Finding an Internet Service Provider

[Zap!] Updated: Oct 11, 1999
There are literally thousands of Internet providers located all over the world ranging from giant organizations such as AT&T down to little outfits run out of someone's garage.

ISPs differ in many ways:

  • Size: Big providers tend to have phone numbers in more areas and 24 hour support. Little providers tend to know more about conditions in your community, and to be more flexible if you want something a little out of the ordinary.
  • Support: The biggest difference among ISPs is the quality of support, and there's no connection between the size of the ISP and the quality of the support. We've talked to clueless droids at fancy 24 hour call centers, and patient helpful people working out of their spare bedrooms.
  • Services: Every ISP offers e-mail, usenet, and a connection to the Web. Some provide hosting for your own web pages, Clarinet newswire feeds, and other added services.
  • Pricing plans: Many ISPs offer unlimited flat rates, others offer a large but limited number of hours (100 to 150 per month, with a per-hour charge above that) which is plenty for most users. In practice, unlimited is rarely what you want. ISPs that offer unlimited accounts tend to end up with a small number of users who hog half of the dial-in ports 18 hours a day, leaving only the other half for everyone else. Limiting access provides fairer access for everyone. Small ISPs often informally limit access by monitoring modem usage and asking chronic modem hoggers to cut back or take their business elsewhere.

    If you do need 24 hour dialup access, any ISP will be happy to provide you with your own dedicated dialup port, with an appropriate price to match.

Some ISP Selection Tips

  • The cheapest ISP is rarely the best choice. ISPs don't just use the money you pay to buy caviar and yachts, they use it to invest in improved equipment. The lowest cost ISPs buy fewer servers and modems, which means more busy signals and slower network response.
  • ISPs usually offer between a week and a month as a trial period. This should be enough to find out if they're any good. Be sure to call their support line with a question or two, since the most notable difference among ISPs is in the quality of the support.
  • Most people pay for their ISP accounts with a credit card. But if you don't have a credit card, they'll all take a check. Call the ISP you're interested in to make arrangements. (People without credit cards might also consider getting a Visa or MC "check card" which looks like a credit card but payments come out of your bank account like a check.)
  • Once you're sure you like your ISP, most of them will give you a substantial discount if you prepay for six months or a year.
  • If you use your computer when you travel, check whether your ISP has arrangements to dial in from the places you travel to. Many local and regional ISPs have reciprocal arrangements, notably a system called iPass, that let you dial in from many points around the US and in other countries. If you travel internationally, IBM (at has dial ins all over the world. Compuserve has access in Europe.

Finding an ISP in your area

  • The List of Internet Providers is the most complete list of ISPs we know. You can search by country or state or area code. If searching by area code and you live in one of the many parts of the country with exploding area codes, be sure to check all of the area codes that are a local call for you.
  • Providers of Commercial Internet Access (POCIA) is another good list of providers, by state or area code. They try to list local/regional and national providers separately.
  • The Online Connection describes national on-line services and ISPs, with links to on-line reviews.
  • Also check the business section of your local newspaper and the Internet section (yes, really) of the yellow pages to find local providers who might not be listed elsewhere.

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