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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:

Locally on the Internet

Here are some notes about a few of the local companies: