If your area doesn’t have one by now, then it’s likely that it will by the time you finish reading this. The great ISP, or Internet Service Provider, is popping up in almost every town and city in America. Many an AOL member has been lured away by its promises of easier Web access at a low cost. It is a great service, but is the grass really greener?
Actually, it can be! There are Internet Service Providers out there who will give you good service at a low price. They will save you money, entertain your family, and keep you happy. There are, however, other Internet Service Providers that will leave you pining for the days of AOL’s browser.
Let’s start by briefly explaining what exactly an ISP is. For most of us, an ISP is a local service that provides you with Internet access. With an ISP, you get strict Internet access, and no other extras like you get with America Online. The service usually has e-mail, news groups, web chat, and other services at a flat rate. The biggest lure is the flat rate. Most ISP’s will charge one flat rate (usually about $15-$30) for unlimited access. A good deal, if the service is good. There are some national service providers out there, but we will focus on your local ISP.
So, what should you know before you give your credit card number to some local company? First of all, you can’t be shy. You have to ask questions, and be serious about getting answers. Remember, this is your money. The person on the other end is there to answer your questions. Be courteous but straightforward. Get the answers! You’ll be glad you did!
Now you’re ready to get started. The first thing you need to do is make up a good list of local Internet Service Providers. Look in the yellow pages and the newspaper. Make up your list (if possible), and give them a call. Now, have a handy list of questions ready. What should be on the list? Well. . .
* Make sure the ISP you choose supports the Macintosh. Do they support MacTCP or Open Transport. If they seem unsure, or if they have to go and “check,” then you should kindly end the conversation and go on.
* Make sure they not only allow Macs, but support them with technical assistance. Do they know the Mac? Ask how many of their tech support staff is Mac based. They should have a few on hand. If they don’t, or do not even have a tech support staff, you should forget it. You should be able to have a good Mac based technical advisor on hand.
* Get more info about the tech support staff. Ask about hours of operation, e-mail tech support, and voice mail support. Ask how long it takes to get an answer via e-mail and voice mail. A good ISP will get back to you via e-mail within 24 hours. Make sure you ask about tech support availability. If the support leaves for coffee and bagels from twelve to three, you should call the next choice.
* Price is a big issue. Many ISP’s have special deals or discounts that only appear if you ask about them. ISP prices can range from a flat rate of $15 to $30 a month. $30 is the maximum, and I am almost certain that you will find a lower price in any area. There might be other pricing plans. Figure out how long you will spend online, and then choose the plan that is best for you. Many providers might not bring up other plans unless you ask, so be sure to ask away. If you are used to paying hourly rates, an ISP can be like heaven.
* What are you getting for your money? How many e-mail accounts can you have? Can you e-mail to any other service? Can you get into web chat? What about news groups? Can you have your own web page? What is the limit to your web page? Will your page be available all of the time? How do they handle web page uploads?
* Here is a good one for you. Call the ISP and ask about busy signals. They should be able to tell you how often there is a busy signal, and at what times. Then, stun the provider when you ask for their access numbers. Take down the numbers and call them during the times you will want to use the service. Call at many different times. If you get a busy signal, call back a few more times. If you never get in, or if they will not give you the number, move on.
* Ask about Web browser support. Will you use Netscape, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or another browser? Also, ask how they handle other Web browsers if you choose another.
* What software is given at the time? The server should provide you with the software package you need. Ask if there is any software you will need prior to signing up. If you have some other internet software, ask the provider if they support that software.
* Is the provider “newbie sensitive”? PPP and SLIP settings can be confusing. The provider should give you detailed written instructions for setting up your software and modem. They should also give you settings for your MacTCP or Open Transport panel. If the server does not provide these, I would not sign up.
* Ask about system downtimes. Make sure the provider will be there for you. Even America Online has system downtimes, so don’t think lowly of the provider if it does. Do, however, ask about downtime schedules. Ask the provider how many times it has been down in the past month, and how long those outages were. The person on the other end might not know exactly, but they should give you a rough estimate.
* Are there limits to the amount of time you can spend online? Most ISPs do not have these rules, but some do. Ask about limits and how they work.
* Finally, stay away from the provider if you hear things like this:
“A Mac? Is that Windows 3.1 or ‘95?”
“Tech support? Bwa-ha-ha!”
“Well, I would have to lie about that because I know nothing about Macs.”
“Hey, Joe! This guy has a Mac!”
“Oh, the technical guys are off today. It’s Monday Night Football, you know!”
“What is Open Transportation?”
“Yeah, we support Windows.”
“Sorry, John spilled coffee on our tech support sheet.”
So, remember to ask about anything that comes to your mind. Stick your toes in before you take the jump. Make a list before you call, and then pound away. You should get honest answers quickly and easily. This is where you’re spending your hard earned money, and you want to make sure everything is just right.
You will likely find just what you need in your own area. When you do find one, it’s exciting and fun. Seek and ye shall find. Finding a good ISP is almost as exciting as getting the only shopping cart without a squeaky wheel. Well. . . maybe not.