Copyright (c) 1997 by Timothy C. Barmann. This article is intended for personal viewing only and may not be re-distributed in any form. Please e-mail link requests.
February 2, 1997
How to pick an
Internet service provider
By Timothy C. Barmann
If you have a busy signal ringing in your ear, chances are you are one of the thousands of America Online subscribers who have had trouble logging on recently. Since the world's largest on-line service lowered its rates in December, its modems have been jammed and its customers have become livid.
Under pressure from attorneys general in 36 states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, AOL agreed on Wednesday to refund up to $40 to each subscriber who has had trouble getting on line.
But that agreement still hasn't solved the basic problem of AOL's overcrowded network. And there are lots of people who couldn't be happier. They're the folks who operate Internet access companies that provide a link to the Internet. Many are enjoying a steady flow of unhappy AOL subscribers fed up with busy signals.
"This thing with AOL has just helped us tremendously," said Joe Hartley, a partner in brainiac Services of Hope Valley. "It's the best thing that's happened to us this month."
Providence-based INTAP is signing up three or four people a day who came from AOL, said company president John Gibbons.
What do these guys have that AOL doesn't? Open phone lines, they say.
If you are looking for a way to get to the Internet, you ought to consider the companies that are ready and willing to link you to the Net.
You can even reach AOL using one of these competing providers, if you are using AOL's version 3.0 software.
The chart accompanying this column lists Internet service providers that are based locally, as well as many of the larger national firms, which often have access numbers in dozens, if not hundreds of cities. National providers are convenient for people who travel frequently.
These companies offer essentially the same product: Internet access that includes Web browsing, e-mail and discussion groups. Most will also let you access America Online just as if you had dialed directly into AOL. Through the recently announced "Bring Your Own Access" plan, you can log on to AOL for $9.95 a month for unlimited access. Of course you'll also have to pay your Internet provider, so the total cost will be higher than if you were using just one service.
Choosing one Internet provider over another is not easy. Service varies from provider to provider. It can even vary at a single company over time, depending on how well it adds capacity as it gets new customers.
The better Internet providers plan ahead and invest in equipment and phone lines before demand reaches a point where service suffers. Others wait until customers are ready to jump ship.
Many providers in the chart offer plans not listed there. Several offer discounts if you pay for service six months or a year in advance. Be cautious about signing up that far ahead. Things are still changing rapidly in the Internet business. Rates are likely to continue falling.
And in a worst-case scenario, you may lose your pre-payment if your provider goes out of business. That's apparently what happened to the subscribers of New England Net, which was operated out of the Mac & PC Shop in Portsmouth. Last summer, the operation was shut down after all the computer equipment was confiscated from the owner, Mitchell Mallett, to settle a credit claim against him. Mallett had been offering a year of unlimited access for $200.
Also, be aware that "unlimited" access is a misnomer. Most providers will not let you stay connected 24 hours a day forever. You'll be disconnected if you don't touch the keyboard after a certain period of time. It would be better called "flat-rate" or "unmetered" service.Shopping tips
Things to look for when choosing a provider:
- Free trial period. You ought to be able to be able to try out the service without having to pay for it for at least two weeks. The first month is free, or nearly so, at some national providers.
- Free software. There's no excuse for a provider that won't send you a disk with all the software you will need. Make sure the disk has an installation program and doesn't just contain programs you have to configure yourself. (That can be a nightmare.)
- Extra e-mail accounts. Some providers will give you more than one e-mail account so other family members can have their own e-mail addresses.
- Space for your own home page. Most providers include at least some space on a Web server for a non-commercial Web site. Two megabytes ought to be enough to space to hold at least compressed 40 photographs, plus plenty of text.
- Toll-free technical support at night and on weekends. That's when you're most likely to be using the Net and may need help.
- Free installation. Providers don't like to advertise this, but a few will actually come to your house and install their software for you.
- Plenty of phone lines. Test for busy signals by calling the modem number for the provider you are considering at times you will most likely be on line.
Locally on the Internet
Here are some notes about a few of the local companies:
- edgenet Internet Services of Westerly is formerly Aquidneck Web. It's a fast-growing provider that is the first to offer service to all of Rhode Island. It also serves Fall River, New Bedford and southeast Connecticut.
- INTAP of Providence offers traditional Net access, but it also specializes in offering a high-speed satellite Internet service called DirecPC. It's offered in partnership with a Rehoboth, Mass., company that sells and installs a pizza-sized satellite dish you need for the service. The dish receives Web pages you request from the Internet, beamed to your computer. You will still need a modem connection, however, to send e-mail and to request Web pages.
It's an interesting idea, but it can get pricey for home use. (DirecPC is actually available using any Internet provider. See its Web site at http://www.direcpc.com/index2.html for more information.)
- InteleCom Data Systems of East Greenwich was the first Internet provider in the state. It may have the largest base of dial-up users, with about 5,200.
- Log On America of Providence has announced plans to become a national Internet provider. It is leasing modems and phone lines in 96 cities where it plans to offer access. Last month, the company was bought by an Atlanta telecommunications firm, Global TeleMedia Inc.
- Web Services International of Middletown is nearly finished selling its stock directly to the public via the Internet. It hopes to raise $900,000.
Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.