By Stephen H. Wildstrom America Online targets its service to customers looking for an Internet cocoon, a single, safe place where they can find most of what they're looking for online. Microsoft's MSN goes after a somewhat more adventurous clientele, but it's still selling Internet access wrapped up with an assortment of proprietary services. But what if all you want is e-mail and a basic connection to the Net?
Despite the industry's massive consolidation, hundreds of small, local Internet service providers still offer both dial-up and high-speed network access. It's entirely possible that the best choice for your home or business might be a local company that can provide customized services. But it's obviously impossible for me to assess them, so for this review I'm sticking to the choices available from national or large regional ISPs.
If you want a high-speed connection at home, you may or may not have a choice. Homes in some areas have the option of cable or the high-speed phone service knows as DSL (for digital subscriber line), some can get only one or the other, and some can get neither. Cable and DSL can both work very well, and there's no clear basis for choice between the two. The ISP's technical skill and customer service matter a lot more than the inherent features of either technology.
TIERED CHARGES. For cable, your only choice of provider is usually the local cable-TV company, typically for $40 to $50 a month above cable-TV charges. Some cable operators are experimenting with tiered charges based on maximum available speed, sometimes offering a service limited to 256 kilobits per second (kbs) or so for as little as $20. Time Warner Cable provides service through a subsidiary called Road Runner for $44.95 a month. Comcast, AT&T Broadband, Cox Communications, and others that used the now-defunct ISP called @Home are now managing their own access.
To qualify for DSL service, your home must be sufficiently close to your telephone company's central office, and the phone network that serves you must meet some other technical requirements. If you qualify for DSL, you often have the choice of dealing directly with a DSL carrier, most often your phone company, or an ISP that provides access over the phone company's lines.
For example, EarthLink offers DSL access in most of the country, with basic service of 384-kbs downloads and 128-kbs uploads for $39.95 a month (EarthLink, like most cable and DSL services, also charges a one-time activation fee of around $100.) Baby Bell SBC Corp. has teamed up with Yahoo! to provide DSL throughout its extensive local-phone service area, with tiered service ranging from $42.95 to $152.95 a month, depending on speed. (If you need access while traveling, make sure that whatever broadband option you choose comes with a dial-up alternative.)
WORLDWIDE CONNECTIONS. If dial-up service is good enough, your choices are more varied. One issue you'll want to consider is whether you'll use the service only in your home or office or whether you'll need access while traveling. The biggest carriers, like EarthLink and AT&T WorldNet, offer local-access numbers not only throughout the U.S. but in much of the world, though you'll generally have to pay a surcharge for international use. Some smaller ISPs offer a similar level of service through aggregators such as iPass or Gric Communications.
If you're a moderate Internet user, AT&T WorldNet offers a bargain plan at $16.95 for 150 hours of connect time a month. But if you go over the limit, you'll pay 99 cents an hour and will very quickly be better off with unlimited service at $21.95. The same amount buys you unlimited service on EarthLink, which is offering six months at half price for new subscribers.
The basic connectivity that dial-up services offer doesn't vary much. If you have good local-phone lines, you should be able to get a connection of 40 to 50 kbs. The main differences among service providers, both broadband and dial-up, tend to be in associated goodies, such as the number of e-mail accounts allowed, the quality of access to Internet discussion groups, and the service provided for hosting a Web site. These little things can make a big difference, so it's worth checking them out before you sign up. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online