ISPs - Should You Choose A "Biggie" or Stay Local?

By J.A. Hitchcock

As seen in the November/December 1999 issue of Link-UP magazine
Choosing an ISP has never been an easy proposition. What with all those lovely "FREE HOURS" CDs and disks you get in the mail, you don't know which is good, if they are, or if there is something else to choose from. Is a locally-run ISP a better choice? Should you go cable (if it's available)? Too many choices, too many pricing plans, too many things to worry about.

I'm going to try to make it a little easier, especially for those folks who live in rural areas like me.

I've heard horror stories about people getting Cable modem hook-ups and discovering every keystroke they make online can be seen by just about anyone else on the same cable modem service. Sure, it's faster than a 56k modem, but the cable companies (most, anyway) are not quite as knowledgeable when it comes to security and privacy. If your local cable company offers this service and can guarantee your privacy and security online, then go for it.

Moving from the Annapolis, Maryland are to rural New England was an online culture shock at first. I originally had Netcom as my ISP. As soon as we moved here, I found there wasn't a local number I could call, but there was one in the neighboring state, a toll call. But if I added "expanded service" to my Bell Atlantic phone service for an extra $5.95/month, I'd be able to make this call for free (well, almost). I did that. Even though my monthly plan with Netcom was $19.95/month, I'd added an extra mailbox for my husband (another $4.95/month), so I was actually paying $30.85/month for Internet access. I grumbled a bit, but I'd been with Netcom for over five years and decided to stick with them. Big mistake.
Netcom's access number was either constantly busy, knocked me off several times, wasn't working or when it worked, connected at only 48.8k instead of something closer to the 56k modem I had. Tech support was a long distance call to California, then I was kept on hold for what seemed like forever. They always promised to fix things right away, but the problems kept coming back. I decided to look into a local ISP.

Cybertours is as local as you can get around here. They cover almost all of Maine and most of New Hampshire, just up my alley. They didn't have an access number in my city, but had the same location as Netcom. I'd found I used the expanded service area quite a bit, so the extra $5.95/month for that wasn't a worry now. Cybertours only charged $19.95/month with two mailboxes and if I paid six months in advance, I'd get a $2/month discount. I paid the $107.70 up front, plus got up to 10MB of web page space, versus the 5MB with Netcom.

Everything was great at first. I moved our personal pages to Cybertours, resubmitted our new URL to all the search engines and loved the super fast 54.6k connect speed.
Soon after I found that they don't care much about newsgroups. I subscribe to quite a few writing ones and read and participate in them daily. I began having problems with the news server - not getting my updated newsgroup messages, getting only some, if I posted my messages wouldn't show up, etc. I had to e-mail Cybertours many, many times about this. It seems like they've finally gotten that squared away, now I just have to get them to add more newsgroups to the list currently on their server. That's the only complaint I have.
Their tech support is an 800 call away and they're prompt in calling you back if you leave a message. Or they'll reply fast if an e-mail is sent.
Things to consider before getting an ISP:
1) Pricing plans - are they competitive?
2) Connection speed - fast is always better
3) Tech support - is there an 800 or local
number you can call or is it a long distance call?
4) Access numbers - Are there enough for your
area so that it's a local call for you? Can you use it on
the road (if you do a lot of traveling, you may want to
stick with a national ISP)?
5) What comes with your membership?
a) How many e-mailboxes?
b) How much web page space?
c) What programs do you get (ie, browsers, e-mail
software, newsgroup software, "Instant Messengers," etc)
d) Do you have to pay a setup fee or do they have
any special introductory offers?
e) Do they offer help in designing web pages on their site?
f) Do they have general information on their site, such as
if you want to learn more about e-mail, newsgroups, chat
room, updating software, etc.
g) What are the spam policies? Do they allow spam or filter it out?
h) What are their harassment/abuse policies? If you have a
problem with someone, will they act quickly and help you?
(NOTE: If they don't have spam or abuse policies,
you may want to consider looking at a different ISP)

My thumbs go up for sticking with a local ISP. Except for one thing - when I travel, I need to be able to access my e-mail on the road. I don't want to have to pay long-distance charges calling the local Cybertours number.

NATIONAL ISPs - The "Biggies" Besides Netcom, there are a host of national ISPs to choose from. Since I knew I'd have to use something when on the road, I decided to try a few out, taking advantage of those wonderful "FREE HOURS" CDs I've been using as coasters.

There's a difference between national ISPs that most folks new to the net may not understand - some use proprietary browsers, such as AOL and Compuserve Classic, which means you have to go through their information and windows and access the web, newsgroups, and such from there. Then there are the ISPs that allow you to use whatever browsers, newsgroup software, e-mail programs, etc that you want. You basically just get a dial-up connection and go from there.

The best thing about national ISPs is that they generally have hundreds of access numbers to choose from in every state in the union, and sometimes internationally. On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, I used Compuserve to get my e-mail using a Halifax access number. It cost me a long distance call from the hotel room, but that's it. And it allowed me to keep up with my messages and work.

Having said that, here are my results (NOTE: I selected only a few ISPs, the ones most well-known) :

J.A. Hitchcock is a regular contributor to Compute Me.

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