Section 11.3. Subscribing to an Internet Service

11.3. Subscribing to an Internet Service

Unless you're lucky enough to live above a WiFi-ready coffee shop with a friendly owner offering free service, you have to pay an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for an Internet account. That monthly fee provides you with at least two of these three things:

  • User name . Along with your password, your user name lets you connect to the Internet, and it usually serves as your email address. Very few people receive their own name as their user name. John Smith snapped up in the mid-nineties, leaving the thousands of other John Smiths to forage for leftovers like To avoid dorky numbers after their names , most people opt for a nickname like Some people even prefer nicknames to preserve their anonymity while online. You'll most likely enter several different names before finding an available user name.

  • Password . The ISP supplies a password for you to log on for the first time; then you're expected to change it. Choosing a secure password requires a difficult balance between convenience and security, an act difficult enough to warrant its own section (see Section 15.2). Also, some ISPs design their passwords to be case sensitive, which means that "bluecheese" and "BlueCheese" are different passwords. When setting up your email program (Section 12.2), you need to enter this password and your user name to receive your mail.

  • Phone number . If you choose a dial-up ISP, they provide you with a phone number to call when connecting. Some broadband ISPs also provide you with a phone number for dialing in and checking your email while traveling.

Your user name and password let your ISP know when you're trying to log on so they can check to see if you're paid up. If your accounts are in order, they let you connect. Broadband services rarely require logon passwords because you're already paying a monthly bill for your cable or phone service; they know who you are.

11.3.1. Choosing a Regular ISP vs. an Online Service

Your decision between broadband and dial-up service often comes down to what's offered in your area. That leaves you with the choice of a regular ISP or an online service provider, like America Online (AOL) or MSN. Both types offer a straight connection to the Internet, but with some differences.

  • Regular ISPs . These firms provide unfiltered , direct access to the Internet. When you log on, you travel through your computer's Internet browser, immediately landing on the Web site you choose. From there, you start browsing from site to site. Regular ISPs usually cost a few dollars less than the alternative, the online service providers, described next .

  • Online service providers . Online service providers like AOL add an extra layer to the Internet, as well as a few dollars to the monthly fee. You don't see a Web site when you log on; instead, you see the online service's menus . You can head straight to the Internet from there, if you wish. But other menu options direct you to members -only perksonline games , for instance, or special interest areas and chat rooms.

    To distinguish between their own service and the actual Internet, online service providers place a thick layer of menus and graphics over their connection, giving common menus to many features. You log onto the online service to check your email, for instance, using the same menus you use for visiting other areas of the service.

Some people find online services easier to use. Others find the menus claustrophobic and prefer to head straight for the Internet, where they can choose their own browser and email programs. Since you can head to the Internet straight from an online service, the biggest difference may be national service. Online services offer dial-in access from most major cities, a boon for travelers looking to grab their email. Some smaller ISPs and broadband servers don't offer that convenience.

11.3.2. Finding the Best Internet Service Provider

Choosing an ISP can be as overwhelming as visiting the horse races for the first time. You understand that you're supposed to bet on the winner. But you don't quite know the difference between Place, Show, or a Trifecta.

You can quickly limit your decisions by seeing which ISP serves your particular area. Call your cable TV and phone company to see if they offer broadband connections. Look up "Internet Access" or "Internet Service Provider" in your phone book to see listings of local providers. Call their tech support numbers, and give extra points to the ones that answer quickly and politely.

When you have a list of major contenders, start comparing services by seeing how they meet these criteria.

  • Price . Unfortunately, price can be misleading. The cheapest ISPs are usually plagued with busy signals and dropped connections. And until you subscribe, you won't know how busy they are, or how bad the connection will be. If you do sign up on with a cheapie, make sure it's a month-to-month contract. And instead of using the email address they give you, choose a Web-based email (Section 12.1.4) address that you can take with you if you switch ISPs a month or two later.

  • Reviews . Some people love to review movies or books. Others prefer to review their Internet provider's performance, swapping up-to-the-minute notes on sites like Broadband Reports ( Before signing with an ISP, check how current subscribers rate it.

  • Limits . Broadband provides continuous Internet access; some dial-ups limit your connection time to a certain number of hours per month. Find out how many before signing up.

  • Termination fees . Watch out for early termination fees. Some ISPs tempt you into a year-long contract, give you lousy service, and then point to the $100 "early termination fee" in your service agreement's fine print.

  • Equipment . If your ISP supplies equipment, like a modem or network card, compare its monthly rental with the cost of buying your own. Buying your own equipment often adds up to less than a year's rental fees. Installing it yourself could bring a discount, as well. Installing a network card takes only a few minutes (Section 1.7), as does connecting a broadband modem (Section 11.2.2).

  • Phone charges . Before choosing a dial-up account, call your local phone company to make sure the dial-up number your ISP is going to give you is local , not long distance. (Usually the ISP lists these numberssometimes called access numbers on its Web site.) When you connect to the Internet using a dial-up account, your phone company charges you just as though you were making a call to a friend. Even if you're just checking email, it's very difficult to log on and off the Internet in less than three minutes. The time could be much longer if you send or receive a lot of email.

  • Email . Most ISPs supply you with an email address. If you're going to use it, ask if they run a spam filter, to save you the hassle of deleting all the Viagra ads.

  • Tech support . Make sure your ISP offers 24- hour tech support. You want to make sure they offer help after business hours, which is when many people need assistance the most.

PCs: The Missing Manual
ISBN: 0596100930
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 206
Authors: Andy Rathbone

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