Chapter 20 - Choosing an Internet provider

Before we talk about the different ways to get online, let's make sure your computer is up to the task.

Fortunately, you don't need the latest and greatest to get on the Internet. In general, Windows users should have a Pentium processor or higher with at least 32 MB RAM running Windows 95 or higher. Macintosh users should make sure they're running at least System 7.1 with a minimum of 32 MB RAM.

Either way, you'll have to have a modem if you're connecting using your phone line. (We'll talk about high-speed options later in this chapter.) Modems are devices that convert digital information so it can be transmitted over regular telephone lines. Most modems are rated at 56K or higher, which is their maximum connection speed. Phone line limitations, however, often ensure you won't quite reach that speed plateau.

Choosing an online provider is similar to any other buying experience. It's best to talk to others who use the services and comparison shop before signing up. If you've bought one of those computer packages with a hefty rebate in exchange for a two- or three-year Internet contract, then this decision may have already been made for you.

Online services

Online services such as Prodigy and CompuServe were once the norm for getting online, but most have gone by the wayside. The one that has continued to hold on is America Online (AOL), enticing newbies with a close-knit community for its members. Most people looking for access now will turn to a dedicated Internet service provider.

Internet service providers

An Internet service provider gives you a direct, unfiltered connection to the largest community of all - the Internet.

A straight Internet connection allows you to do pretty much everything you can with an online service - shop, converse with others, play on-line games, e-mail - but you might use different software for these various purposes. You are also more on your own often without the structure and support that online services used to offer.

Think of the Internet service provider as a plug that just bridges the gap between you and this vast database of other computers. You'll have to do a little more work to find everything you want. But, it's undoubtedly out there; you just have to search for it.

Installation can sometimes be bit more complicated with an ISP, but most offer good step-by-step direction. Although some will send you discs to connect, the norm is BYOS, or "bring your own software." Don't worry. Most of the Internet software you need is likely already on your computer.

In addition to a user name, password and telephone access number, you'll also typically need to know the ISP's incoming and outgoing mail servers, its news server and the DNS servers. Again, the company should provide these settings as well as installation instructions telling you where to enter them.

For Example, if you signed up with a company called Someprovider, your configuration instructions might look something like this:

  • User name: your username
  • Password: your password
  • POP Server: pop.someprovider.net
  • SMTP Server: smtp.someprovider.net
  • NNTP News Server: news.someprovider.net (requires authentication using e-mail address)
  • DNS Servers: 192.217.126.81, 192.217.77.82
  • Sign-On Format: username@someprovider.net

Dial-up versus high speed

Anyone who spends a lot of time on the Internet will often get frustrated with slow Web page downloads or trouble getting connected during peak evening hours. If you're online a lot, it's time to move toward a high-speed alternative:

Cable: Cable modems, which use the same coaxial cable that brings your TV signal into your home, can offer speeds 30 times that of a traditional modem. Since multiple users share the cable lines for Internet access, speeds can decrease if there are a lot of subscribers in your immediate area.

A cable modem sits outside the box and connects to your computer through a network card. If you don't have a network card, the cable companies can provide you with one during installation. By the way, one-time installation fees can run $50 or so - check for specials.

Unlike with a phone line connection in which you have to connect and disconnect, you're always online with a cable modem. That can increase your computer's vulnerability to "hackers," so make sure you follow your provider's recommendations to protect yourself.

The cable company, which acts as your ISP, charges between $30 and $50 a month, compared to about $20 for phone line connections. If you're online a lot, the extra cost is worth it.

To find out if the service is available in your area, call your local cable company. Companies first need to upgrade their cable to provide this service, so it's not available everywhere, but it is getting more common even in remote areas.

DSL: To compete in the high-speed Internet arena, phone companies have developed technologies to use existing phone lines for quick connections. One of the earlier types was called ISDN, but DSL - or digital subscribed line - has pretty much made that obsolete.

DSL first became prevalent in larger cities, as users need to be a certain distance from a central office for it to work. But, the technology continues to grow in remote areas as well.

As with cable, a DSL modem sits outside your computer and connects through a network card and the connection is always on. But DSL has an advantage over cable in that there is no sharing of the connection. The pipe leading to the Internet - called the "bandwidth" is dedicated to you.

Issues to consider

Let me share some general guidelines to consider while shopping around for an online service or an Internet service provider. Again, the most important thing is to ask around.

Price: The going monthly rate for unlimited access continues to hover around $20. Cable and residential DSL connections are closer to $35 or $50. Do a little price shopping, but don't let price be the only factor. Also, check the one-time setup fees and ask about installation specials.

Local access number: If you're using your modem, make sure your online service or ISP offers a local access number for your area. Otherwise, you'll be paying tolls with every Internet connection.

Support: Does the provider have a 24-hour toll-free customer support number in case you have problems? What are the typical wait times if you do call? Speed and reliability: Companies will hype their reliability, so ask others who use the service or read objective reports and comparison sheets. Ask your friends and family members if they experience reliable connections or if they often lose them and have to reconnect. Likewise, the speed could be fine, but if they're constantly getting a busy signal every time they call, what good is it?

NEXT - Chapter 21 - E-mail