You can get your Internet account from any of three main sources:
Each of these options is explained next .
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 are ”but with a difference.
Figure 3.2. Online services such as America Online (AOL) offer Internet access as well as other services available only to their own subscribers.
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.
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 same ”no harder nor easier ”no 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 Chapter 10, "Using AOL 6.")
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.
Figure 3.3. The Web home page of CompuServe, an online 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.
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
You might 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.
Figure 3.4. Although it still offers free access at this writing, even NetZero is offering a for-pay service.
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:
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 Computers ”Internet Services. The folks at your nearest computer store might also know of a good local ISP or two.