Understanding the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Hierarchy: A beginner's guide


A dependable internet connection is crucial in today's digital environment for both business and entertainment. Nevertheless, have you ever thought about the businesses who provide the internet to your door? Enter the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hierarchy – a fascinating network of players working behind the scenes to keep us connected.

What is an Internet Service Provider (ISP)?

What exactly is an Internet Service Provider?

ISPs are businesses that give internet access to users in exchange for a fee, allowing them to connect to the internet and utilize various online services.

Definition and function of an ISP

An ISP is a company that provides internet access and connects users to the global network, enabling web browsing and email usage. Besides facilitating internet connectivity, ISPs offer related services like web hosting and domain name registration. They play a crucial role in ensuring reliable connectivity for various online activities, from streaming movies to video conferencing.

Types of ISPs (Wireline, Wireless, Satellite)

There are three categories of Internet Service Providers (ISPs): landline, wireless, and satellite.

  • Wireline ISPs use cables such as copper or fiber optic lines to provide internet access to users. These connections are highly reliable and offer fast internet speeds. Examples of wireline ISPs include AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.

  • Wireless ISPs deliver a wireless connection through radio waves transmitted by a tower. This option is available in rural areas where there may not be any wired infrastructure. Examples of wireless ISPs include T-Mobile Home Internet and Rise Broadband.

  • Satellite ISPs offer internet access through orbiting satellites in space. These connections are the slowest and most expensive option but are also available in remote locations where none of the other options are feasible. Examples of satellite ISPs include HughesNet and Viasat.

It's important for users to consider their location, usage needs, and budget when choosing between these types of ISPs.

The ISP Hierarchy: Understanding the three Tiers

Understanding the different tiers of ISPs is crucial in determining the level of service you require, from global backbone providers to local providers. Keep reading to learn more about peering agreements and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs).

Tier 1 ISPs: Global Backbone Providers

Tier 1 ISPs, often known as global backbone providers, are the world's highest level of internet service providers. They own and operate the infrastructure that serves as the internet's backbone. These firms have huge networks of high-capacity fibre optic connections that traverse continents and cross seas to connect the world's main data centres. AT&T, Sprint, Level 3 Communications, and Verizon are examples of Tier 1 ISPs.

Because they own their own infrastructure, Tier 1 ISPs do not need to purchase services from other network operators like lower-tier ISPs do. This means they can provide faster and more reliable connections compared to other levels of ISP services. It's important to note that while Tier 1 ISPs offer connectivity across long distances, they typically do not have direct relationships with end-users or small organizations looking for internet access. Instead, they usually sell wholesale bandwidth capacity to smaller regional carriers or Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Tier 2 ISPs: Regional Carriers

Tier 2 ISPs, also known as regional carriers, provide internet services to a specific region or area. They connect Tier 1 networks to individual users or small businesses in different locations. These ISPs typically have smaller networks compared to Tier 1 providers, but they still play an important role in the hierarchy of the ISP network.

Regional carriers include companies such as Cox Communications and Earthlink. They serve a specific geographic region, such as a state or set of states. They may not have the same worldwide reach as Tier 1 providers, but they are nevertheless vital in connecting consumers and companies to the internet. Depending on your location and demands, it is critical to evaluate both Tier 1 and Tier 2 Internet providers when selecting an ISP provider.

When choosing an ISP provider, it is important to consider both Tier 1 and Tier 2 options depending on your location and needs. For those who are looking for reliable service across their region without having to pay for high-end global connectivity that comes with tier one services can consider these tier two ISPs an affordable option.

Tier 3 ISPs: Local Providers

Tier 3 ISPs are the smallest players in the ISP hierarchy, but they play an essential role in providing internet access to local communities. These providers cater to a specific customer base within a limited geographical area that can range from small towns to individual neighborhoods. They offer local connectivity, usually through cable or DSL lines, and are responsible for maintaining their own network infrastructure.

Local ISPs may not have the same level of resources as global carriers, but they tend to excel in customer service and responsiveness since they cater to smaller communities where word of mouth is crucial. They also often provide customized services based on their customers' unique needs because these ISPs can be flexible when it comes to pricing packages and data caps. Some examples of Tier 3 ISPs include Sonic.net, Wave Broadband, and Tucows Domains Inc.

In conclusion, Tier 1 and Tier 2 ISPs form the global and regional internet backbone, while Tier 3 ISPs deliver connectivity to local communities. These local providers offer personalized support and high-speed internet access in areas where larger companies may not invest. Choosing a trusted local ISP can be the best option for personalized service and connectivity in remote locations!

Factors to consider when choosing an ISP

When selecting an ISP, examine issues like as availability, speed and dependability, pricing, customer assistance, and the benefits and drawbacks of different ISP tiers.


Research ISPs in your area and check for service types like DSL, cable, satellite, or fiber-optic.

Speed and Reliability

Consider your internet usage and compare download/upload speeds, data caps, and customer reviews to find a reliable provider.


Balance cost with service quality, accounting for additional fees and data restrictions when choosing an ISP.

Customer Support

Evaluate customer support through reviews, personal recommendations, and trial periods to ensure responsive assistance.

ISP Tiers

Consider the benefits and drawbacks of various ISP tiers, such as network coverage, cost, and customer service, to determine the best fit for your requirements.

Advantages and disadvantages of different ISP Tiers

The benefits and drawbacks of various ISP tiers are important considerations when choosing the best ISP for your requirements.

Check the table below to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each tier.

ISP Tier



Tier 1 ISPs

  • Global Backbone Providers offer extensive network coverage.

  • High-speed, reliable connections are available due to their autonomous systems.

  • Peering agreements with other Tier 1 ISPs ensure seamless data exchange.

  • Services may be costly due to the high infrastructure investment required to maintain global networks.

  • Customer support may be less personalized as these providers primarily serve large-scale businesses

Tier 2 ISPs

  • Regional Carriers offer more localized services, catering to specific regions or countries.

  • Prices may be more competitive compared to Tier 1 ISPs.

  • Customer support tends to be more focused, leading to quicker issue resolution.

  • Network coverage is more limited compared to Tier 1 ISPs.

  • Internet speeds and reliability may be lower due to dependence on Tier 1 ISPs for global connectivity.

Tier 3 ISPs

  • Local Providers focus on serving specific communities or neighborhoods.

  • Generally more affordable than higher-tier ISPs.

  • Personalized customer support is often provided, as the providers have a smaller customer base.

  • Network coverage is significantly more limited compared to Tier 1 and Tier 2 ISPs.

  • Internet speeds and reliability may be lower due to dependence on higher-tier ISPs for connectivity beyond their service area.

  • Additional services like bundled packages may be limited or not offered.


In conclusion, choosing the right ISP can make all the difference in your internet experience. Understanding the hierarchy of ISPs and their functions is a crucial step towards making an informed decision.

Whether you're a business or individual user, factors such as availability, speed, cost, and customer support should be considered when selecting an ISP. Remember to also weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different tiers of ISPs based on your specific needs. By keeping these considerations in mind, you'll be able to find an ISP that not only meets but exceeds your expectations for internet access.

Updated on: 14-Apr-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started