Who Can I Get Dial-up Access From?
You can get your Internet account from any of three main sources:
A national Internet service provider (ISP)
A local ISP, one that's headquartered in your city or town
A commercial online service, such as AOL or CompuServe
Each of these options is explained next.
Whatever service you choose as your provider, make sure the company offers a dial-up telephone number for connecting to the Internet that is a local call from your PC's location. Otherwise, you'll end up paying long- distance fees to the phone company in addition to whatever your provider charges for Internet access.
In most cities, finding local access numbers is no problemany local ISP, national ISP, or online service will have a local number you can use. In some suburbs and many rural areas, finding a local number gets more difficult. Often your best bet in such circumstances is to find a local ISP (discussed later in this hour), or to see whether your local telephone company offers Internet access. (Many do.)
Some services offer a toll-free number (an 800 or 888 number) that you can use to access the service when the ISP provides no local number. But that number is rarely truly "toll-free." The ISP almost always charges a higher rate for using the service through the 800 or 888 number, kicking the toll back to you.
Commercial Online Services
You've no doubt heard of at least one of the major online services, such as America Online (AOL; see Figure 3.2) or CompuServe (CSi). These services promote themselves as Internet providers, and they arebut with a difference.
In addition to Internet access, these services also offer unique activities and content not accessible to the rest of the Internet community. These services have their own chat rooms, newsgroup-like message boards (usually called "forums"), online stores, and reference sources that only subscribers to the service can use. Setup for an online service is usually very easy: You install the free software the company provides, follow the onscreen instructions, and you're connected.
The principal drawback to online services is flexibility. You often cannot choose and use any client software you want; you must use a single client environment supplied by the service, or one program from among a limited set of options. When new, enhanced releases of client programs come out, ISP users can install and use them right away, whereas most online service users must wait until the online service publishes its customized version.
On the plus side, for Web browsing, most online services do supply a version of either Navigator, Internet Explorer, or both (specially customized for compatibility with the service), making the look and feel of the Web through an online service essentially identical to that of an ISP.
Another beef about online services is capacity. When America Online introduced more attractive pricing a few years ago, it picked up far more subscribers than it was prepared to serve. The result was that subscribers often got busy signals when they tried to connect, and could not get through to the overburdened system for hours. A few times, the system crashed altogether.
This is a legitimate complaint, as are the reports that the online services sometimes tend to supply slow, unreliable Internet access. But to be completely fair, many ISPs also get overloaded, and may be burdened by busy signals and poor performance, too.
Whomever you choose, you must be prepared for the possibility you'll get fed up and switch. You can't expect any provider to be perfect. But the possibility of losing subscribers is the only incentive for providers to continually improve.
Also, try to avoid signing long-term contracts with providers; these deals can cause you great pain if the provider fails to give the level of service you expect.
Figure 3.2 Online services such as America Online (AOL) offer Internet access as well as other services available only to their own subscribers.
Online services used to be dramatically more expensive than ISPs. Lately, they've adopted pricing policies that are generally competitive with the local and national ISPs, although you can still usually get a slightly better deal from a regular ISP than from any online service. For example, America Online offers a respectable flat rate of around $20 per month; if you shop around, you can get a flat rate from an ISP for as little as $15.
One final thought: In their advertising, the online services often tout their ease-of-use. That claim refers exclusively to how easy it is to use the service's non-Internet content from its own client software, not to ease-of-use on the Internet. For all practical purposes, using the Internet is the sameno harder nor easierno matter which online service or ISP you choose.
America Online (AOL)
Voice Number: 800-827-6364
America Online is the biggest of the online services (and also, therefore, the single largest Internet provider in the world), largely because of aggressive marketing and the initial convenience of setting up an account from a CD-ROM that came in junk mail. The non-Internet content is indeed the easiest to use of all services. AOL's Internet access, however, is notoriously slow, and busy signals continue to be a problem. AOL offers a wide range of pricing plans, including a flat rate, an annual rate, and several different pay-as-you-go plans. (America Online is covered in detail in Hour 11, "Using AOL 6.0.")
Voice Number: 800-848-8199
CompuServe (see Figure 3.3) wasn't the first online service, but it's the oldest still in operation, and it was once the undisputed king. That legacy leaves CompuServe with an unbeatable range of local access numbers. CompuServe is owned by America Online, but still operates as an independent service.
Functionally, CompuServe is similar to America Online in most respects, and it still offers some non-Internet content, exclusively to its own subscribers. Its reputation for providing fast and reliable Internet service is somewhat better than America Online's; its reputation for non-Internet ease-of-use, slightly worse. However, CompuServe can support almost any computer in the world, whereas AOL is essentially limited to popular personals: PCs and Macs.
