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When Bigger Is Better

Certainly, the dinosaurs were proof that biggest is not always best. The same is true of Internet access providers.

While there may be some comfort in selecting a service which is the choice of ten million others, there is no safety in numbers.

Both America Online and the Microsoft Network have suffered growing pains over the past two years. In building out their respective networks and technical infrastructure, the two providers have had serious service outages - AOL many more than MSN.

The effect on the consumer of these outages has included loss of electronic mail and loss of service for a period of time. While MSN seems to have settled in to its current size, AOL's outages continue, according to numerous reports and angry subscriber letters.

In addition, being one of millions makes a subscriber a tempting target to bulk e-mailers, also known as "spammers." Some spammers target millions of emails to subscribers of large online services where, they believe, Internet users are relatively unsophisticated. And while AOL, MSN, CompuServe, and other services are adroit at flexing their legal muscle against such unsolicited marketing tactics, they cannot keep their services free of it.

Interestingly, smaller service providers who measure their subscribers in the thousands, and their users, report a far lower volumes of unsolicited email.

This is not to say that other, smaller Internet service providers do not suffer from service outages or spamming. It's simply that their problems affect fewer people. Of course, when things go wrong, many of the smallest providers - including this reporter's provider - can still offer that rare experience of being on a first-name basis with a technical support operator.

For those who travel a great deal, bigger may in fact be cheaper. Generally, only large Internet service providers and large online services have local dialup access available in most cities. And, while efforts are underway by several companies to provide free Internet access in business class hotels, the fact is that business travellers encounter many Net needs outside their hotel rooms.

True, many Internet services do offer long-distance access rates, but like long-distance calls these can add up. For Internet users who travel extensively, big providers may be the best, or at least the least expensive, way to go.

Written by Sean Wolfe, with graphic design by Jerry Donnelly

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