Word Crunchers, Etc.

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP)

Vicky Vickers

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP) who will suit your needs and wants, both now and in the future, is an important first step in getting connected to the Internet. An inappropriate choice now may mean switching ISPs sometime in the future, which would entail changing the addresses for your e-mail and website (if you have one). Likely, some of the people who will read this article may do so because they are considering changing their ISP.

What Are Your Needs?
There are several things to consider on how you're going to use your account before choosing, or changing your ISP:

  1. What will your major use be and how many hours per month do you plan to be on-line?
  2. Will you require a lot of technical support, especially specific to your operating system (OS)?
  3. Do you want to have your own website, and if so, how large and complex?

1. What will your major use be and how many hours per month do you plan to be on-line?
There are four major components to access on the Internet: e-mail, newsgroups, World Wide Web and FTP. If you plan to use your account mainly for e-mail, your needs will be different than if you plan to spend a lot of time cruising the Web and downloading software. Which brings us to the second part of this question - hours of usage.

Personally, I seldom browse around the Internet for fun. I look for information or software I want and then I will save, print or download it and go off-line. Consequently, I seldom use all of the ten hours per month which I purchase annually from my ISP. Some people spend that much time on-line every day! If you plan on spending a lot of time on-line, that will be a major consideration in your choice of an ISP.

2. Will you require a lot of technical support, especially specific to your operating system?
As a Mac person (i.e. a user of the Macintosh OS) having an ISP who knows something about my system and can guide me through any problems I have with accessing the Internet is important to me. Regardless of what OS you use, you will still want friendly, helpful service at the other end of the phone as well as with good e-mail support.

3. Do you want to have your own website and if so how large and complex?
This is a biggy! ISPs have a lot of different ways of handling websites. Some don't host websites at all, offering dial-up (Internet access) only service or both dial-up and e-mail services. Some providers host websites without any dial-up service. And there are also some companies which offer e-mail and/or host websites who don't offer dial-up service at all. As part of your website service, you may want to have an FTP site where you can upload files or software that visitors to your site can download. However, not all ISPs offer this service.

When it comes to paying for your website, some ISPs don't have any separate charge for websites, while others charge by the size. Some dial-up ISPs who host websites require that you purchase a certain number of hours per month depending on the size of your website. My ISP requires me to purchase ten hours per month to support a website between 250 kb and one meg in size.

The other thing to consider if you plan on having a website is, do you want to learn a complicated programming language? The basic language of the Web, HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which is very basic and quite easy to learn, only performs the more simple functions of webpage creation such as font size and style, indents, tables, forms, links, etc. JavaScript, which is used in a webpage along with HTML, is another more complicated language which is being used more and more to customize webpages, e.g. pages with complicated forms.

Most ISPs provide scripts (called Common Gateway Interface or CGI scripts) that are sometimes referred to as "webgadgets". These scripts are separate from your webpages and live on your website, or in the case of the ISP's webgadgets they are separate from your website but available for the use of all the ISP's members. They interact with your webpages by performing more complicated functions than HTML, such as access counters (how many people have visited your site), guestbooks (a place for visitors to leave their comments), shopping carts (so visitors can select different items on various pages and place an order for them), more complicated order forms, etc. To write CGI scripts yourself, you would have to learn another programming language such as Perl or C++.

Of course, you can always hire someone to design and maintain your website. Or you can learn basic HTML and hire someone to design CGI scripts and produce pages which need JavaScripting. Or you can choose an ISP which provides lots of "webgadgets" for its member's use, which would mean you would only need to hire someone to do JavaScripting if you learned HTML yourself. However, some ISPs don't allow their members to produce their own CGI scripts, as it can create security problems.

Types of ISPs
These days everyone seems to be getting into the business of providing Internet access. As well as the traditional (if you can call something that's only been becoming popular for a few short years, traditional) ISPs, long distance carriers and telephone and cablevision companies are now getting into the act. Cable companies are the major players offering 24-hour, high-speed access to the Internet at speeds of about 33Mbps (that's 33 million bits per second!), with e-mail and website services. (The average user accesses the Internet at around 28 thousand bits per second.)

