| IRC NEWS | PR 010097 |
Business Technology: Pulling onto the Information Superhighway
by Sue Clayton
This article originally appeared in Arizona Business Magazine, (January/February 1997) and is reprinted here with permission.
You've decided it's time to venture onto the Information Superhighway. You've got a computer and modem, permission to tie up the family phone line for a few hours each week, and a burning desire to get started. Now you'll need to pay the toll. In other words, you'll need to select an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP is the gatekeeper who will connect you and your computer - via modem - to the Internet.
With more than 3,000 ISPs in this country alone, choosing one that best meets your needs can be a challenge. Fortunately, ISPs can be divided into three simple categories. The first category is the Big Four - America Online (AOL), CompuServe, Microsoft Network (MSN) and Prodigy - which are internationally-accessible ISPs that offer Internet access plus many of their own unique features. The second group of providers are national ISPs, such as AT&T Worldnet, Netcom and Pipeline USA. Finally, you can choose a local ISP. You can generally find these companies listed under "Internet Products and Services" in the Yellow Pages.
Selecting an ISP is not a decision that can be made solely on price. In fact, most ISPs charge comparable fees - generally around $20 per month for a personal account. However, some ISPs offer a lot more for your money, and it's worth your time to do some investigating. To learn how to best select an ISP, Arizona Business consulted Mark Goldstein. As president of the International Research Center and a Phoenix-based information broker and contract research provider, Goldstein is a heavy user of the Internet. He spoke with us about nine areas to consider when evaluating an Internet Service Provider.
- Points of Presence (POPs): "If you're travelling to New York, London or Japan with a laptop and expect to connect to the Internet, you probably don't want to choose a local ISP," advises Goldstein. "You'll want to choose a provider like CompuServe or AT&T Worldnet." These companies have lots of POPs (Points of Presence) which are local phone numbers around the globe that let you dial into your ISP's main computer, without paying long distance charges.
- Time spent online: You'll need to determine roughly how much time you'll be spending on the Internet each month. For a modest user, some ISPs provide up to five hours free, with an hourly rate thereafter. Other ISPs provide unlimited usage. Choose the plan that will be most cost-efficient for you.
- Unique content: "One attraction of an AOL or CompuServe would be the local content they provide," says Goldstein, who maintains a CompuServe account solely because of their unique offerings. The Big Four often have visiting celebrities and online experts, as well as special interest groups, that are not available from other Internet Service Providers.
- Ease of use: If easy use is a consideration, you'll likely want to stick with the Big Four. "The Internet can be somewhat intimidating," admits Goldstein. "You might find that AOL or CompuServe is very well organized and structured. You have a good support line. You don't always get a lot of support from a raw Internet Service Provider."
- Connection speed: Look for an ISP that offers a modem speed of at least 28.8 kilobits per second, which is the minimum speed recommended for Internet usage.
- Quality of service: Goldstein suggests that you do some independent research to determine an ISP's quality of service. If you don't know any of their current customers, attend a Macintosh or PC Users Group meeting and ask participants for their recommendations.
- Modem-to-user ratio: Compare the ISP's number of customers with their number of modems. "If they have one modem per contract, obviously everyone has a modem and no one gets a busy signal," says Goldstein. "A ten to one (user to modem) ratio is more common. But if they only have one modem per 50 accounts, you're going to get busy signals."
- Additional charges: Although monthly fees between ISPs are often similar, what's included in that fee can vary widely. Find out what your monthly fee includes. Is there a setup fee? Does this fee include any training? Does the monthly fee include help setting up or maintaining a Web page? How much disk storage do you get on the ISP's computer? Will the ISP monitor the number of hits, or visits, to your Web page.
- Software requirements: Goldstein warns that some ISPs require proprietary software that may make accessing information on the Internet more difficult. He recommends choosing an ISP that uses SLIP or PPP communication software that is accessible from the standard Internet packages, namely Netscape and MS Explorer. "You don't really want to be locked into the evolution of a proprietary package," warns Goldstein.
Getting on the Information Superhighway, like beginning a trip to any new destination, can be a challenge. But planning your trip carefully, by choosing an Internet Service Provider that's right for you, is guaranteed to make your journey a lot more pleasant.
(Sue Clayton is a freelance writer and owner of The BizWriter in Phoenix.)