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How to Pick an ISP

To find a great deal on an ISP, determine what's right for you and take advantage of the competitive market.

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The Net is the single greatest gift technology has ever afforded college students and recent grads. It permits us to streamline the research process, register for classes, apply for jobs, and procrastinate even more effectively. In addition, email and instant messaging make it easier than ever to keep in touch - which during the difficult period of "college withdrawal," helps to ease one's transition from social slacker to upstanding member of society.

Of course, once you lose access to your alma mater's network, you'll have to find an ISP (internet service provider) that's right for you. Be an informed consumer. Selecting the right plan with the right company doesn't have to be a hassle if you know exactly what you're looking for.

Know the types of service

When evaluating different types of service, think about your own usage habits; they'll dictate the "horsepower" you need.

  • Dial-Up: Perfect for beginners and casual users, dial-ups are both affordable (most run between $10 and $20/month) and easy to use through services such as AOL, Juno and Earthlink. You'll need a modem, preferably 56K, as the service is accessed via a phone call. For that reason, downloading larger files or playing media can take forever. Also, dial-ups will tie up your phone line whenever you're online.
  • DSL: The "digital subscriber line" is becoming increasingly popular with small businesses and home users who regularly watch video and download larger files. It runs over the same wires that your phone uses, but unlike the dial-up service, it doesn't tie up the line. Unfortunately the technology hasn't caught up with the demand, so for the time being, DSLs can be a bit unstable, and in some areas, unavailable. Also, many providers have yet to efficiently streamline the connection process, so service may be spotty. Monthly usage fees are usually around $50, and installation fees can run from gratis to $400.
  • Cable Internet Access: Faster than dial-up, and easier to instal than DSL, a typical cable package includes both Internet access and cable TV, as the service runs through preexisting cable lines. One drawback: you'll be sharing lines with the rest of your neighborhood, which may compromise security, and in the unlikely event that the entire neighborhood is online, slow your connection speed. Monthly fees can run from $39-$50, and set-up fees will set you back about $125. Service is available wherever cable lines have been drawn - Roadrunner and Excite@Home are two to try.
  • Satellite: For those interested in broadband, but currently living in an area that has yet to be wired for DSL or cable, satelite-based Web access may be an option. However, as is the case with most new technologies, there are a number of kinks and drawbacks. For one, it's more expensive than DSL (around $60-$70/month), it can be unreliable during storms, and because of a short transmission delay, precludes any real time exchanges (phone connections and interactive video games among them). Like cable, the connection speed slows, the more users log on. Also, there's the matter of purchasing and installing the dish itself...
  • Wireless: The latest trend links you to the Net via cell phones, palm pilots and innumerable other gadgets. Access is far slower than other types, and rates vary from service to service. Also, hardware can get very pricey. A nice add-on, but probably not a replacement for your regular service as of yet.

What to look for

Make sure you do your research before choosing a provider. Things change fast in the ISP world, so it's probably best to consult an online buyer's guide like to get the latest on different services. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Reliablility: Will you be able to log on at will, and if so, how stable is the system? Are you likely to be without service on a regular basis?
  • Bandwidth: If you'll be downloading large files or watching media, you'll need a guarantee from the provider that the service has the capacity to handle such tasks easily.
  • Cost: Because prices for similar services may vary, comparison shopping will save you some dough in the long run. Many offer package offers that include free installation or reduced fees, so be sure to ask.
  • Support: Will you be able to get help when you need it? Do they provide 24-hour customer service, both online and over the phone?

Free access

Several companies offer free dial-up Internet access. But be warned, there is a price to be paid. Some bombard you with permanent and pop-up banner ads, while others require users to fill out lengthy marketing surveys. Free services generally offer fewer features than pay services, but hey, you get what you pay for. Also, few of these companies have found a way to turn a substantial profit in this unstable market so be warned: you may have to do it all over again in a few months.

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