All Roads Lead To The Web

Cable modems, set-top boxes--these days, you can choose among a slew of Internet on-ramps

So you want to take a ride on the Web. Your first decision is which company will provide the right on-ramp--and your choices have never been greater. Internet service providers in North America have exploded to 4,000, up from 2,300 a year ago. So, too, have the ways you can hop on the Net, and the speeds you can travel.

Oh, sure, basic dial-up service is still the most common. Using a PC equipped with a modem, you can reach the Net the good old-fashioned way. But there are also some new options--from digital TV set-top boxes that let you tap into the Web from the comfort of your couch to speedy cable-modem services that deliver information to your PC up to 100 times faster than conventional modems.

FAST WORK. If you feel the need for speed, consider a cable-modem service. This links PCs to the Net via special modems connected to a cable-TV system. The results can be breathtaking. Startup @Home Corp.'s service, for example, lets you download 26 pages from a Web site in the same time it takes to download a half page using a 28.8 kbps modem.

Not shabby. But don't count on picking up the phone and having the cable guy install service the next day. Not all cable operators offer Internet access, and those that do sell it only in select cities. @Home, based in Redwood City, Calif., services 15 areas (including Seattle and Baltimore) through cable operators Tele-Communications, Comcast, Cox Cable, and InterMedia. Time Warner Inc.'s Road Runner service is available in Portland, Me., and nine other markets, while U S West Inc.'s MediaOne is in seven locales, including Boston and Detroit.

The speed, though, comes at a price: Cable-modem service costs roughly double the average $19.95 monthly fee charged by ISPs for dial-up access. Expect to pay about $35 to $55 a month, plus an installation fee as high as $150.

That's why it's important to assess how much you use the Net when deciding on cable modems. And keep in mind one other thing: While the cable companies extol the speed of their services, your experience can vary depending on how many of your neighbors are using the same cable connection.

If sitting in front of a PC isn't appealing, you can hook up to the Net via your TV. Microsoft's WebTV and Oracle's Network Computing unit provide technology that lets customers cruise the Web using a TV, a set-top box, and a remote control. This makes a lot of sense for families that want to explore cyberspace together or just find PCs too expensive or intimidating.

SCREEN GEMS. The WebTV box has been available in stores since September, 1996, from manufacturers Sony Corp. and Philips Magnavox. On Nov. 15, WebTV's latest model will hit store shelves. Called WebTV Plus, it uses a 56K modem plus a disk drive to coax more speed out of the $299 box. In addition to the set-top box, you'll also pay a $19.95 monthly fee.

An alternative to WebTV is a set-top product sold by RCA that uses Oracle software. The price, including a keyboard that plugs into the TV, is $199, with a $249 model available that sports a wireless keyboard. The box is designed to work with a service by NetChannel Inc., which includes guides to local and national TV and Web programming. Like most services, it runs $19.95 a month. Oracle is working on software that is due early next year that will match the advances made by WebTV in combining TV and the Web on one screen. It's also expected to match the price: With the set-top hardware, it will cost under $300.

If you want to get on the Net like most people do today--via a PC modem with help from an ISP--you can choose among scads of companies. All Net services provide an E-mail address and typically charge $19.95 a month. But remember: Congestion on the Net and the poky pace of most modems remain problems. Over the past year, ISPs have scrambled to improve service, but be on the hunt for those with a reputation for reliable connections and E-mail delivery.

How do you size up an ISP? The best way is to ask friends and co-workers about their experiences. But there are other sources. Boardwatch's guide to ISPs is one helpful primer. TeleChoice Inc., a Verona (N.J.) consultant, recently surveyed 1,550 Web surfers about their ISPs. Among the nationwide services, AT&T and Sprint Corp. received top ratings for reliability and performance. Sprint goes a step further, guaranteeing that subscribers will always be able to get connected to the Net, or they get a week of free service.

In an effort to differentiate themselves and to mimic the success of No.1 online service America Online Inc., many ISPs are providing Web site listings and guides that make their services easier to use. One handy addition offered by some ISPs, including AT&T and MCI Communications, is C/NET's Snap! Online, a collection of news, chat groups, and tips on how to use the Web.

Traditional online services, such as AOL, differ from ISPs because they create their own combinations of information, entertainment, and sports news that's available only to their subscribers. AOL's reputation took a beating this year because of network and E-mail problems. Service can still be slow. But at $19.95 a month, it remains one of the easiest ways for people to get familiar with the Web.

While getting on the Net still isn't as easy or reliable as picking up a phone, consumers have more choices than a year ago. Now, the hard part is deciding whether you want to totally relinquish the TV to the kids by linking it to the Web.