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Personal Finance
Choosing the right ISP
November 5, 1999: 6:26 a.m. ET

Your Web-surfing habits, needs may be the biggest deciding factors
By Staff Writer Nicole Jacoby
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - AOL or AT&T? DSL or cable? Local or national?
     And you thought the Web was supposed to simplify your life.
     Unfortunately, choosing an Internet Service Provider remains a daunting task, particularly with new technologies constantly on the horizon.
     The good news is that price has pretty much ceased to be a deciding factor.
     "These days price tends not to be much of an issue. Pretty much everyone is in the $19.95 to $21.95 (a month) range," said Don Willmott, executive editor of PC Magazine Online. "Reliability and technical support are really the main (distinguishing) factors."

    
Determine your needs

     Which ISP is right for you depends greatly on your needs and your technical know-how.
     A home computer that is going to be used the whole family is probably best served by a full-service ISP, such as America Online (AOL) and EarthLink (ELNK). These companies bundle Internet access with other services, providing content and enhanced offerings a smaller, local provider may not. Some of the added features may include chats, instant messenger accounts and personalized news pages.
     Full-service ISPs tend to be easy to install and generally offer extensive technical support, though the quality and availability of that support may vary.

    
List

     Full-service ISPs also commonly provide multiple e-mail accounts, so that each member of the family can have his or her individual e-mail address. Be aware, though, that some of the better-known providers may not be compatible with other e-mail software clients, since they want to promote the use of their proprietary systems.
     If you are interested in installing a specific e-mail system, such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, a local or "no frills" ISP may be a better choice. But bear in mind that these providers are usually best suited to the tech-savvy individual, since they tend to be less user-friendly.
     Local ISPs usually offer a straightforward Internet connection, with few value-added services. Because of their simplicity, they are sometimes -- but not necessarily -- less costly than their big-name counterparts.
     Having said that, a local provider is less likely to have multiple points of presence or POPs, which could be a problem for users that travel regularly and want to connect to the Internet from different cities. A POP enables users to connect to the Web via a local call, but if the ISP has a POP in only one city -- say Omaha, Neb. -- you'll be making a long-distance phone call every time you leave that area.

    
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     A national provider will likely have a higher number of POPs than a local company or may provide a toll-free number for dialing up their network. Be sure to ask about POPs before signing up with any ISP, especially if you are frequently out of town.
     And if you are planning to host a Web page through your ISP, also ask how much memory will be provided, since -- depending on the nature of your site -- you may need more than what is being offered.

    
Avoiding busy signals

     For many people, speed is one of the most important factors when choosing an ISP. Unfortunately, it can be among the most difficult criterion to gauge in advance.
     "Your mileage is really going to vary on this, depending on the time of day you access the Net, general Net traffic and other things," said Jessica Branson, senior editor for CNET online.
     Because of the possible performance variations, Branson recommends consumers take advantage of the many free trials offered by ISP heavyweights such as AOL.
     "You can check out things like busy signals, lost connections, and then pick and choose," she said. You may also want to call the provider's customer service line at different times of the day to see how readily available help is.

    
Looking to the future

     New technologies, such as cable modems and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), are helping alleviate the speed issue, though these technologies are still somewhat pricey.
     A DSL connection uses your existing phone line to deliver individual Internet access. Because you do not share this line with anyone else, speed performance is impressively consistent. Unfortunately, DSL availability is still extremely limited and not very cost-efficient. Installation can run as high as $400, with monthly service in the $50 to $80 range.

    
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     Like DSL, cable modems use existing wiring -- in this case cable lines -- to connect you to the Internet at faster speeds than possible by traditional means. But unlike DSL, you share that line with other users in your neighborhood, which could lead to congestion problems down the line.
     "If everyone in the apartment building or block signs on, the performance drops," said Willmott. To be fair, however, the performance still exceeds that of traditional modem connections, and cable access remains cheaper than DSL. Internet cable connections run about $40 to $50 a month.
     Bear in mind that the company offering DSL or cable connections becomes your Internet service provider, so you will have to live with whatever features they offer, unless you want to pay extra to keep your AOL or other account active as well.

    
Freebies not all that?

     If a bargain is what you're looking for, some of the free Internet access deals might be worth considering. But don't expect the same level of efficiency or service.
     "Our take is you get what you pay for," said Branson.
     Free ISPs, such as AltaVista FreeAccess, NetZero and dotNow!, are able to provide Internet access at no cost, thanks to permanent ad banners that live on the users' computer screen when they are online. In most cases, these ISPs are compatible with your Web browser of choice and in some cases, e-mail and Web-page hosting are also available for free.
     While the ads, which sit at the top of you page while you surf, are not necessarily intrusive, Branson says they can slow you down significantly.
     "It's sort of a nuisance when you're trying to move around (the Web) and you're waiting for a Java ad to load," she said.
     Other drawbacks can include connection problems and longer waits for technical support. Because ad-driven ISPs are not as financially successful as their commercial counterparts, their tech-support staffs tend to be smaller and less established, says Branson.
     A free Internet service provider might not be a bad idea as a supplement to your regular service, the same way you might have a Web-based e-mail account in addition to your AOL or AT&T account.
     That way, says Branson, "what do you have to lose?" Back to top

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