Electronic Communication Network (ECN): Definition and Examples

What Is an Electronic Communication Network (ECN)?

An electronic communication network (ECN) is a computerized system that automatically matches buy and sell orders for securities in the market. ECN trading is especially helpful when investors in different geographic areas wish to complete a secure transaction without the use of a third party.

Key Takeaways

  • An electronic communication network (ECN) is a digital system that matches buyers and sellers looking to trade securities in the financial markets.
  • ECNs allow brokerages and investors in different geographic areas to trade without a third party involved, offering privacy for investors.
  • ECNs enables trading to happen outside of traditional trading hours, therefore enabling investors to react to or anticipate after-hours news.
  • One of the downsides of using ECNs is that they have access fees and commission charges that can jack up the overall price of use.
  • Without ECNs, it would take considerably longer for buyers and sellers to be matched with one another, making it more difficult to enter or exit positions and adding to the costs and risks of trading.

Electronic Communications Network (ECN)

Understanding an Electronic Communication Network (ECN)

ECNs connect major brokerages and individual traders so they can trade directly between themselves without going through a middleman. They also make it possible for investors in different geographic locations to quickly and easily trade with each other. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires ECNs to register as broker-dealers.

ECNs are computer-based systems that display the best available bid and ask quotes from multiple market participants, and then automatically match and execute orders. They not only facilitate trading on major exchanges during market hours, but they are also used for after-hours trading and foreign currency trading. ECNs allow for automated trading, passive order matching, and speedy execution.

Classified by the SEC as an alternative trading system (ATS), an ECN makes money by charging a fee for each transaction to meet financial obligations. It attempts to eliminate the third party’s role in executing orders entered by an exchange market maker or an over-the-counter (OTC) market maker and permits such orders to be entirely or partly executed. Orders placed through ECNs are usually limit orders, which is particularly useful for safely trading after hours, given the volatile effect that can have on a stock's price.

Some ECNs are designed to serve institutional investors, while others are designed to serve retail investors.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Electronic Communication Networks

The use of the ECN allows investors a way to trade outside traditional trading hours, providing a mechanism for those who either can’t be actively involved during normal market times or who prefer the flexibility offered by wider availability. It also avoids the wider spreads that are common when using a traditional broker and provides overall lower commissions and fees. For those concerned about privacy, the ECN can provide a level of anonymity to those who desire it. This can be particularly attractive to investors interested in making larger transactions.

One of the biggest drawbacks to using an ECN is the price to pay for using one. Access fees and commission charges can be costly and are difficult to avoid. Per-trade-based commissions can be costly and can affect your bottom line and profitability.

Another disadvantage of using ECNs is that the platform is less user-friendly than those provided by traditional brokers. Furthermore, the lack of integrated charts and data traditional brokers provide on their interfaces may make it difficult for beginner investors.

Finally, the wider spreads may complicate the process of calculating break-even and stop-loss points for some investors.

Allows investors to trade outside traditional trading hours
  • Provides wider spreads than traditional brokers

  • Anonymity

High costs
  • Less user-friendly platforms than traditional brokers

  • Harder to calculate break-even points because of wider spreads

Special Considerations

Along with ECNs, matching systems and call markets are also considered forms of alternative trading systems. Matching systems receive orders and route the activity through a matching engine instance where the prices are checked against current resting limit orders. If no match is found, the order is placed in the book immediately as a quote. Call markets accept orders one at a time, with buying and selling prices determined based on the exchange activity after the order is placed.

Examples of ECNs

Some of the different ECNs include Instinet, SelectNet, and NYSE Arca. Instinet was the first ECN, founded in 1969, and is used by small brokerages and for transactions between institutions. It is widely used by market makers for NASDAQ trades, but individuals and small firms can also use it.

SelectNet is used primarily by market makers, but it does not require immediate order execution and helps investors trade with specific market makers. NYSE Arca grew out of the merger between the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and Archipelago, an early ECN from 1996. It facilitates electronic stock trading on major U.S. exchanges such as the NYSE and NASDAQ.

In foreign exchange markets, certain Forex brokers are designated as ECN brokers who can facilitate currency trades across electronic matching networks.


The year that Instinet, the first electronic communication network (ECN), was founded.

ECNs vs. Market Markers

The term market makers refers to high-volume traders that literally "make a market" for securities by always standing at the ready to buy or sell. Unlike ECNs, market makers profit on the bid-ask spread rather than through commissions and fees. similar to ECNs they benefit the market by increasing liquidity.

Market markers set both the bid and the ask prices on their systems and display them publicly on their quote screens. The spread is typically kept lower than that investors can find in ECNs due to the fact that market makers generate their profit via the spread.

Without market makers and ECNs, it would take considerably longer for buyers and sellers to be matched with one another. This would reduce liquidity, making it more difficult to enter or exit positions and adding to the costs and risks of trading.

ECN Trading FAQs

How Do You Use an ECN in Forex Trading?

ECNs are computer-based programs that connect retail forex investors with major brokerages, all around the clock. After logging on to the ECN platform, investors will see the best available bid and ask quotes displayed from multiple market participants. ECNs will automatically match and execute orders.

How Are ECN Trading Fees Calculated?

Electronic communication network (ECN) fees are applied on a per-trade basis, usually fractions of a cent. ECNs charge a service fee for matching buyers and sellers who trade on their exchange and networks.

How Do I Open an ECN Trading Account?

To open an ECN trading account, simply create an account at one of the many ECN trading platforms available best suited to your needs. GO Markets, Exness, and XM are some of the most popular platforms.

What Is the Difference Between Straight-Through Processing (STP) and ECN?

Whereas ECNs provide liquidity by connecting investors with a number of parties—whether brokers or other retail investors—in order to complete a trade, STP brokers are automated brokers that provide traders with the ability to skip the middle man, but only through select liquidity providers.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "ECNs/Alternative Trading Systems."

  2. Instinet. "History."

  3. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "New York Stock Exchange/Archipelago Holdings Merger Complete."

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