“How many ISPs are in the US?” Google this, and you’ll find more than 2,600 Internet service providers.
Now Google “Find business Internet providers in my area.” (Go ahead—we’ll wait.)
You’ll probably see a short list of the ISPs in your area, larger ISPs first, followed by (scroll down…) the smaller local ISPs—if they’re listed at all. This might lead you to believe that bigger is better. But is it really?
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of national or regional vs. local carriers. Broken down into categories, it’s obvious both have merits. It’s also clear that bigger isn’t always better, and smaller may offer surprising advantages.
Infrastructure & Technology
No question about it—big ISPs have big resources to invest in infrastructure and technology. ISPs like AT&T and Spectrum, which started life as phone and cable TV companies, hit the market with existing infrastructure to deliver the Internet to consumers. Google Fiber funded its own infrastructure with massive Google profits.
But, on the flip side, smaller local ISPs…
- do more with less, which requires creativity.
- are less exposed financially, positioning them to test new services in smaller markets.
- may not be as heavily invested in soon-to-become-obsolete technology, leaving them free to invest in their own fiber lines or negotiate innovative partnerships with local municipalities and communities with existing infrastructures.
An ISP’s size doesn’t affect broadband capacity, which is a function of connectivity type. A local fiber provider provides faster broadband than a mega-provider offering DSL. Fiber is fastest, followed by cable, then DSL, then satellite, then fixed wireless.
ISP size shouldn’t affect reliability, either. As a matter of fact, smaller ISPs can be more reliable, accessible and supportive when something unexpected happens… Check the provider’s expected uptime, and whether they have a truly redundant backup connection.
Experience, Company Structure & Expertise
Most of the bigger ISPs have been around for a while, which means they’ve probably done a decent job of providing services. (Possible exception: ISPs restructured or renamed because of bankruptcy or negative public image).
But except for brand-new startups, many local ISPs have been in business long enough to hit their 10- or 20-year anniversary. They may have provided newer types of connectivity just as long as the nationals.
Differences emerge with service timelines. A regional or national ISP might have a fleet of technicians, but if they’re subcontractors managed through a cumbersome bureaucracy… you’ve known that pain. Staff at local ISPs are often employees, which means faster and easier turnaround on installations and maintenance.
Staff at smaller ISPs are also less compartmentalized and more likely to know your business—which means you spend less time explaining things before your problem gets solved. You may see the same technicians, who are often cross-trained because fewer staff resolve more issues.
Customer Service & Support
Local ISPs have an advantage here. Their customer base is smaller, which means that each customer matters more to their bottom line—automatic skin in the game. When you call for support, you may get someone you’ve actually spoken to before. Pretty comforting to get a familiar voice on the other end of your crisis!
National companies often route you to a call center. You might get one rep in the morning and another in the afternoon, in different offices. A large, segmented company means you’re more likely to get passed around from department to department to get your issue resolved.
Look at customer reviews and satisfaction ratings. Ask if you’ll get an account manager who can help with your business needs and remain accountable to YOU.
Services, Service Area & Price
Services are about choice. Does the ISP—national or local—offer enough services to give you what you need? Can you get speeds, packages and bundles that suit those needs, or do you get rigid, cookie-cutter offerings?
Here too, larger ISPs have more capital to invest. But local ISPs are closer to their customer base, able to build services in an intentional way to meet customer needs. A national or regional ISP might take more of a one-size-fits-all approach to cover its huge customer base.
Connectivity varies according to geography. If you’re in a rural area, fixed wireless may be it. But in an urban area like Raleigh, you may have access to three or more ISPs that provide fiber, DSL and cable. BroadbandNow reports that 69% of Raleigh can access fiber at least to the block, with eight fiber providers for Raleigh businesses. Just two of those (including celito.net) are truly local.
Companies with a nationwide or large regional network may be best if you have multiple locations in different regions. But if you have only one location, or multiple offices in a local ISP’s service area, you may not need the reach.
With all ISPs, investigate fees not only for services and bundles, but for installation/activation and data caps. Plus—will you be paying for what you need, or for what the company’s offering?
National or Local: Will They Value Your Business?
New business is often the best business for a national ISP because it looks good to their board and stockholders. If your company is big enough, a large ISP may give you special treatment and attention because you turn more dollars for them.
On the other hand, local ISPs are positioned to be closer to their customers. They have a vested interest in their communities because they’re part of it. Company culture has a better chance of taking root in a smaller, tightly knit team.
So—national or local? It really comes down to whether you will be a signup or a client.
Does the ISP take the time to learn your business needs so they can serve those needs and help you grow? You’ll have a stake in their business—will they have a stake in yours?
Local vs. National ISPs:
How the locals stack up against the giants
|National/Regional ISPs||Local ISPs|
|Infrastructure||Resources to invest in massive infrastructure||Assume more risk for infrastructure but can be more creative, agile and innovative|
|Technology||Resources to invest in newest technology; sometimes “pre-invested” in existing technologies||Free to invest in what best serves their customer base or area|
|Broadband Speeds||Connectivity type, not the size of the ISP, determines speed and capacity||Connectivity type, not the size of the ISP, determines speed and capacity|
|Reliability||Size of ISP shouldn’t affect reliability; ask about expected uptimes and redundant backup connection||Size of ISP shouldn’t affect reliability; ask about expected uptimes and redundant backup connection|
|Experience||Often a long track record in a related industry (e.g., AT&T/phone industry)||May have same length of experience with newer technologies like fiber|
|Company Structure||Bureaucracy and use of subcontractors can slow service timelines||Staff are often employees – faster turnaround on installations and maintenance|
|Expertise||Well-trained technicians in sometimes limited capacities||Staff often cross-trained to resolve a variety of issues|
|Customer Service||“Big” can mean impersonal, fragmented support through call centers||Dedicated support team offers more personalized service, one-stop problem solving|
|Services||More capital to invest in offerings, but approach may be one-size-fits-all||Closer to their customer base; build services to match need and demand|
|Service Area||Regional or national network may be better for companies with regional or national offices||Limited service area works for single-location businesses|
|Price||Price out services and bundles, plus fees for installation/activation and exceeding data caps||Price out services and bundles, plus fees for installation/activation and exceeding data caps|
|Signup Customer OR CLIENT?||Danger of being just a signup customer||Danger of having a valued client relationship|