How to avoid being locked-in to your ISP

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How do ISPs discourage customers from switching/churning to another ISP?

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) frequently offer an array of features and services, often with aggressive discounts - particularly if you're willing to commit to a minimum contract length. Such discounts can be enticing, but ISPs don't like to lose customers that might "churn" to more aggressive discounters, so they often bundle "free" features, such as email addresses, webspace and/or online storage. Furthermore, ISPs sometimes offer a "bundled" internet AND telephone or VOIP service, often at little or no extra charge, that can make the whole package very appealing.

All of these communication services are useful, and it might very well be a good deal, but it is worth knowing that the "extra" services have little or no cost to the ISP, and they're designed to stop you from leaving the ISP once your contract period expires, or if another ISP has a seemingly better deal. The internet offers communication services that are free, with more features and better security, so it is usually better to use a third-party for features like email and webspace.

I need an email address, why not make use of the address(es) provided by my ISP?

ISPs typically issue you with, or grant you the ability to register and use, several email addresses. The email address is normally something like yourname @bigpond.com, yourname @optus.com.au or yourname @tpg.com.au. What are the drawbacks to this?

  1. Once you start using your email address, by supplying it to friends, family and business associates, or by subscribing to online services, you inadvertently lock yourself into staying with your current ISP, because if you change ISP, you'll lose access to your old email address(es), from the moment your account is terminated. If you move house, you obviously need to update your contact details with many organisations, and with friends, family and colleagues, and you can normally arrange for mail and/or phone-calls to be redirected to your new residence, for those organisations that your forget to inform. However, unlike moving in the physical world, an email address CAN stay constant, even if you do change address and/or ISP. By using email addresses that are not provided by your ISP, you grant yourself the flexibility of choosing an ISP based upon price and features, rather than being beholden to your current ISP, for fear of "losing" your email address. The ISPs know that you'll want to retain your email address, so that's why they include them for free.
  2. Your ISP wants to keep costs low, so it offers a simplistic email service. You might not get secure access to your mail server, or you might have limited capabilities for remote access, forwarding, filtering and/or archiving. There are many online email providers that offer free email services, with more features, and they're usually more secure, easier to access, and more reliable.
  3. ISPs are usually private companies or departments of public companies. As such, it is likely that at some stage, they'll merge with, or be acquired by another company, and/or they'll change domain details. That will probably involve a forced change to your email ISP issued email address. If they're competent, they might be able to redirect email to the new address, for a limited time, but you'll be the one that has to update your details with third-parties.
  4. Your ISP may not have been able to offer you a friendly username/email address. For example: tom13481 @isp.example.com isn't easy to remember or identify. However, even a free email provider, like gmail or hotmail, might not offer a friendly name either. But if you try several of the popular providers, you increase your chances of finding a more suitable address.
  5. If you need a more professional looking email address, like support @yourbusiness.example.com then you can still use many of the free email providers, but you'll also need to register and pay for a suitable domain. Once you have a domain setup, you can instruct many of the free email providers to handle the email for that domain.

So, the same applies for "free" webspace, online storage and VOIP?

Yep, these services cost your ISP very little to provide, and they all have the potential to keep you loyal to your ISP.

Have you got free webspace, where you've posted content? The pages were probably indexed by Google and others, and visitors to your pages may have added bookmarks/favourites. If you change your ISP, those pages will probably be deleted, and they won't be forwarded to your new pages. Third-party webspace providers usually offer more space, with more features, and higher bandwidth usage.

Do you have access to secure online storage with your ISP? If you've come to depend on that data being available, you'll have to move it all, and reconfigure your access. Again, third-party providers usually offer more space, with more features, and better security.

Enjoying cheap telephony with VOIP, but your VOIP number is tied to your ISP? You'll probably lose the number if you change ISP, and unlike regular telephone numbers, with a third-party VOIP provider, you can usually keep the number if you move, whether you move across town, or between continents.

OK, I'm trapped - How do I escape?

Act early. The sooner you remove yourself from the clutches of the ISP, the sooner you'll have the freedom to change providers. Creating a new email address with a third party provider is quick and easy, but updating your address wherever relevant, can take much longer. Remember to advise your family, friends and colleagues, and offer them gentle reminders if they inadvertently continue to use your old address, as some of their email programs will auto-suggest your old email address.

If you have online pages, copy the content to a new location, and then place forwarding details on the old pages. Given enough time, search engines will begin to index the new location, and people with bookmarks to the old location will, if they visit, find details for the new location.

If you have secure online content, move the content to the new location, and update any applications or devices that need to access it.

If you choose your third-party providers carefully, you'll hopefully only ever have to these things once.

Outsource and enjoy ISP choice

The proliferation of online services means that nearly all of the additional "features" that are offered by your ISP, are available online, often for free, and with better capabilities.

If you can removed yourself from your current ISPs clutches, then you'll enjoy better email, webspaces etc., AND you'll be able to make decisions about your next ISP based on the costs and features of the internet access.

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