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How Do I Choose a Dial-Up Internet Plan?

Of all the options that are available to you, a dial-up account is still the most popular type of home Internet connection, by a long shot. So, how do you go about picking a dial-up provider and plan?

Beats me. If there were one reliable way to choose the best Internet provider, we would all be using the same one. But different people have different priorities: For some, it's price. For others, it's a range of access numbers; for others, it's speed. Some people have a particular need to use content that's available only through a particular online service; most people don't. You have to check out how each of your available ISP options addresses your own priorities.

Obviously, if you have friends who use the Internet, find out which services they use, and ask whether they're happy. It's always a good idea to use a friend's Internet account to test the service the friend uses, and to explore your other options. Magazine reviews can help, but they rarely cover more than the online services and the largest national ISPs. To judge a local ISP, you need to listen to the word of mouth.

For what it's worth, here's a quick look at a few things to consider:

TIP

Stressed out over making a choice? Relax, and remember that—unless you agree to a long-term deal—you can always quit and try another service if your first choice disappoints you.

The only caveat to switching services is that your email address changes any time you switch. But many services will forward your email to your new service for a few months after you quit, and you can always get in touch with all your email partners and let them know your new address.

Of course, switching services also provides an excellent opportunity to not tell some folks your new email address, if those folks have been getting on your e-nerves.

  • Plans and Rates—Most providers offer a range of different pricing plans. The kinds of plans you'll see most often, however, are unlimited access (or flat rate) and pay-as-you-go. Flat-rate plans are the most common, because they allow unlimited access for a flat monthly fee. Pay-as-you-go plans charge a low base rate for a small number of hours (such as $10 for the first 20 hours), then an hourly rate after that. I generally recommend that new users first choose a flat rate plan with no long-term commitment, and to keep track of their monthly hours for six months or so. If you do that, you'll know whether you're getting your money's worth at the flat rate or should switch to a per-hour plan.

  • Billing Options—Most providers will bill your monthly charges automatically to any major credit card. Some local ISPs can bill you by mail, and some others can actually add your monthly Internet charges to your regular monthly telephone bill (itemized separately from your calls to Grandma, of course). All other things being equal, you may lean toward the provider that will bill you in the way that's most convenient for you.

  • Access Numbers—Obviously, you want a provider that offers a local access number in the area where your computer resides. But what if you need to use your account from both home and work, using two different computers or bringing a portable back and forth? Does the provider offer local access numbers that work from both locations? What if you want to be able to use the Internet when you travel? Does the provider offer local access everywhere you and your computer might go?

  • Software—The online services require that you use a software package they supply for setting up your connection, using their non-Internet content, and often for using the Internet, too. Most ISPs can also supply you with any communications or client software you require, although using the ISP's software package is optional. If you need software to get started, you may want to consider what each ISP offers as a software bundle.

  • Web Server Space—If you think you might want to publish your own Web pages (see Hour 19, "Creating Web Pages and Multimedia Messages"), you'll need space on a Web server to do so. Many ISPs and most online services offer an amount of Web server space free to all customers; others charge an additional monthly fee.

  • Newsgroup Access—You'll learn all about newsgroups in Hour 7, "Participating in Newsgroups and Mailing Lists." For now, just be aware that there are tens of thousands of newsgroups, and that not all providers give you access to all of them. Some exclude "racy" ones, while others only offer those specifically requested by users.

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