Are most ISP contracts similar to each other?
Internet service provider (ISP) contracts can have widely different terms. But, there is typically one absolute constant: They are complicated, sometimes scary, and give your ISP amazing authority to regulate your Internet use. These contracts tend to be confusing and filled with ISP protection language.
If you're in the right mood, you might even find some humorous ISP protection language in many contracts. It is interesting that user protections tend to be minimal while ISP disclaimers and powers are typically wide ranging .
Recently, the Associated Press (AP) reviewed the contracts of the largest ISP providers in the U.S. They uncovered some disturbing facts. In all of these documents, they found few rights and remedies for users, but almost total protection and power for the ISPs.
There is a bit of good news, however. Studies have shown that, with the possible exception of obvious spammers (often dealt with harshly), most ISP doomsday language and clauses are rarely enforced. Yet, don't dismiss them. These clauses and powers exist and can be enforced when your ISP feels the necessity.
You can find most of these issues in the "Acceptable Use Policy" and "Terms of Service" sections of your ISP contract. For your own knowledge and protection (more or less), you should take the time to at least read these two sections to better understand the key provisions and prohibitions of your ISP agreement.
Unfortunately, as Marvin Ammori, general counsel for Free Press (a consumer advocacy group), concluded, most ISPs maintain "…almost complete control of the users' ability to use their network as a gateway to the Internet." Instead of providing a wide-open access to the Internet, they tend to function more as 'Net police – at least on paper.
For example, you are a home Internet user with an e-mail account. One day, you receive no incoming e-mails and there are none waiting on your ISP server. You may learn that they have blocked your e-mail account, returned all incoming traffic, and sent a note to each sender that your e-mail addressed was "rejected."
After putting you on hold for many minutes, tech support tells you that your account was blocked because you sent "too many" e-mails in the past month. They assumed you were spamming others. Often, your only recourse is to ask them politely to re-activate your account, as you are not a spammer.
What primary things should I know about my ISP contract?
While you need not become an ISP contract expert, there are a few things about your agreement that you should know. Among the most important questions for your Internet access agreement:
How long is my contract?
Must I continue with this ISP for a stated, fixed length of time? Some ISP agreements are simple month-to-month arrangements, allowing you to switch providers rather quickly. Others have terms of one, two, three, or even five years. Should you wish to change ISPs, you should learn what penalties are involved.
What, if any, rate protections are in my agreement?
Month-to-month ISP contracts rarely have any rate guarantees at all. Your monthly connect fees can typically increase at the will of your ISP, whenever they choose. Contracts of one year or longer may have rate protection and guarantees during the term of the agreement.
Are there installation and/or tech support charges or fees?
Is installation (or de-installation) free or is there a fixed or hourly fee due? Is tech support free? Is support free if you use the Internet to find answers or enter a trouble "ticket," but a fee imposed when you need to speak directly with the help desk?
Are there maximum "usage" or maximum "download" limits?
This issue appears to be causing concern and, sometimes, serious frustration for some users (and ISPs, too). Even the largest ISP's servers are sometimes taxed because of very high usage or an extreme volume of downloads generated by some users. This activity can sometimes slow down server response to everyone else. While it may be an honest problem, some ISPs are now taking drastic action against these heavy users. They often simply sever the user's connection and provide no Internet access.
Read the fine print
Read the fine print of your ISP contract to become familiar with these and any other areas of concern you may have. This will help you choose the right ISP and increase your enjoyment of the Internet.