Alberta & BC Rockies Computers: Choosing An Internet Service Provider

If you are thinking about using the Internet, you'll need an Internet service provider (called an "ISP"). An ISP helps your computer connect to the Internet's "backbone", usually by a dial-up account (using modem over a phone line) or a fixed connection. Once you are connected to the backbone, all your Internet communications is free--without long distance charges--though some ISPs may have an hourly connection charge.

In this city there is a very good selection for both business and consumers. Deciding which ISP is right for you is often a difficult one, because there is so much choice.

The first decision is do you need a fixed access, and are you willing to pay for it. Fixed access comes in three main flavours: cable modems, ADSL and ISDN, all of which have speeds measured in megabits (millions of bits of data) per second, which is about equivalent to 100,000 characters per second. Cable modems are used by the local cable company to enable Internet access over the same cable used by your TV and stereo. ADSL and ISDN are offered by the telephone companies and are short for asynchronous data transfer line" and "integrated services digital network". Fixed lines tend to require either special modems or a "router" (basically a modem on steroids), but enable several computers on a network to share a single connection. Fixed lines may cost anywhere from $40 to several thousand dollars a month, plus usually a significant hardware investment.

Comparatively, dial-up methods are much cheaper --typically $10 to $20 per month-- but slower, with speeds measured in kilobits (thousands of characters of data) per second. Speeds of 28,800 (or "twenty-eight-eight") and 56,000 ("fifty-six kay", and twice as fast) are quite common. If you have an older computer or older modem, you may have to use a 14,400 ("fourteen-four") modem, which is rather slow for today's graphical web sites. Remember, too with a dial-up account, your phone line is tied up while you are on-line. If you are using the Internet a lot, you need to get a second phone line, or upgrade to a fixed connection.

Here are some questions you should ask your ISP:

  1. How many phone lines and modems do they have? Do they have a maximum ratio of lines to account subscribers? Are they primarily a home-use, school-use, or business-use (when are their connections the busiest?) How often are all their lines busy?

  2. How do they link to the rest of the Internet? Is their line an ISDN, a T-1, a T-3, or fibre optic? What is their ideal throughput to the outside world? What is the typical "prime-time" download speed for a subscriber?

  3. Do they have an acceptable use policy or any restrictions? Some prevent you from accessing controversial or adult web sites or newsgroups,or prevent you from sending large volumes of commercial e-mail (this is not always "spam")

  4. Is the service ever busy or unreliable? Does the ISP have a reputation for a slow server, lousy support, system crashes, and outside lines being down. How often are they down for maintenance, even "preventative"? Do they publish those stats and downtimes on their website? Ask around to verify their information.

  5. How much help are their staff? Do they provide printed help Guides? Are staff available the hours you are most likely using the Internet? Home users need support outside of office hours. Businesses might require round-the-clock (also called "7-24") support for mission-critical Internet connectivity.

  6. What is the cost of the connection? Is there a fixed monthly or annual fee? What are the hourly rates or surcharges beyond a "maximum" allowable level? What are the additional costs for home page storage, for megabytes of data stores and/or downloaded? A typical web user "surfs" 20 hours a month, but others spend 100 hours a month on-line. If you are out of town, factor in long distance costs.

  7. Can you set up your own web site? How flexible is domain naming and are there any other costs? What support or software is provided? Is the support consistent with your needs and abilities?

  8. Can you connect to your e-mail or your Internet account when you are traveling? If you travel a lot, you need local access numbers for your range of travel, which may be as easy as a 1-800 number.If you have a direct access (Cable modem, ISDN, ADSL) what alternatives are provided for on-the-road access?

If an ISP doesn't provide clear and "plain English" answers, walk--don't run--the other way. If they will bullshit you before they get your cheque, you might expect WORSE afterwards. If you get good answers to these questions, and a warm fuzzy feeling, chances are the ISP is right for you.

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