Everyone says you should be online, but how do you decide which Internet service provider (ISP) is right for you? You may have already decided that you don’t need the proprietary content of providers like America Online and Prodigy but don’t know what to look for in an ISP. The lines are blurring as content providers open the gates to the Net and ISPs become more user-friendly. Just make sure you choose a provider that offers all the Internet features and/or content you need for your personal or business use. Remember, you can get almost everything free on the Internet now.
Besides regional and national services, be sure to check out local providers. They sometimes offer the best deals and the most interesting mix of features for the money. According to Jimmie Farmer, assistant system administrator at Eskimo North, Seattle’s oldest ISP, national providers offer more points of presence (POPs), or local dial-in numbers, to use when you travel around the country. Local providers, however, generally offer more services for the money, such as space for a Web page. There are over 4,000 ISPs currently enrolled on “The List,” a database created by iworld (http: //thelist. iworld. com).
Here are the major points to consider when choosing an ISP:
- Worldwide e-mail allows you to send and receive both plain text and binary documents, such as formatted text, graphics and sound files. Ask if there are limits on the number of e-mails you can send or receive, or space limits for e-mail storage.
- Access to the World Wide Web. The graphical aspect of the Internet, with all those “dot/coin” addresses you hear on TV, is a great research tool enhanced by free search engine sites like Alta Vista (http://www. altavista.digital.com/). Find out if the service provider supports graphical browsing or just plain text, and whether you can use your own browser (such as the popular Netscape Navigator). Also, find out if can you put up a Web page at no extra charge.
- Usenet news. Newsgroups are an excellent research tool. Written by reader participants, they’re a handy place to ask and answer questions arranged into thousands of topic areas–anything you can think of, from marketing to scuba diving to sex to religion.
- Software. National, regional and local providers often give away or charge a nominal fee for diskettes with all the software you need to access the Internet. Ask what software you’ll get or what you’ll need to supply. Note that you can download freeware or shareware software to do just about anything on the Internet, so the lack of a turnkey diskette doesn’t necessarily disqualify a good economical provider.
- Pricing. Get a rundown of all the packages available, from low monthly fees for a fixed number of hours to higher fees for unlimited service. If you’re considering a service that offers a flat rate, dial the data number at different times of the day to see how often you get a busy signal. Noon or prime-time evening hours are often the worst. Don’t forget to ask