Many people don't put a lot of thought into
their choice of Internet Service Provider (ISP). As a
result, if you ask three people what they think of their
current ISP, you may get three rather colorful
responses. Even though there are a number of ISPs to
choose from, getting a reliable Internet connection and
good technical support isn't necessarily easy. Many of
us are plagued with busy signals, slow connections,
and tedious hold times for tech support. So rather
than taking a scatter-shot approach to choosing an
ISP, figure out what features you need and then find
an ISP that offers them.
What Do You Want to Do?
The first question you need to ask is: what do
you want to do with your Internet access? If all you
need is a simple service to send e-mail to your Aunt
Emily, you can probably get by with the bottom of the
line standard dial-up account. However, if you are a
Web developer, you are probably going to want very
different bandwidth and services.
Where Are You Calling From?
In this area, local access is a key issue. For those
in metropolitan areas, finding local access
numbers, DSL, or cable modem service won't be a problem.
However, if you live in a small town, you may discover that your choices are more limited. Along
the same lines, if you travel a lot, check out local
access numbers for other areas, since dialing in on an
800 number can get expensive quickly.
What Speed Do You Want?
Where you are connecting from and your
bandwidth requirements narrow down your choices. For
example, in some areas of rural North Idaho,
getting DSL or cable access isn't likely to happen. So
those of us out in the sticks who need high bandwidth
are looking at satellite service. But experts are saying
that two-way satellite isn't quite ready for prime time
yet, so most of us remain with our dial-up accounts.
DSL coverage is spotty in many areas and may
involve calls to both the phone company and an ISP. If
you are considering an always-on connection like
DSL, don't forget to include extra costs such as a new
modem and firewall software in your budget. Be sure
to understand exactly what new hardware and
software you'll need before you sign up with an ISP.
Can You Connect Reliably?
A related issue is how often you can get through
to your favorite access number, or with always-on
connections such as DSL or satellite, how often the
service "goes down." A dirty little secret is that
some ISPs have more accounts than their bandwidth
can really handle. If all their users were to log on at
the same time, service would drag to a crawl or be
completely unavailable. (What good is unlimited access
if you can never log on?)
What Are the Limitations?
Be sure to compare any limitations that the
service imposes. Some ISPs limit how much data you
can transfer or how much time you can spend on
line. Also compare how much server space an ISP
gives you for a Web page. If you have ambitious plans,
you may also want to see if the provider lets you run
CGI scripts or Front Page extensions on your Web
pages. (Note that most services don't allow any
programming to run behind personal web pages.)
What Features and Support Do They Offer?
Different ISPs offer an array of features which may
or may not be important to you. Some ISPs let you
access your e-mail through a remote account or let
you have more than one e-mail address at the same
account. Also find out if they have a real human on
the other end of the tech support line and what the
hours are. Verify that the support number is either a
local call or an 800 number. Before you select an ISP,
it's a good idea to call the tech support line. If you
can never get through, find a different ISP.
What Equipment and Connections Do They Have?
Ask prospective ISPs a lot of questions about
their equipment set up. Find out what hardware they
are using and if they are using the latest versions of
communications software. You don't want to deal
with some guy that's got a row of creepy old modems
in his back bedroom. Don't be intimidated; if they
can't or aren't willing to explain their system so you
can understand it, move on. Talk to the prospective
ISP about the technology they are using for their
connections and make them explain it to you in real English.
How Do Your Friends Like It?
Ask your friends what they think about their
current provider. This type of anecdotal
informationwhile not exactly scientificis important. Find out
what kind of connection speed they are getting,
whether they get busy signals, and any experiences
they've had with tech support.
How Much Does It Cost?
Note that price is the last question on the list.
Saving $2 a month is not a bargain if you never get a
decent connection. So only after an ISP has answered
your other questions should you compare prices. Be
sure to include any start-up fees and prepayment
discounts into the equation.
When you select an ISP, a little up-front
research can save you a lot of aggravation in the long run.
Remember that the only thing worse than choosing
an ISP is having to go back and start all over again
when you discover that the choice you made in haste
didn't work out.
The good news is that there's lots of information
on-line about various connection technologies. The
bad news is that it goes out of date very quickly.
Technology changes rapidly and ISPs constantly are
merging and/or dying, so it's difficult to keep up. Here are
a few helpful sites that were working as of press time.
Everything DSL: www.everythingdsl.com
@Home Network: www.home.com
AT&T Broadband: www.broadband.att.com
Cable Modem Info: www.broadband.att.com
A Few Inland NW ISPs:
Cutting Edge Communications: www.cet.com
Collective Dreams: www.coldreams.com
Great Northern Technologies: www.gntech.net
HostPro (Micron Internet Services): www.micron.net
Icehouse Internet Services: www.icehouse.net
Internet Expressway: www.ieway.com
Pacific West Internet: www.pwi.net
Packet Partners: www.packetpartners.net