3 networks tend to be smaller regional companies with a consumer focus rather than business. While there is some overlap between Tiers 2 and 3, Tier 3 generally encompasses local ISPs. These are, of course, like the smallest and lowest parts of the waterfall, gently trickling down into the waterway.
There are two kinds of resellers in terms of independent local internet service providers:
- Authorized agents: this type of internet reseller purchases access from a bigger company and then resells it to you under the brand name. The local ISP will provide customer support, however, you will be aware that you're buying either dial-up or high-speed internet access provided by the larger company.
- Private labels: a private label reseller buys wholesale bandwidth from a larger provider and then resells it under their own business name. You as the customer typically won't be aware of where your local ISP is getting their internet access. The reseller provides their own sales and customer service. Should the larger internet provider go out of business, the reseller takes their customers with them and simply obtains access from another large provider.
Buying your connection from local internet resellers is a great way to support local business while getting the reliability and package offerings of the major high-speed internet providers.
Truly independent local ISPs create some of their own infrastructures and run their businesses completely independently. They do have to pay for access to the larger infrastructure connecting to the internet backbone, but they typically build out into neighborhoods on their own dime, installing copper or fiber cabling where necessary to bring internet service to their customers' homes.
Local ISPs in the real world
A company called Sonic, which operates in the San Francisco, CA area, is a good example of a successful independent local internet provider. As Slate reports, Sonic uses AT&T's main copper infrastructure to provide DSL, while most of their customers use Sonic equipment (such as modems) to access their connection. Sonic's customers benefit from personalized customer service and the ability of the provider to set their own rates and rules. Why does this matter? For one thing, it allows independent ISPs to control just how much of their customers' private information is shared with the government.
On the fiber side of things, Rocket Fiber in Detroit is shaking things up in an area where the big guys were taking too long to extend their fiber optic internet networks into the city. The unique thing about this internet startup is that it's a local ISP with backing from a very prominent company - namely Rock Ventures, the investment firm owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. It's unusual - and some would say an ideal - situation. Rocket Fiber is bringing truly local service to downtown Detroit at the speed of light, literally - 10 gigabits to be exact. So while it's a hometown enterprise, the infrastructure is made possible by significant capital, which is definitely not the norm for local internet providers.
As you can see, the local internet landscape is as varied as the geographical landscape from city to city. The most common types of connections you will find among small independent local ISPs are fiber and wireless broadband, although as evidenced by Sonic, private label DSL is out there as well.
It's not all fun and games
The truth is that starting a local ISP is very difficult. Ars Technica spoke with Joshua Montgomery, the owner of Wicked Broadband, a local provider of wireless and fiber internet in Kansas. Montgomery details the challenges of being a startup ISP, from funding to red tape to competing with the gigantic providers for a loyal customer base.
While major players like CenturyLink Internet and others have the capital and legal backing to negotiate the tumultuous waters of pole access, permits, and other bureaucratic nightmares, such factors can be prohibitive for the sole proprietor.
Despite the challenges, hundreds of companies nationwide are defying the odds and providing reliable internet service and a stellar customer experience to those who'd rather avoid the corporations. If you are lucky enough to have a successful local ISP near you, it can certainly be to your advantage to patronize such companies. The pros outweigh the cons for the most part, as I'll go into in the next section.
The Benefits of Using Local Internet Providers
Going with a local internet service provider typically means being known by your name and getting first-class customer service.
There are several advantages of using a local ISP, these include:
- Supporting local business - this advantage is becoming increasingly important to Americans as jobs move overseas. Even if you purchase your internet access from a reseller, you're supporting someone in your community, which naturally contributes to a healthy local economy and job creation.
- Speed - while some local internet service providers may not offer the blazing advertised speeds of the big conglomerates, the lower traffic level may actually afford you better, more consistent speeds.
- Customer service - for those who are frustrated with sitting on hold for a long time and waiting sometimes days for a technician to come repair a problem, local internet providers are a miracle. You're very likely to get a real person when you call on the phone, and because your internet company is located nearby you can typically expect service calls to be prompt. The simple fact of not having to go through multiple levels of an often frustrating automated answering system may just be enough to convince you to make the switch.
- Cost - you might be surprised at how competitive local ISP pricing can be. While independent internet providers don't usually offer the deep introductory plan discounts promoted by companies like Comcast, you also aren't likely to experience the frustration of bills which climb exponentially after the promotional period expires. When it comes to local ISP pricing, typically what you see is what you get.
Related: Comcast Internet Plans
You may feel like going with a local provider is taking a chance, and there is some merit to that concern. Using a recognizable name gives us a sense of security - we know they probably aren't going anywhere and that the network is tried and true. In exchange for that sense of comfort, however, you may sometimes feel like a nameless, faceless number in a crowd of millions.
Going with a local internet service provider typically means being known by your name and getting first-class customer service. Of course, there's always the exception to the rule, however, in general, you will get a much more personalized experience with a local ISP.
It's certainly convenient these days to simply hop online and order up packages such as cable and internet bundles from a major player in the communications industry. They've got the shiny websites, the automated ordering, and the tempting rock-bottom introductory offers that make it tough to resist. For those who do value the experience of ordering from a live person in their own community, local internet companies can be the perfect foil.
If using our handy zip code checker tool doesn't turn up as many options as you'd like, there are other ways to find out which local ISPs are available in your area. You just have to be a bit more creative than usual in your searches. Try searching a yellow pages website for "local ISP" and then scroll through all of the results. Independent providers will typically reside fairly far down the list, so you may need to click to the second or third result pages.
Another effective way to find local internet service is to talk to family and friends and find out whether they know of independent companies in your town. And as always, read reviews if they're available online. You may just find that not only are local internet providers accessible, but some are also top-tier internet providers, able to compete with even the best big internet providers.