One way is to investigate various ISPs comparing performance, reliability, services offered, customer support, future viability and cost. Another is to take advantage of the testing and experiences of others.
Two computer magazines have recently ranked national ISPs. PC magazine analyzed 13 different services, measuring reliability, comparing features and conducting a user satisfaction survey. EarthLink Network [(800) 395-8425] and Prodigy Internet [(800) 776-3449] received Editor's Choice designations. Honorable Mentions went to IBM Internet Connection [(800) 455-5056] and Sprint Internet Passport [(800) 747-9428].
Earlier, PC World magazine performed a similar analysis with 12 national ISPs, awarding Best Buys to MindSpring [(800) 719-4332] and IBM Internet Connection. MCI Internet [(800) 550-0927] and SpryNet [(800) 777-9638] also did well.
CNET, an Internet-based computer news service, has been regularly ranking ISPs based on readers' views. It's currently changing its rating methodology and doesn't provide ratings data. But if you already have Internet access, you still can find a list of ISPs at http://www.cnet.com/Content/Reviews/Compare/ISP, and you'll be able to find ratings there once they become available again.
You also can get recommendations from trusted coworkers and friends or savvy salespeople and support personnel at your local computer store. If you're already on-line, you can read others' experiences and recommendations -- and sometimes their biting criticisms -- in the on-line discussions of local Usenet newsgroups.
Ask the Right Questions
One decision you'll have to make is whether to go with a large national ISP, such as those evaluated by the computer magazines, or a smaller regional or local provider. A number of industry analysts predict there will be a shake-out in the ISP industry, with the larger players buying up the little guys or forcing them out of business. But odds are that many of the stronger local ISPs will survive, providing niche services not available from the big boys. Even today, you'll likely find that a smaller ISP offers more personal service.
Here are some questions to ask any ISP you're considering:
Do you have a POP (point of presence) that's a local telephone call for me? If you can avoid it, you don't want to pay per-minute toll charges to the phone company each time you connect. This will depend in part on the type of service you have, but also on the number and location of the ISP's POPs. Do you support my modem? Virtually all ISPs support 28.8 modems and most support 33.6 modems. Make sure they do so at the POP you'd be using. Also, if you have a newfangled 56K modem, make sure the ISP supports the kind you have -- either x2 or K56flex. Do you support my computer? Some ISPs are more friendly than others to less popular operating systems such as the Mac or OS/2. What payment plans do you offer? Most ISPs offer unlimited access for $19.95 a month, but there are lots of options if you want to pay for multiple months in advance or use the service only a limited number of hours each month. Do you charge a setup fee? Going with an ISP that does charge for setup means it will be more expensive to switch later if you're not satisfied. What type of software do you provide and how? This isn't a concern if you're switching providers, but if you're connecting for the first time you'll want the process to be as streamlined as possible. The most helpful ISPs will mail you a CD-ROM disc that automates the process of installing software and establishing an account. Do you provide space for a home page? If so, how much space and does it cost anything? Many ISPs provide some Web space for free, generally ranging from 1 megabyte to 10 megabytes. If you plan to create a business Web site, find out the fees involved. Prices here vary widely. When is telephone support available? Some ISPs offer it 24 hours a day seven days a week, while others do so for only limited hours during the work week. Do you offer a Unix shell account along with a standard SLIP/PPP account? A shell account can be helpful in collecting your e-mail if you travel.
As your portal to cyberspace, your ISP plays a big part in your on-line experience. Make the right decision now and you won't have to look around again later.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.