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Picking The Right ISP

If the Internet is the "information super highway," then Internet service providers are the suppliers of its entrance ramps and toll booths. How do you go about choosing an ISP, and what is a reasonable price to pay? CBS This Morning Money Editors Ken and Daria Dolan take a look.

What exactly is an "Internet service provider" and how do you find one?

An Internet service provider, or ISP, is a company that provides you with software so that you can access their equipment that connects to the Web. Currently, the connection is usually via a phone line for residential users.

There are more than 4,000 ISPs out there. Some are nationwide companies like IBM, or phone companies like ATT, and others are local companies in your town or state. Picking an ISP is like picking a long distance telephone service, and indeed AT&T and MCI are two major providers of Internet service.

You can look in your yellow pages for a list of ISPs that serve your area, or go to your library and the Internet itself which has lists of these services by region and zip code.

Also, these Web sites can help:

What's the most important issue to think about when choosing an ISP?

Be sure the ISP you choose provides a local phone number for you to dial to connect to the Internet. Otherwise your phone bill could cost you more than the service, which doesn't make sense. If you live in a rural area and can't find a provider with a local access number, shop around for the best long distance service you can. Interstate calls may actually be cheaper than calls between the provider's service zones within a state.

Many of the larger providers offer access through an 800 number. These calls are generally not free as you might expect. They bill you a per-minute charge to cover their long distance costs, but it is usually a much better rate for long distance than you can get as an individual.

What are some features you should expect to get from an Internet server?

Besides access to the Internet, you should be sure they offer you:

  • A browser like Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Netscape's Navigator to guide you around the Internet.
  • An e-mail account so you can send and receive electronic mail.
  • The ability to handle a high speed modem, if you have one.
  • Parental controls if needed.
  • Access to Internet newsgroups.
  • The ability for you to put up a personal Web page.

What questions should you ask a provider about the del they offer?
  • Is there a local number to dial up when accessing the Internet?
  • Is there a free trial period?
  • Is there a set-up or activation fee? How does it compares with others?
  • Do they provide 24-hour technical support? If so, do they charge for it?
  • What are the cancellation provisions if you don't like the service?

What about pricing plans?

Each company probably has several pricing plans but there are two basic kinds: hourly plans designed for users who want to access the Internet only a few hours a week and unlimited access plans for people who expect to be heavy users. For example:

  • AT&T has sort of middle of the road plans: $9.95 for 10 hours of access a month and .99 for each additional hour. The unlimited plan is $21.95 a month and the first month free.
  • Mindspring has a plan for $14.95 for 20 hours a month and $1 for each extra hour. The unlimited access plan costs $26.95. They justify the extra cost with claims of exceptional reliability and service and offer things like extra e-mail boxes.

How do you determine if the service you want to use experiences service problems, like making you wait to log on, or frequent business signals or disconnections?

No provider can guarantee that you will never get a busy signal and, remember, the actual speed you experience on the Internet depends on many factors other than your ISP. But it tends to be the big companies with too many subscribers that have had access problems, often referred to as the "user-to-modem" ratio, meaning how much equipment they have to handle the traffic. Ask the company what their ratio is. A ratio above about 10-1 probably means you will get a busy signal often. Smaller local or regional companies tend to give you faster Internet access because they have fewer subscribers.

  • Word of mouth is a good way to find out about a particular provider.

Are these providers the only way to access the Internet?

Two alternatives are available - and they don't require a dial-up service. Both are more expensive, but they are catching on.

  • There is something called a DSL - Digital Subscriber Line - which connects to your existing phone line and is up to 50 times faster than standard dial-up services. But costs range widely from $40 to $125 a month.
  • There's a cable modem which allows high-speed data access to the Internet via a cable TV hook-up. It's lightning quick access - about 100 times as fast as a phone line - but it costs about as much as the DSL.

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