Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

2.17. What should I look for in a service provider?

Dual air bags, a large trunk and anti-lock brakes. Whoops, that's something else. Here's what you should look for in a Internet service provider:


Your fancy 14.4 kilobits per second (kbps) modem won't impress anyone if it can't connect to a system that's as fast as it is. Find out the fastest speed your host can support. Transferring a large file at 2,400 bits per second (bps) can feel like agony, so get the fastest connection you can.

If you'll be connecting via a packet-switching network, find out what modem speed the local network hub will support. Big cities typically have 9,600 bps or faster access. Rural communities typically have to make do with 2,400 bps.

Some services charge extra for connecting with faster modems, so know what you'll be expected to pay based on your modem speed. This practice has decreased in recent years. If you use a quick modem, skip service providers that discriminate against you. Tell them that you're unwilling to connect with them because you're using a fast modem. That should help them phase out that silly bias.


What does it look like once you're online? What you'll find varies from service to service. There are hundreds of types of computers on the Internet--from tiny personal computers to medium-sized workstations to huge behemoth mainframes--and each one looks different online. The service you choose may feature an elegant graphical interface, or more commonly, a semi-elegant menu-driven interface, or a decidedly-inelegant UNIX prompt.

Although I've already set myself up to receive tons of hate mail from lovers of UNIX, I will say this. The interface you choose (and ultimately the service provider you use,) depends on your expertise and patience. It's a trade-off. Although a command-line UNIX interface is harder at first to use, with practice and patience it is definitely more powerful than any menu-driven program could be.

Storage Space

If you'll be doing business with a command-line service, you'll sometimes need to store some information on your local host computer. Find out how much information you may store there. Some service providers have a strict limit, (say, two megabytes,); others may allow you to purchase extra disk space when you need it. Why should the service provider impose a limit? The hard disk of your host computer can hold only a limited amount of information and the system administrators want to be sure there will be enough to go around.


Don't forget you'll need communications software that lets your computer talk to the modem. Most modems come with software and there are dozens of software packages available for every computer system. Some are free, some are shareware, and others are commercial software. The software you'll need depends on your computer system and what service you will connect to. Users of public access UNIX services and text-based commercial services can use freeware or shareware terminal programs. Commonly used communication programs include You need special software to access some commercial online services and BBSes that use graphics instead of text, like Prodigy and America Online. You'll have to get this software from the online service before signing on the first time. You'll also need special software on your computer if you'll be connecting via an IP link.

Access Restrictions

Find out the service's appropriate use policies before you sign up. Each system is run by different folks with varying ideas, ethics, and motivations, so some actions acceptable or tolerated on one system can be off-limits on others. Hence, certain systems may be inappropriate for certain activities.

For example, some networks that are part of the Internet are dedicated to education and research, hence they don't allow commercial activity. If you have an account on one of these systems, you shouldn't send junk e-mail advertising your new kitchen gizmo or post your company's press releases to the Usenet. So if you're thinking of putting your business online, find out what the network's appropriate use policies are.

Educational and business institutions can be sticklers about what their student or employees do online. For instance, some schools ban use of online games or multiuser dungeons. Also, it is safe to say that more conservative sites might become annoyed if you began posting pictures from your homemade porn movies to the Usenet's conference.

If you will be reading news on the Usenet, find out if a site you are considering has a full Usenet feed. A full Usenet feed approaches 100 megabytes of information a day, so many sites cut back less popular newsgroups to save disk space. (It's likely that you won't miss them unless you want to know about watersports in Finland or the goings-on in a particular literature class at an obscure East-coast university.) Other sites don't feed newsgroups with explicit sexual content.

Reliability and Performance

Nothing in the world is more frustrating than trying to log in to check your electronic mail only to find that your host is down, the phone lines are busy, or network connectivity has been lost. The problem is twice as horrible when you need to send an important piece of e-mail immediately, but alas, your host is in the land of Oz.

Although loss of connectivity right when you need the Internet most can happen with any service provider, make an effort to learn how reliable a host is. Pick up the telephone and call the service's modem number at peak usage times (during the business day and at about 8 p.m.) If you frequently hear a busy signal, the service provider doesn't have enough phone lines to handle their current customers. (It's not unreasonable to get an occasional busy signal, however.) If there is no answer at all, you should wonder aloud why the system is unavailable.

Note: Many systems have scheduled downtime (usually in the wee hours of the night) for system maintenance and backups.

Even when the system is running, performance is an issue. An overworked computer runs much slower than an underworked one. Some systems can theoretically handle hundreds of users simultaneously, but get bogged down with more than a few dozen. (Performance also depends on what the users are doing online. Sending e-mail, for instance, uses far less computing power than database searches or compiling programs.) There isn't much you can do to test performance before you try the service for yourself, but you should ask the administrators how many users the system can handle reliably at once, how many typically are online at peak usage times, and if they plan to put a cap on new accounts when they reach a performance limit.

Find out whether there is a service guarantee. If so, what is it?


Find out what measures the system administrators take to ensure that your information remains private. Security isn't an enormous issue for casual Internet users, although most of us want to have some assurance that our files, electronic mail, and other information will be free from prying eyes.

Find out the system's policy on system administrators reading "private" e-mail. This should be of special concern to you if you access the Internet using a BBS. System administrators can peruse anything and everything on their computers, so you must rely on their honesty and integrity to keep their noses out of your files. Some systems try to promise privacy, but others clearly state that nothing is private.

Technical Support

Computers aren't the only component of a successful network; the people who use them make all the difference. While you are asking questions about a host's service, think about their support. Are the people on the other end of conversations helpful and knowledgeable? Are they responsive to your questions and concerns? Are they willing to explain the simple stuff to you or are you treated like a bother? Once you sign on the service, you probably will be asking many more questions. Be sure the technical support team is willing and able to assist.

What methods are provided for you to reach the technical support team? Every online service has tech support via electronic mail, but e-mail won't do you any good if you can't sign on the system or you need immediate assistance. Find out whether there is a tech support hotline, or at least a voice-mail system where you can leave a message.

Finally, don't just take the service provider's word for anything--check references. Get a list of three to five references and call or e-mail those folks. Ask about the service, technical support, system problems (such as unexplained downtime), and so on.

With a little preparation, your first Internet interaction can be a wonderful experience instead of a frustrating, expensive disaster.

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