Microsoft Network (MSN)
Voice Number: 800-FREE-MSN
Microsoft Network started out in 1995 as a service very much like AOL, as the first foray in Bill Gates' ongoing effort to own the Internet. (I guess for some people, having billions of dollars just doesn't seem like enough power.) MSN has since evolved away from the online service model, to the point where it is now more or less a regular national (actually international) ISP, although it still supplies some content accessible only to its subscribers. MSN offers true PPP access, so you can use any browser you want to. (Although, not surprisingly, MSN works best through Microsoft's own browser, Internet Explorer.) The service offers a variety of reasonable flat-rate and pay-as-you-go plans.
Figure 3.3 The Web home page of CompuServe, an online service.
All of the online services, and most ISPs (described next), provide setup software for their service on a disk or CD. This software is required for the online services, but often is optional for an ISP.
Even when it's optional, I strongly recommend getting any signup software your provider offers. The software leads you step-by-step through setting up your PC for the particular provider, and makes setting up your computer properly a no-brainer. As soon as you've selected a provider, call the provider to request the software and instructions for your computer type.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
Unlike an online service, an Internet service provider, or ISP, does not offer its subscribers special content that's not accessible to the rest of the Net. You get Internet access, period.
ISPs offer greater flexibility than online services, providing dial-up IP, shell, and email accounts (and often DSL, as well). Through IP accounts, they can enable you to use virtually any client software you want and to add or change that software whenever you feel like it. ISPs also might offer more attractive rates and better service than the online services, although that's not always the case.
There are many large, national ISPs that provide local access numbers all over the United States (and often across North America). Table 3.1 lists a few of the major national ISPs and their voice telephone numbers, so you can call to learn more about the service and also find out whether the service offers a local access number in your area. Just in case you have access to the Net through a computer at school, work, or the local library, the table also shows the address of a Web page where you can learn more about each service.
Table 3.1 A More-or-Less Random Selection of National ISPs
Web Page Address
You may have heard that you can get a completely free Internet account, and that's a fact. In exchange for the right to show you a steady stream of advertising whenever you are online, some companies supply you with free access to the most popular Internet activities: the Web and email.
Free Internet services abounded a year or so ago, but like so many dotcom businesses, these companies fell on hard times and began to charge for access. One of those that still offers free access, NetZero (see Figure 3.4), only allows 40 hours per month for free. It also now offers a low-cost unlimited-access service with no banner ads to clog up your screen.
There are a few others still out there, and it's a great idea, and worth a try. The benefit is obvious: You'll have an extra $20 a month for sandwiches. Here's the potential downside:
At this writing, the free accounts are somewhat notorious for poor performance and a complete lack of customer service.
It's difficult to sign up for these accounts unless you are already online and already know how to use the Web, because signing up requires access to the company's Web site. So they make a nice money-saver for those who already know their way around, but may befuddle newcomers to the Internet.
The ads may grow tiresome.
You may prefer the features and flexibility of using a real email program instead of the Web-based email the free accounts require.
Figure 3.4 While it still offers free access at this writing, even NetZero is offering a for-pay service.
Finding a Local ISP
Besides the national ISPs, there are thousands of local ISPs in cities and towns all over the United States and Canada. Typically, a local ISP cannot offer access numbers beyond a small, local service area of a few cities, towns, or counties. But it can provide reliable Internet access, personal service, and often the best rates you can get. If you're having a problem, it can be a terrific help to be able to stop by your Internet provider's office and chat face-to-face. Local providers also play a vital role in keeping the big national providers honest; the continual reduction of rates by the big providers was spurred in large part by competition from even lower-priced local ISPs.
Unlike online services and national ISPs, local ISPs don't have the marketing muscle to advertise heavily or send out free disks. That's what makes them harder to find, but it's also why they're often cheaper. Finding a local ISP is getting easier all the time. Friends, coworkers, and local computer newsletters are all good sources for finding a local ISP. You can also check the Yellow Pages for ISPs: Look first under Internet, and then try ComputersInternet Services. The folks at your nearest computer store may also know of a good local ISP or two.
If you have access to the Internet (through a friend's computer, your job, a local library, or cyber café), you can search online for an ISP. A Web site called the List (see Figure 3.5) at thelist.internet.com is one of several that lists hundreds of ISPs in the United States and in many other countries.
Figure 3.5 Using somebody else's Internet account or an Internet terminal at your local library, you can visit the List to find a local ISP.