Aol Isn't The Only Connection In Town

During a recent telecast of a New York Rangers hockey game, commentator John Davidson suggested that the Rangers defense was easier to get into than America Online. In a cartoon that ran in the Hartford Courant and Newsweek, a mummy is shown staring at AOL on a computer screen. An archaeologist quips: "He's still getting a busy signal."

America Offline, as wags have tagged it, has become the butt of many jokes. But endless busy signals are no laughing matter to owners of small businesses who bank on AOL for E-mail and to ferret out customers in cyberspace.

A quick recap: AOL's troubles began in December, after the company switched most of its subscribers from a monthly fee based on hourly charges to unmetered $19.95 flat-rate pricing. AOL was unprepared for a surge of usage. Members who no longer were "on the clock" stayed connected and shut out others who had hoped to log on. Frustrated users filed class actions, and AOL offered rebates and credits, but the busy beeps will linger awhile.

SLOW GOING. You might want to ride out the storm. It's surely a hassle to alert customers that your E-mail has changed, and you may be pleased with AOL's ease of use and content. And with 8 million subscribers, AOL has the largest base to tap into. Moreover, changing services doesn't necessarily mean you'll be home free. At times, I've encountered repeated busy signals trying to log on to the Microsoft Network, though nowhere near as often as with AOL. And although the newly revamped MSN looks swanky, the service, which also costs $19.95 a month for unlimited access, can be slow, especially when downloading E-mail.

Indeed, mail problems can strike anywhere. A BUSINESS WEEK reader recently wrote in to complain that it took days for E-mail he sent over AT&T WorldNet to reach its destination. But the reader didn't learn about the delay until clients called to complain. AT&T admitted the problem after the subscriber phoned to follow up. Still, there's one big plus to going with the telecom giant: If you sign up by Mar. 31 and you're an AT&T long-distance customer, for one year you can get five free hours a month on WorldNet, after which you'll pay $2.50 an hour. The regular plan costs a flat $19.95 a month.

Beyond price, customer service is a key factor in choosing among the many companies that provide access to the Net. PC World's February issue published reader survey results on a dozen Internet service providers, or ISPs. Readers were asked about their overall satisfaction, how easy it was to get connected, and how helpful and available the technical support staff was. IBM Internet Connection earned a sterling A+ customer-satisfaction grade, followed by MCI Internet, MindSpring, and SpryNet (all B+). But MSN and WorldNet both got C+, and AOL and CompuServe only Ds. Netcom trailed with a D-.

My own experience with CompuServe has been quite positive. E-mail has been reliable, and I usually get through, though that may be because the service is less popular than AOL. Like AOL, MSN, and Prodigy Internet, CompuServe is a commercial online service that offers proprietary content in addition to direct Internet access. CompuServe recently upgraded its software, and the service boasts the strongest lineup of databases and discussion areas for business, including Working From Home, Selling Online, and Business Management forums. But CompuServe is also more expensive than its rivals: Its basic plan is $9.95 per month, which gives you five hours. After that you'll fork over $2.95 an hour. And some databases carry hefty surcharges.

BASICS. Of course, many businesses merely covet dependable Internet pipelines. They don't need, or aren't willing to pay for, the extra fare commercial online services offer. Most likely, you won't have to worry about busy signals when using a reputable local Internet provider, though at around $25 per month, these little guys may cost a tad more. If you travel a lot, you may want to employ a national service that provides either a large roster of local phone numbers nationwide, or 800 long-distance service, for which you'll usually pay a surcharge. Atlanta-based MindSpring, for instance, charges $7.50 an hour for its 800 service, on top of the regular access charges.

Your business may have other requirements. PsiNet, a business-only ISP, is among the companies that provide high-speed Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) and leased T1 lines, help connecting a computer network, and assistance setting up a Web page. These services start at around $145 a month. But for most people who conduct commerce over the Internet, the basics are what counts: making a successful connection and avoiding those dreaded beeps.