Most of the telephone companies have also gotten into the act by subscribing to Sympatico, although, while the Sympatico charges appear on your phone bill, it is really a separate company. You can also rent a high speed telephone line to access your favourite ISP through your local phone lines. Some ISPs support ISDN modems which run at 128kbps (that's 128 thousand bits per second). I understand the next step by the phone companies is ASDL which will run at twice the speed of cable modems, or about 66 Mbps.

Various forms of Web and e-mail access using your television set are available, although not all of them are in Canada yet. The system includes a device to attach to your television set, which accesses the Internet over regular phone lines. It's a package deal which includes a web browser and e-mail access. However, there is no way to save or archive anything. It's a great deal for someone who has no other use for a computer, although I can see it creating that need in some people.

If you travel a lot and need e-mail access wherever you go, then international ISPs such as AOL or Compuserve may be what you require. They both offer e-mail and web browsing services and websites. What you don't get is the same personal local service as you would with a local ISP.

And then there's the "traditional" local ISPs, big, medium and small. Unless you need 24-hour, high-speed access, this is probably the best way to go. If you decide to take a trip, you can always sign up with AOL for dial-up access for the time you're out of town and access your e-mail on your ISP back home. Most ISPs offer dial-in accounts, e-mail, websites, webgadgets, etc.

Buying Time
There are many different ways to purchase dial-up time from a local ISP. Bulk time where you can purchase 10 hours, 20 hours, 100 hours, etc. which you can use until they're gone (or almost gone), at which time you purchase more. Monthly plans where you purchase so many hours per month. Monthly billing for the hours used each month. Most ISPs use one or a combination of these methods.

I prefer to purchase my time in advance, as I don't like the idea of a monthly invoice - I don't like surprises! I purchase ten hours per month once a year, for $96, which gives me a 20% discount over the normal monthly rate of $9.95, and I also get a 10% discount as a VMUG member. If I run out of time before my monthly roll-over date, I have a choice to set my account to start the next month. This means I could go through a year's worth of time in less than a year, but as I seldom use the whole ten hours per month, this is not a problem.

Local ISPs
When looking at a local ISP, it's best to choose someone who is well established and experienced in the business. Then check out the following items which fall into your needs and wants categories. Keep in mind that if they want your business they will tell you what you want to hear. So you need to read between the lines a little.

  • what is their price structure for dial-up access?
  • what services are included in your dial-up fees?
  • how does their billing system operate?
  • what extra charges you may encounter?
  • how is their technical support?
  • will you encounter many busy signals?
  • can you purchase bulk hours in advance?
  • do they offer discounts to computer users groups?
  • do they offer:
    • e-mail
    • multiple e-mail accounts
    • websites
    • FTP sites
    • newsgroups
    • webgadgets
  • can you write your own CGI scripts?
Once your have narrowed down the search to two or three, visit their place of business and talk to them face-to-face. This is a good way to judge the atmosphere of the place. If they are friendly and helpful when you walk in the door, then their technical support people will likely be that way too.

If you're already on the Internet and want to find out what other local (Victoria) ISPs have to offer, check out The Complete ISP List for BC (www.isplist.bc.ca/). If you're not on-line yet, use the yellow pages in your phone book under Internet.

Comments From ISP Users

Before I wrote this article, I asked both VMUG and WEAV listserv members: "If you were looking for a new ISP today what would be the 1-5 most important features you would like them to have? Conversely, what features would you not like them to have?" Some of these comments are anonymously quoted below. The italics are my changes, mainly to cut out ISP names as the purpose of this article was not to promote or condemn any particular ISP.

"I'd look for flat-rated pricing, low busy signal ratio, decent backbone connection, CGI and database support. I get this now by using (three different ISPs) together! None of these have it all."

