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Law Practice Management

Quick-and-Dirty Tech Update Guide to
Choosing an Internet Service Provider

G. Burgess Allison

Choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) can be a pain in the neck. This is a brand new market. There are a few thousand new service providers, but there are noticeable differences among them, and you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.

Unfortunately, making a bad decision when choosing a service provider can cost you more than just money. If you can’t get connected when you need to, if you keep running into "technical difficulties," if you can’t add desired new services and features, even if you’re just finding that your current Internet access is too darn slow—you’ll find that switching (later) to a different service provider will cost you considerable time and effort during the transition—at best. At worst, you could jeopardize the goodwill you may have built into your Internet presence—as your e-mail addresses and Web site addresses all change. It’s better to do the research now, and select your service provider on purpose—rather than by accident.

There are three basic types of service providers in this market: commercial online services, nationwide ISPs, and regional ISPs. There are just a handful of commercial services: America Online (AOL), CompuServe, The Microsoft Network (MSN), and Prodigy. There are just a few well-known national ISPs as well: AT&T WorldNet, Earthlink, GNN (from AOL), IBM, MCI, Mindspring, Netcom, and SPRYNET (from CompuServe). The vast remainder of the marketplace is made up of local and regional ISP vendors in your local calling area.

(1) Find the Vendors. The first task in choosing an ISP is to find all of them that you can reach with a local phone call. Unfortunately, the best way to find this information (almost the only way) is to do your research online. Ask someone to let you borrow his or her net connected machine for a few hours, or sign up for a few hours of "free trial." If you just can’t get online for this, try a local computer user group or computer store, or some of the local schools. But don’t shortchange yourself by skimping on this step—do the research.

Here’s a short list of good starting points:

http://thelist.iworld.com/

http://www.celestin.com/pocia/

http://www.barkers.org/online/

http://www.mindspring.com/~mcgatney/isplist.html

(2) Contact the Vendors. Most of these directory listings try to summarize services and pricing plans, but that information changes so fast you can’t really rely on it. Also, most ISPs offer several different pricing plans (rarely reflected in the lists), and choosing the right plan can make a pretty big difference.

(3) Pricing Plans. With most plans, you pay a monthly fee for a certain number of hours, then there’s a sometimes-whopping charge for any hours over that limit. Be careful not to underestimate your usage—those over-limit charges are where most services make their money. If a vendor offers "unlimited" use, double-check what that really means. True unlimited use with an all-you-can-eat flat fee means that the vendor hasn’t been in business long enough to learn that a handful of unlimited-use customers can tie up all the phone lines so no one else can connect. You may have to pay a one-time setup fee or "software" charge. And be sure to check whether the vendor really offers a monthly plan—or whether prices are just advertised on a monthly basis. Some ISPs charge you for a full year—in advance, with no proration if you cancel in six months.

(4) Incoming Line Speed. These days, your ISP’s modems should all be 28.8 Kbps (thousands of bits per second). Find out what they’ve got and make sure they’re not trying to get by with the older 14.4 Kbps modems. There’s a substantial difference. Even if you don’t have a 28.8 modem, you should still check this point. It’ll tell you whether the ISP is serious about keeping its hardware plant up to date. Also check to see whether the ISP offers an ISDN option, or other leased-line alternatives. These are the options you’ll need if you want to connect your entire office to the net.

(5) Outgoing Line Speed. The basic premise of an ISP is that it has many users dialing in through a bunch of incoming modems; then it combines all that traffic onto an outbound line to the Internet. If the ISP doesn’t match the outbound line speed to the volume of inbound traffic, then the outbound line becomes a bottleneck.

(6) Software. What kind of software are you supposed to run, and how do you get it? (Do they send it to you; do you have to pay for it?) Ideally, the vendor will supply you with well-known standards-based software (such as Netscape and Eudora), and it will allow you to run other standards-based software if you want to. The catch phrase for this is SLIP or PPP (both are network protocols). If they give you a PPP connection, you probably have the flexibility to select your own software as you become more proficient, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

(7) Special Features. There are a number of features that you might want—either now or sometime in the future. Obviously, the more sophisticated features will usually cost more. But the thing to check for—now—is whether those features are available as options for future growth ( especially the independently registered domain name).

(8) Support. Here’s where it gets ugly. But when you’re getting close to a decision, be sure to check. Call the ISP’s technical support telephone number. Now call the billing number. Did the same person answer? (Did anyone answer?) And be sure to ask out loud whether the person answering the phone is an employee or an answering service. Does the ISP offer 24-hours-a-day service, 7 days a week? (Refer to that as simply "7 by 24 service." The ISPs that have it know exactly what 7324 is.)

(9) References. Unfortunately, this is probably the ugliest part of the search, but by far the most important. There are a ton of important questions that you need to ask other users of the service: How often do you get a busy signal trying to dial in? (How often do you try?) Does the connection seem fast or slow? Have you had trouble with the vendor’s phone lines or modems? Has the technical support been timely and knowledgeable? Have you ever had problems with the billing department? Have you ever used any other ISP? What problems have you had with this vendor?

Go to the McGatney Ratings page (http://www.mindspring.com/~mcgatney/isprate.html) to see if the ISP has been described. If you’re feeling compulsive, go to AltaVista’s Advanced Search page (http://altavista.digital.com/cgi-bin/query?pg=aq), enter the name of the ISP—in quotes—and look in both "the Web" and "Usenet" for comments about the vendor.

Ask the ISP for references. Or use AltaVista to find other customers of the ISP—on your own. (From the Advanced Search page, enter "@vendorsdomain.com"—with the quotes.) If you contact people you’ve found on your own, send them e-mail, tell them where you found their name, and ask very politely whether they’d be willing to share their experience with the ISP.

National ISPs. The biggest advantage of the so-called national ISPs is that they’ve constructed an almost-nationwide network of local telephone numbers that you can use to dial into your account from different cities around the country ( without incurring long distance charges). Check to see how many cities are covered, and to see if there’s a match with where you frequently travel. (Most offer an 800 number when you’re in a city without a local point of presence, but the 800-number surcharges are usually around $5/hour—more than the service itself.) The other advantage of the nationals is that they usually offer 7324 technical support. The disadvantages are found in slow outbound gateways to the Internet, and proprietary, outdated software. Check the newsgroups and the McGatney Ratings page before going with a national ISP—several have well-known serious problems.

G. Burgess Allison is an attorney and member of the technical staff of Mitre Corporation (allison@mitre.org). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Mitre Corporation.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in Law Practice Management, September 1996 (22:6) .

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