So you're eager to log on to the Internet, surf the Web, see the sites? The good news is that more than 3,000 national, regional, and local companies in the U.S.--so-called Internet service providers (ISPs)--stand ready to whisk you there. Better yet, they have filled in the worst technical potholes that once exasperated even savvy enthusiasts.
The bad news? Only that so many people are scrambling onto the Net that during peak usage periods--evenings and weekends-- there are often not enough on-ramps to meet demand. And the services' help desks get swamped, too, mostly by newbies needing advice on setting up their software.
STEP RIGHT UP. There are two main categories of service providers, each with its pluses and minuses. There's the trio of proprietary online services--America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe--that now act as gateways to the World Wide Web, too. Then there's everybody else: thousands of Internet service providers that range from people in basements with a server and some modems to national giants such as AT&T, Microsoft, IBM, Netcom, Concentric Network, Spry, GNN, and Earthlink.
The traditional online suppliers offer three big advantages: greatly simplified hookup, a wealth of proprietary "content" that you won't find on the Internet, and lots of local dial-in points. On the other hand, their access to the World Wide Web is often slower than the Internet services, and they charge more.
How much more? CompuServe's rates are on par with the other two proprietary services: either $9.95 a month for 5 hours of usage, and $2.95 for each additional hour, or $24.95 for 20 hours, with additional hours costing $1.95 each.
The Internet-only services have their own standard price: $19.95 a month. That price buys you a month of unlimited use, plus some extras (table). If you want mainly E-mail, not Web-cruising, outfits such as Mindspring and Concentric offer 5 hours of connect time for $6 or $7 a month.
So, how do you choose your on-ramp? Thanks to fierce competition, you'll likely find yourself weighing different promotional offers. MCI Communications and AT&T, for instance, each offer their long-distance customers five free hours a month of Internet connect time for a year. Concentric and Mindspring, meanwhile, reward subscribers with cash bonuses for signing up friends and family. Some, like a Washington (D.C.)-based service called Erol's, charge $14 a month instead of $19.95 for unlimited connections--if you subscribe for a year.
Another major battleground is content--city directories, special-interest discussion groups, E-'zines, and other information that many services prepare solely for their subscribers. Microsoft Network (MSN), for instance, has just relaunched itself on the Net with a load of entertainment-oriented Web pages. They cover everything from pop music to movies, and they're free--as long as you pick MSN as your Internet service provider. Surfers who visit the MSN site via another ISP must pay $6.95 a month to see its information.
SALON AGE. Don't overlook the small, local Net providers, either. Manhattan-based Echo, for instance, regularly hosts online "salons" where surfers discuss current affairs and life in the Digital Age. And it invites its 3,000 members to meet in the flesh at monthly parties. Mindspring and Earthlink, among others, include space on their servers for subscribers' home pages under certain pricing plans.
More important for most newcomers, though, are geographical and technical factors. Sign up with one of the national providers, and you'll most likely be able to log in with no more than a local phone call. AT&T, MCI, and Netcom, among others, now offer local access for more than 80% of the U.S. population. If you travel abroad, consider IBM's Global Network and SpryNet, which operate in as many as 50 countries--still for just $19.95 a month.
If you're living outside the metro areas covered by the big operators, you still have options, including swallowing hard and making a toll call to the nearest city. You might also look for one of the services that offer toll-free, 1-800 access, including Concentric and Earthlink. The deal isn't as good as it sounds, though: Concentric charges $10 a month for two hours of 1-800 time and $5 for each additional hour. Finally, if you're lucky, you may find a small, local Net provider active in your area.
Some of the best places to start looking for a service are on the Net itself. Use a friend's browser and check out the Yahoo! and Lycos Web directories (www. yahoo.com, www.lycos.com), or Meckler Media's site called The List (thelist.com). Each connects to hundreds of national, regional, and local services. If you want to know what others think of a particular service, try www. cnet.com, which runs an on-going survey of ISPs.
Remember, the most important thing your ISP can provide is reliable, uninterrupted service. That calls for enough physical infrastructure to handle the calls from you and your fellow surfers. A good rule of thumb: no more than 10 subscribers per modem. You can ask, but by the time you get signed up, the ratio may have changed.
If there seem to be too many options to consider, hang in there. Internet technology is evolving incredibly quickly, and getting on the Net will one day be as easy as using the phone is now. But until then, just think of the war stories you'll be able to tell your grandchildren about the good old days on the Web.