How to Choose ISP

By James Mathewson

Cable consolidations

Of all broadband connection options, cable has given users the best experiences, but at a price. I signed up for AT&T Broadband at what seemed like a competitive rate. By the time I terminated the deal just prior to writing this (one year later), I was paying $30 more per month. Cable companies fed off of DSL rejects and jacked prices up because, in those instances, they're the only game in town.

And the cable monopolies have only strengthened of late. When Comcast bought AT&T Broadband earlier this year, it left three cable giants providing access to 95 percent of the population. And they all have similarly draconian pricing structures. For example, if you want to use your connection with a virtual private network (VPN), expect the corporate rate, which is often double the individual rate. Time Warner has also taken to putting limits on how much bandwidth a user can have over time. Exceed the limit and pay a higher rate. But if you want broadband at home, you might be stuck with cable.

What to look out for with cable:

o Make sure your provider supports your client system. For example, AT&T does not support Macs very well. Despite countless calls to tech support, I still get dropped off the network several times a week. To fix it, I have to turn everything off, disconnect and reconnect all cabling, and restart the router and computer. This is a pain when I'm on deadline.

o Check into deals that combine pricing for cable TV, cable Internet, and phone. Though your broadband connection might seem pricey, it's often a lot cheaper to do all three services through one provider than to pay for two through cable and one with your Baby Bell.

o See if your provider offers a slower access rate for a cheaper price. For most users, 256Kbps is probably fast enough. Don't pay for 1.5Mbps if you don't need it.

o If you use broadband for telecommuting with a VPN, try to get your employer to pay the higher corporate rate.

Satellite situation

For many in outstate and rural areas, satellite is the only broadband option. It's competitive with cable pricewise, but there are some issues that you'll need to understand before getting into it. The main thing is latency: It takes about a second for the signal to bounce off the satellite to your dish. That second basically precludes a lot of things that broadband users take for granted: interactive games; voice-over IP and teleconferencing; and other types of collaboration. If you're considering moving out to Green Acres and you're depending on satellite Internet to do some of these tasks, seek an alternative.

The other issue is that we may soon have a monopoly in satellite systems, as Hughes and Echostar have announced their intention to merge. Regulators are still deliberating on whether to let this happen. If I made plans based on satellite availability and price, I would be very worried about the impending lack of competition.

The bottom line is that satellite should be your last resort for broadband, considering the latency and merger situations. Still, if you already have DirectTV, you can get a very economical deal with DirecPC; or if you have DSS, you may get a sweet deal with StarBand. Depending on your Internet and TV use, satellite access may be your best value.

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