How to Choose ISP

By James Mathewson

Well, the Internet access industry is starting to shake its way out. The much-anticipated consolidation of access providers is nearing its end. In broadband , this means that most users have little or no choice of providers. Though many of the changes have been hard on user choice, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, it's better to have one stable and pricey provider than 100 unstable, cheap providers. The shakeout was painful for scores of users who often were left with no connection when they needed it most. And some providers left standing don't exactly have good track records, either.

Still, there is reason for users to be optimistic about the future. The following is an outline of the way the Internet access business should go in the coming year. I provide it to give you a better understanding of where you should go now, assuming you want to stick with the same provider for at least a year.

Don't ditch dial-up

A lot of users were glad they hung on to their dial-up accounts in the midst of uncertainty with their broadband connections. When things go bad with broadband (as they often do), you at least can get e-mail, if not a quick scan of the headlines in text-heavy Web sites.

If you have a dial-up account, and you're paying less than $20 for it, consider it a blessing to have a back-up system. At the very least, when you need to reach tech support for your broadband account and you can't get through due to heavy call volume, you can e-mail them from your dial-up account. Things to look out for in dial-up:

o Go with a provider that has been around long enough to quickly respond to such issues as software upgrades and peak calling volumes.

o Read the fine print before signing. Some ISPs will disconnect you after a relatively short amount of time of idleness. Others let you stay online as long as you're actively engaged. Still others never disconnect users. The last is preferable; the middle option usually offers the best value.

o Check out Boardwatch magazine's ISP Directory to see how much infrastructure you will be paying for. Make sure your chosen ISP has an acceptable ratio of modems to users. Three users for every modem is acceptable, considering that it is unlikely that all their customers will dial up at once. o Match prices with the ratio of modem pools to users.

o Check out options such as personal Web site services and multiple addresses. These are nice to have and can add value to your experience as long as you use them--provided they're bundled in.

DSL doldrums

Of all the access methods, DSL has received the most scorn since I've been at this job. My own experiences were horrendous, and I'm not alone. It works great for about 20 percent of the population who are geographically blessed. It works OK for another 30 percent or so of the population, who may have to endure some line noise in order to get DSL. And it doesn't work at all for the other half. Couple its inherent technical limitations with DSL providers falling off the wires like shocked birds, and the situation has not been pretty.

Still, those providers that have made it through the shock test should be able to offer a good experience (with the exception of Qwest). Consider DSL carefully and you will avoid a lot of pain.

Some DSL issues you should consider:

o Talk to a neighbor about their DSL experience. Do they have a lot of line noise on the phone even with the filters? Did they have any equipment or network problems with their provider? If so, did they get put on hold and shuffled around through tech support when they called in? Was their DSL provider able to support a variety of platforms, or was it basically Windows-only?

o Consider ISP for DSL service. The Baby Bells, such as Qwest and Verizon, are not well equipped to deliver DSL service. Even though smaller ISPs may only resell DSL service from Baby Bell providers, they at least provide a live human being when things go wrong. Because the Baby Bells know the cost of supporting DSL users, they can offer DSL to ISPs much more cheaply than they can offer it directly to users. So you can often get a price break from ISPs, especially if you're willing to accept a slightly slower connection.