Know the Fine Print in Your Internet Provider Contract

In general, you know it’s a good idea to read the fine print. It’s a really good idea to read the fine print in your internet service provider contract. The problem is - they’ve got a service you want, but they won’t give it to you unless you sign on the dotted line. 

You might hate it. You might disagree with it, but if you want to go online, you’re going to have to sign it, click “I agree,” or in some way signify your compliance with all the terms it contains.

And, boy, can those terms be a doozy. Obviously, the power is tilted towards the service provider, but you may not have realized how much until now. Get ready for an education. This might hurt a little.

What is an Internet Provider Contract?

Let’s start with the basics. The internet service provider you decide to pay in order to get online is known as the service provider. The internet service provider contract, which is the thing you’re going to sign, spells out the business relationship that will be legally established between the provider and the payor (you).

In the following article, we’ll mention the typical sections found in these kinds of contracts and what you should look out for in each. Of course, there’s little chance an internet provider will change anything in the agreement upon your request, but if it is too inconvenient, you can always move on to another company. 

Specific Services Provided

An internet service provider contract typically leads off with a services section. This is where they provide a list of which the agreement covers services. The details regarding these services will be spelled out in excruciating detail later on.

The thing to watch out for here would be any obvious ridiculous requirements. If you have to walk the CEO’s dog and wash their car - you probably should consider that a dealbreaker. The covered services should either be in the agreement or an attached “Service Summary” document.

Can You Trust an Ironclad Service “Guarantee?”

It’s common to run across advertising claims like “100% guaranteed uptime,” “unlimited bandwidth,” or a promise that you’ll always have online access at a certain speed. These are all well and good but parsing the fine print reveals caveats.

  • Guaranteed uptime: No provider can legitimately promise you will never experience a service outage. That would be like claiming to have the power to control the weather and other “Acts of God.” What you actually get is 100% uptime of service EXCEPT in the event of server maintenance, server hardware failure, or the aforementioned Act of God.
  • Unlimited bandwidth: This claim can be undone by a section in the contract known as the “Fair Usage Policy.” This means that if you use too much bandwidth, the provider has the right to “throttle” your account down to what is often an almost unusable speed for as long as they deem it necessary. The idea is that other accounts shouldn’t suffer slow access due to one “data hog” taking more than their share. The fine print will spell out how much you can be throttled. You’ll have to decide if it’s an acceptable number.
  • Fast access: The phrasing an ISP often uses in its speed guarantee is that you will enjoy a certain speed “up to” a maximum level. This is, in fact, no guarantee of that level at all and is actually a signal that it has oversold its bandwidth. Be wary!

Bundled Services

Along the way, internet service providers have learned that customers like bundles and reacted accordingly. In the bad old days, you got your internet service and not much else. In today’s ultra-competitive business climate, internet service is now often bundled with other services you used to have to pay for. For instance:

  • Cable TV
  • SSL certificates (if you build a website)
  • Phone service
  • Monitored home security system
  • Various browser and software packages

Bundling is a good deal for consumers. For example, buying an SSL certificate alone might cost upwards of $100 dollars annually. To get it for free as part of a bundle - where can I sign up? 

Terms of Agreement

In layman’s terms, this section summarizes the acceptable use of the internet service and what is not. It lays out what is considered misuse and how it might lead to termination of the service. 

Some typical abuses would be:

  • Undertaking any unlawful activity
  • Posting, transmitting or sending any type of threatening material 
  • Possessing or distributing child pornography
  • Sending bulk commercial emails (spam)
  • Infringing on third-party copyrights

There are more ways to violate the terms of your internet service contract - a lot more - but this offers insight into the kind of things you shouldn’t use your internet connection for.

Your service can be terminated immediately at the provider’s discretion upon any action it considers a violation of these terms.

Fees and Payment

This section is where payment obligations are laid out. Most internet service is billed monthly, though you can get a better deal by paying for a year or more in advance. The payment options and due dates are spelled out in this section.


Internet service providers are scatted all around the globe. Deciphering the taxes that apply to your account might be based on where the company’s home office is, where you are accessing the service or both. In any event, don’t expect you’ll be the lucky one who owes no taxes. How much and when will be spelled out here.

Hours of Service

Obviously, the expectation is that your internet service is on all the time. A provider might use this section to limit the hours you can reach live customer service or technical support. It’s now typical to have 24/7 access by chat and email, even if some hours of the day don’t offer the option of reaching live phone support. Reaching someone at the provider when you have a problem can be a big deal. A contract that puts too much of a limit on the ease of receiving help might be a good reason to reconsider signing the agreement.

Excluded Services

This section is fairly self-explanatory. While a customer might naturally assume that services listed elsewhere include the totality of the contract, the provider will want to ensure that what is not provided is understood. Therefore, features or services that are NOT part of your internet service plan are included here.

Minimum Standards

The Minimum Standards section might be folded into the Services section, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see it. Some providers break it out into different sections in order to highlight their bottom-line obligation, which is typically to provide some kind of internet access and nothing else.

Problem Management

We all know there will be problems eventually. Nothing is perfect in this world. Not even internet service providers. In anticipation of this reality, some ISP contracts spell out their problem-solving process. Whether they actually follow the process might be hard to determine, but at least it gives the customer a sense that there is a process and the powers that be aren’t just winging it.

If it ever came down to a legal squabble in front of a judge for a provider’s non-performance, the parties could refer back to this section when trying to ascertain whether or not the prescribed process had been followed.

Service Provider Liability

Now we’ve reached the big one. Liability. It’s the reason contracts were created in the first place. Avoiding financial liability at all costs has long been the goal of companies in industries everywhere. This is not surprising since a single misstep and adverse court decision could result in millions of dollars lost to cover liability.

Contracts Leave Few Rights for Subscribers

If it seems that an internet service contract is tilted against the consumer, that would be the majority opinion. One consumer advocacy group phrased it as the providers setting themselves up as “gatekeepers” rather than as a “gateway.” 

The good thing is that most of the myriad protections enacted are rarely enforced unless you are an egregious violator. Still, they pay expensive lawyers lots of money to create as ironclad a contract as humanly possible. They’re ready to swing the hammer if needed.

Surprising Things Allowed by ISP Contracts

Need proof of some of the most eye-catching behaviors allowed by most ISP contracts? Take a look at these:

No Email Expectation of Privacy

An internet service provider has the right to read your email at any time, no court-ordered wiretap is required. Most ISPs take advantage of this right in their effort to root out and stop spam

Keep in mind that the internet was originally open in nature, and this simply sticks to that ideal. So, if you’re sending a message that absolutely shouldn’t be read by anyone but the recipient, try snail mail. Email is more like a postcard. Anyone can read it.

Web Site Blocking

You would be wrong if you assume that your provider has to let you go anywhere and visit any website you choose. Once again, while they generally don’t trifle with this right, it is not absolute. There’s a clause allowing them to block or remove traffic deemed inappropriate, whether illegal or not.

The Bottom Line

Service providers have lately taken to bragging that you can sign up with them without a contract. The claim is a bit disingenuous. Yes, you don’t have to sign up for a specified length of time, and there is no penalty for quitting the service any time you like - these are all good, consumer-friendly things that we applaud, but don’t get too excited.

If you scroll way down to the bottom of any ISP’s website, you will see a section called “terms and conditions,” often in teeny, tiny, un-attention-seeking letters. These terms and conditions are the exact service provider contract we’ve been talking about. It is automatically activated as a binding agreement between the provider and any customer who buys a device or activates a service.

You’re not going to get out of it. The best thing you can do is be aware of what it means to you.

If, after reading this, you still have questions about your internet service provider contract, you can visit this site to quickly reach out to your provider or learn more about all of your internet access options.


Can I get Wifi at home without a contract?

Most ISPs provide this as a part of your internet service. It’s considered to be a broadcast of the service you’ve already paid for. You will be provided with a modem/router that takes the signal and projects it wirelessly around your house. No contract or additional action is required.

Who is the best no-contract internet service provider?

Generally speaking, go for the provider with the best offering available at your address. If there are two no-contract providers and one offers fiber while one doesn’t, go with the fiber provider. It’s the best product on the market right now. If the differences among providers aren’t so simple, you’ll just have to dig in and do your due diligence.

How do I start internet service?

If there are local providers in your area, the easiest way is just to stop by their office and tell them you want to set up internet service at your home address. If you prefer to go with an online provider (which might be less expensive), find a friend or public place that offers internet access because you’ll have to either call or sign up online. The process is simple either way. They will mail your router/wifi device and turn your service on. If you are in a rural area, you’ll have to set up a time to have the technician install your satellite and set up the equipment inside. The bottom line is that new service begins with either a visit or a phone call.

Do you need a phone line for internet service?

The good news is you don’t need to have an active landline in order to get high-speed internet service. With some connections, you might need to use the phone jack but won’t have to pay the telephone company anything. It is absolutely possible to subscribe to internet service without having to activate phone service. People do it every day. Nothing shady about it.

How much does internet service cost?

Obviously, this answer leaves a lot of room for variation but you should expect to pay roughly anywhere from $45 to $100 per month for internet service. Fiber and satellite are typically the most expensive while DSL and cable are less expensive.

InternetAdvisor Team

We are passionate about aggregating large, accurate data sets and providing it all to our users in an easy-to-use format. Simply put, shopping is easier for the consumer when he/she knows all available options. We are not beholden to any single provider and therefore are dedicated to transparency and giving you unbiased information on all providers.

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