network service provider (NSP)

What is a network service provider?

A network service provider (NSP) is a company that owns, operates and sells access to Internet backbone infrastructure and services. The primary customers of NSPs are other service providers, including internet service providers (ISPs), which, in turn, sell internet access to businesses and consumers. Several network service providers also function as ISPs themselves, however. NSPs are also referred to as backbone providers.

NSPs build and maintain the fiber optic cable and core routers -- i.e., the principal data routes -- that make up the internet. Their physical connections come together at internet exchange points, which is where regional ISPs can connect to an NSP backbone. These locations are also called Peering points.

Not all network service providers are household names, but they are essential to modern networking. Their high-speed infrastructure and services support a downstream ecosystem that includes ISPs, wireless carriers and virtual network operators, among others, while also providing the foundation for all commercial IP services.

Examples of NSPs

Each region of the globe typically has a handful of NSPs, although some regions have only one. Some of the world's top NSPs include the following companies:

  • AT&T.
  • CenturyLink.
  • China Telecom.
  • Cogent.
  • Deutsche Telekom.
  • NTT.
  • Orange.
  • Sprint.
  • Tata.
  • Verizon Business.

How network service providers work

An ISP can purchase wholesale bandwidth from an NSP, which provides connectivity for their customers. Customers then access the network through their ISP's last-mile infrastructure, which, in turn, connects to the NSP's backbone.

From there, the NSP routes all traffic and provides the infrastructure needed for network connectivity. The NSP builds, maintains and expands its infrastructure to meet traffic demands. The ISP is responsible for its own network, sales, marketing and customer service. ISPs can also purchase other services from an NSP -- such as cloud-based services or Web hosting -- that are sold to the end customer under the ISP's brand name, a strategy known as white labeling.

This was last updated in March 2023

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