"Most important features: easy payment plan method, pay only for time used (no monthly minimums, etc.), easy setup / no charge-setup where possible, explanations for setup on a website or handout, tech support (by voice to a 'human', or by e-mail), qualified on-site tech support, on-site training along with software installs. Features NOT to have: inflexible monthly payment requirements, cutoffs related to billing issues, cutoffs related to hours expired, inaccessible/non-human tech support, complex sign-up contract paperwork, difficulty in cancellation of contract."

"The most important feature to me is service. I can tolerate less than warp speed but if the ISP doesn't know what is going on or cannot answer questions, then I'm not interested. I would like some degree of speed - after all, time is money. A fair and equitable cost is important, but I would be prepared to pay a little more to obtain first rate service. I also like to deal with a company that gives something back to the community. The ISP must be MAC-friendly. (Conversely) I don't want to deal with anyone who uses aggressive sales tactics. I would never be the first to go with a new technology. There are inevitably problems which have to be sorted out. I don't want to have to purchase or lease more equipment - a modem,computer and telephone line should be all I need."

"As a Webmaster, rather than just a user, I look for (for starters): a good customer-service attitude and willingness to keep customers informed, adequate support hours, and more than one techie to support things, flexible pricing that lets me pay for what I use, a collection of simple "gadgets" with GOOD documentation, an understanding of issues faced by Mac-using Webmasters, enough funding/size/vision to upgrade/grow before problems occur."

"Busy signals ... busy signals ... busy signals. An ISP must have enough phone lines to handle it's subscribers at any time of day or night. Webmasters and designers can't afford to wait or be kicked off line in the middle of site maintenance. My recommendation is to use specialists. An ISP for dial-up services and a Host Service (that does not provide dial-up) for hosting your site(s). That way technical support is spread out. You very seldom need it for dial-up but often for hosting. In general I find that dial-up providers do not give good technical support to web designers. They are in the business of providing phone lines and that keeps them busy. Having individual providers also lets you "test the market" for dial-up services. I have found that many dial-up ISP's that I have dealt with eventually run into a "Busy Signal" problem as they grow. Some get over it ... some don't. It's better if you don't have to keep moving your website because of dial-up problems. (Snip) While I trust a cable company to network me (sort of), I don't think I want them to host my site (definitely). Another reason to host your site with someone else."

"Without mentioning the ISP by name, the one sore point I have is all the restrictions on what is or is not allowed to be put on the server. A case in point is PHP, which I cannot use to it's fullest in the (WEAV's) Advanced HTML group because it is server-side and the ISP does not provide it."

"Issue 1 would have to be speed of dial up. If access lines are too often busy, or the `handshake' often fails, this says move to a better provider. 2) having more than one tech handy to the phone is very important. I've found talking with a tech while they access the log of you or a clients dial up is helpful."

"I want a service that understands the Mac well and has people to answer the phone that can answer Mac questions with confidence. One that provides good documentation that is Mac specific. One that is "Full Service", with an FTP server, web space with scripts and a full terminal connection an option. One that strives to keep their hardware not just running but up to date in terms of technology and traffic so e-mail retrieval etc. is quick and crisp. One that keeps subscribers informed about happenings and conditions and provides a public forum for discussion about the ISP and other topics. (Conversely) I don't like busy signals. I don't like simple "on-ramps". I don't like `oh.... you have a Mac, ummmmm'."

