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Internet access: How to choose an ISP

Access is still a huge issue for users.

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 an 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.

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.

3G wireless

Wireless Internet access is growing fast, primarily for real-time e-mail systems like the Blackberry (and now offered by Palm and Handspring for certain providers). Verizon and Sprint now promise connections 10 times faster than the traditional 14Kbps connection. Tests indicate that the top speed of 144Kbps is rarely met, but at last we are seeing usable speeds for tasks beyond e-mail. Not that users want to surf the Web with their smart phones, but wireless modems in laptops make 3G a viable option when you’re away from the office but within your calling plan.

The wireless Internet is still an early-adopter service, though. There are myriad complexities involved in just dealing with wireless providers for phone usage. Add a layer of Internet usage complexity on top of that, and it may be wiser to go with your company’s plan and hope for the best.

If you’re a smart-phone user, that device may make your choice for you. For example, I ordered a Handspring Treo because it seems to be the best of the smart phones out there. But my company’s plan is with Verizon, and Handspring has no plans to offer a Verizon-ready model any time soon. In this case, I will be forced to use VoiceStream if I want to use the PDA for calling and Internet. Yet VoiceStream has no 3G option. Handspring does have plans to make a Sprint-ready model, which may be my only option if I want to take advantage of the unit’s unique capabilities. I guess I’ll have to wait for the Sprint model to come out.

For those who just want to turn it on and use it, you may have to wait longer than I will–at least until the end of the year to get all the 3G features to work with your gadget of choice. It may not be worth your time trying to plan for that event, because wireless plans change faster than the technologies. In any event, few will use 3G as their primary broadband option. It likely will never be fast enough, reliable enough, or secure enough to be used as anything but a supplemental access technology.

Wi-Fi hot spots

An emerging Internet access method is Wi-Fi, a.k.a. 802.11b. Though it was not originally intended for this purpose, Wi-Fi access nodes, or hot spots, are cropping up by the thousands in public spaces like coffee shops and airport terminals. It is by far the fastest growing Internet access method. And at speeds of up to 11Mbps and prices that are often free, you can see why.

Still, unless you live in a coffee shop or on a park bench, Wi-Fi will only be a supplemental Internet access method, at least until every streetlight and signpost has a node. But if you frequent a coffee shop on your “work from home” day, ask if they have a hot spot. If so, it’s definitely worth getting the gear to access it. And if you want additional users in your home to be able to access the Net, you can set up a hot spot there (that works off of your DSL or cable connection) and give your spouse or kids broadband without digging into the walls. This is the coolest trend since peer-to-peer dial-up.

Whatever your access method, do your homework. A bad broadband experience is worse than none at all. But if you check into all your available options, chances are you can tailor a solution to fit your needs, if not your budget.

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