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  2. 10 Things to Do to Prepare for the Unthinkable
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10 Things to Do to Prepare for the Unthinkable

ONE: Keep that analog modem in your machine, or in a handy place for retrieval. If your ISP goes bye-bye, you're going to need it as a temporary measure to get online again.

TWO: Look for warning signs that your ISP might show up on the dead list. If you're using a prominent, publicly-traded ISP, read news headlines and track the company's stock prices. Bad headlines and dropping prices could mean trouble ahead. For warning signs on privately held ISPs, keep tabs on their service level. For example, if reaching someone in customer service is like getting blood from a stone, or your email or Net connection goes up and down like a yo-yo, your ISP may be headed for trouble. Another warning sign is if your ISP starts asking you to pay by check or cash and not by credit card.

THREE: Get intelligence from the Net community. Look for horror stories on your ISP at the Consumers' Voice web site or watch for consumer alerts on the web site of your local Better Business Bureau. Also, watch for complaints and warnings posted on sites such as Slashdot and DSLreports, which serve as community forums for ISP customers. You should also monitor the CNET and Epinions message boards.

This information is all well and good. But you shouldn't wait until storm clouds appear over your provider. Prepare now in self-defense to maintain customer contact and a Net presence.

FOUR: The most crucial capability you don't want to lose is the ability to stay in contact with customers, clients, and prospects. That means maintaining an email address. If your ISP goes down, so does your email.

So, like most online users, you should sign up for a free web-based email account at one of the major portals or email services. You probably already have a personal one; now get one for your business. Here's the lowdown on the biggest and best web-based email service survivors today. Choose one and get an email address that clients, customers, and prospects can use to communicate with you if your ISP heads south.

Microsoft Hotmail integrates with Microsoft Outlook, comes in 12 different language versions, and has an anti-spam filter that claims to eradicate junk mail. The downside to Hotmail is its clunky interface that makes you work harder to get your mail, a stingy 2MB of storage space for messages, and, unless you use Outlook Express or Outlook 2002, you can't import addresses to your online address book. Yahoo! Mail integrates with any POP3 email program, provides 6MB of storage space, and synchronizes its address book with popular PIMs, such as Outlook. But sloppy security lets others see your mail and anti-spam software eliminates only about 75% of junk mail.

Then there's Juno and Mail.com. Juno includes free access to the Internet but its software works only in Windows, requires that you reveal personal information at sign-up, and bombards you with spam. With Mail.com, you can select addresses with nifty domains such as poodle.clipping.com and you get 10MB of storage space. The downside is ads, ads, and more ads! Mail.com also suffers from reliability problems and can't grab mail from POP3 accounts.

FIVE: Another way to maintain contact is by using one of the instant messaging (IM) services such as AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN Messenger, or Yahoo! Messenger. If you set up one of these services ahead of time and include your IM address in all your correspondence, you have a quick and immediate way to reach your most important customers and clients if your email service suddenly goes dead. IM can act as an interim means of contact until you set up with a new ISP.

SIX: Of course, you can maintain online contact the old-fashioned way—by phone. If you're in business, you probably have several email addresses—for orders, customer service, general info, sales, and so on—but you probably also have a pager, a fax machine at the office, perhaps one at home, and voice mail on your home, office, and cell phones. Why not combine all of these communication methods into a single inbox? It's called unified messaging services (UMS for short). These online services not only collect all your email, voice mail, and faxes in a single web interface; they also provide a single phone number for your voice mail and faxes—and some can even read your email to you over the phone.

One such service is Onebox. Onebox offers an easy, economical way to roll your email and voice mail messages into a single call center. Its email client incorporates all the standard features, including folders, filters, and a spelling checker. Plus, Onebox's computerized voice reads your email to you over the phone. The price—free!

Make sure that you include in all your correspondence all the ways that users can contact you, and then use one of the USM services to never lose touch with customers, clients, and prospects.

SEVEN: You know those CDs you regularly receive in the mail from AOL, MSN, and other ISPs? Stop using them as coasters and put one aside for emergencies. Any of these large ISPs will enable you to get back online in a hurry if your current connection goes down. In fact, keep a few around as backup.

Once you have your communications ability backed up through the free email services, instant messaging and UMSs, it's time to turn your attention to maintaining your web presence if the unthinkable happens.

EIGHT: Establish a web presence using one of the free site-hosting services on the web, such as Yahoo! GeoCities, or Lycos' Angelfire or Tripod. Of course, you can't totally duplicate your online business using one of these free web site services. But you can create a temporary placeholder where you can send your users to find out how to communicate with and purchase from you.

The services that these free web sites provide vary greatly, so here's a tip. Go to FreeWebspace.net and search the largest guide to free web space providers on the Net. You can search their index of 450 free web space providers by personal hosts, business hosts, nonprofit organization hosts, game hosts, and other types of hosts. You can also search for ASP hosts, PHP hosts, and domain hosts. And if you like, you can also store your files online, free.

NINE: Sign up now for a low-cost ISP. You should sign up for one of them, and make your monthly payments like you would an insurance premium. CNET does a good job of reviewing and recommending the top three "bargain ISPs": DotNow, NetZero, and Juno.

Though these ISPs are not free, they're one of the cheapest ways to establish a web presence against the possibility of your ISP going down. Most of these cheap ISPs limit the time you spend online and force you to look at banner ads, but if you're getting something for next to nothing, you should expect to put up with a few inconveniences. Again, these cheap ISP services are not meant to duplicate your current web site. They're there to help your clients, customers, and prospects—in the short term—if your ISP goes down.

TEN: Don't wait! Prepare for the worst now. You may not have any time if your Internet service provider—doesn't. Like the old sage said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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