"1. Not all ISP's e-mail are the same. Some are faster and some are slower to download. I know of one case where it takes up to four times longer to download your e-mail messages. This can be quite frustrating especially if you receive a lot of e-mail. 2. Again on the subject of e-mail, if you have a mailing list (not a listserv) and want to send a message to everyone on the list, be sure the ISP's program will accept all the list before verification. Some ISPs check the address as you are sending them, and if there is one that does not work, the server rejects the entire list and doesn't send out anything. I would rather have it all go to the server then receive "failed mail" responses after it's sent out. 3. Another consideration is how do you access if you are out of town. Because of my e-mail volume, I have to access every day no matter where I am. What I now do is sign up with AOL for a short period (they are too expensive for full time), and take my laptop with me. This way I'm never out of touch, and because AOL is pretty much everywhere, I can access even while travelling on the road. Just be sure the motel, hotel, condo, or whatever has a telephone available. I got a surprise when I went to Mexico and found no phone in my room"

I would shift my ISP in a minute if I was pointed to a better one. (My ISP) gives me unlimited time, if it isn't between 3 PM and midnight, when I am limited to 30 hours per month. I use 80-110 hours per month lately so the amount of time is important. If my ISP were faster, I might not need quite as much time, and so the speed of transmission is an important criterion. As far as Mac Friendly ISPs are concerned, I don't know what I would ask my ISP as long as the connection was working. My ideal ISP would be fast and cheap, with unlimited time."

"The Need for Speed. I just got (cable Internet) service in my residence. (Snip) Last night I downloaded Quicktime V3 which is a 6.5mb file in about two minutes! YIKES in combination with this (Macintosh) PB G3 I think this must be heaven. (Snip) If you are a casual user sharing your home phone and mainly just concerned with e-mail and the odd stock quote then classic dial up connections will be everything you need."

(In reply to the person who said they would change their ISP in a minute.) You probably wouldn't if you had an URL (website address) that directly tied you to the ISP. If I were to change, (and a few years back I considered it) then I would have broken the chain to all the hundreds of links I have established in the WWW."

"I like my provider because there is Macintosh support. I can buy my hours in bulk and use how much I like and when I like. Software was provided for my set up the first time and a voice at the end of the line walked me through a change of computers. I have only had three busy signals in the one and half years I have been with them. They give me 10% off for being a VMUG member."

"I like my ISP because it is local. I can walk into the office and they talk to me. They know that an Apple is a computer and not part of their lunch. Likewise that a Macintosh isn't a raincoat or "Oh, one of those." When I load and upgrade involving the Internet, such as Eudora Pro or OS8 they have worked with it before I get there, and know how to solve my problems so quickly that they make me feel really Dumb. They are patient with my stupidity. My E-Mailing hasn't crashed in over a year. On the other hand they are a bit more expensive than some, but you only get what you pay for."

"I like an ISP that not only supports my platform they also have people that know how to fix problems. If one is ever considering a web page this can be the deciding factor in choosing an ISP. I know (my ISP) has the most comprehensive CGI scripts of any ISP in town. This makes your web site more intuitive and dynamic, you can even write your own CGI. With all the talk about JAVA, keep in mind not all browsers support it, CGI is much more compatible. Don't just look at the "How much time do I get for my money". Look at what other features the ISP offers at no charge. Connect speed and busy signals are also important, the faster and clearer the better."

Desirable ISP characteristics. I've only had one (ISP), and am very satisfied because (a) I get on the net almost every try. Have to redial perhaps once per week. (sometimes, these days, there are even delays on the regular telephone, so some delays may be due to the telco.) (b) I get rapid response to my queries (which are few, but important when made). (c) I can't beat the price ($4.95/mo + $0.75 per hour over 7 hours/mo, all less the 10% VMUG discount)."

Acknowledgements
This article was published in the May 1998 issue of the Victoria Macintosh Users Group's monthly newsletter "MACtalk" in Vicky's monthly article "VMUG On-Line". Thanks to Mary Brooke of Brookline (www.brookline.com) for proof-reading this article and doing some research on the speeds of the different access methods.

Vicky Vickers is the owner of Word Crunchers, Etc. which specializes in website design and HTML training. She is a past-president (1994-6) and former webmaster (1995-8) of Victoria Macintosh Users Group (VMUG). She also founded and was the first president (1996) of the Web Enthusiasts Association of Victoria (WEAV).

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