Internet Service Providers
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are businesses that own equipment that
enable users to access the Internet for sending e-mail, browsing the World
Wide Web, and downloading files. Unlike commercial online services (AOL,
Prodigy, CompuServe) who have substantial amounts of proprietary content
for users to browse, ISPs primarily function as a conduit to the Internet.
It is estimated that there are more than 2,000 Internet service providers
scattered around the country. These range from two-person shoestring operations
to national companies with thousands of employees and billions of dollars
of network infrastructure.
Connection To The ISP
Depending on your expected usage, you can connect to the Internet via
a dial-up line or via a dedicated data line. If only one person will typically
browse the Internet at a time, you should be fine with dial-up service.
This means that you use a modem and a regular phone line to connect to
the provider. A regular 28,800 bits per second (bps) modem is acceptable
for most browsing; however, users who regularly visit graphic-intensive
sites may want to consider using an ISDN connection to the ISP. ISDN offers
connection speeds up to 128,000 bps, but requires an ISDN "modem" and
ISDN service from your local telephone company.
When examining ISPs, make sure they offer a dial-up number in your local
calling area. This will reduce phone charges for the connection. You should
also inquire about the number of modems the ISP has to handle incoming
calls. A good rule of thumb is that there should be one modem for every
Businesses that will have several people simultaneously using the Internet
will want to consider a dedicated line. Dedicated lines directly connect
your office to the Internet service provider. You pay a relatively high
monthly charge, but do not pay for each minute of connection time.
The smallest dedicated lines are 56K lines, which can handle 2 or 3 simultaneous
users. However, most users will want to purchase a fractional T1 line,
which can be increased to handle higher loads in 64,000 bps increments.
A full T1 can handle dozens of simultaneous users, and even larger T3
connections are available for the largest firms.
Differences Between ISP Networks
Most Internet traffic is carried on large national networks that cross
the country. Individual ISPs connect to this backbone via data pipes of
varying sizes. If the provider uses too small a pipe, you may face long
waiting periods when accessing other parts of the Internet.
To avoid this problem, check the size of the data pipes used by the ISP.
Many smaller services use a single T1 line, a data line capable of handling
up to 1,544,000 bits of information per second. While this may sound like
a lot, several dozen simultaneous users can easily overwhelm this link.
Most business sites will be better off looking for a provider that uses
multiple T1 lines, or even larger T3 lines.
Firms should also look into the provider's network redundancy. Ideally,
a provider will have more than one connection to the Internet backbone,
so you can send and receive e-mail and browse outside sites even if one
link is down.
Finally, check the number of connections, or "hops" between your provider
and the Internet backbone. Many providers connect to the backbone through
another provider. Using an Internet provider that is more than two steps
removed from the Internet can slow the speed at which you can access other
Finding an ISPs that offers strong customer service tends to be a real
challenge. Many providers fail to live up to their service promises, with
users often encountering long waits for help.
If you are just obtaining dial-up service, your risk is fairly limited.
If you are not satisfied with your ISP, you can usually just sign up with
another service. The only real difficulty is notifying people of your
new e-mail address.
If you are installing a dedicated line, you are making a much longer-term
commitment. Make sure to check references to gauge how much support you
can really expect to receive from the provider.
Terms & Rates
Internet service providers tend to offer Web and e-mail access at quite
low rates. The cheapest service is a basic shell account, which typically
offers unlimited browsing for about $10 or $15 per month. The problem
with shell accounts is that you cannot use graphical browsers, which means
you cannot take advantage of most of the attractions of the Web.
For full graphical access, you need to obtain a SLIP or PPP account.
These allow you to use popular browsers such as Netscape Navigator or
Microsoft Internet Explorer while connected to the ISP. SLIP/PPP accounts
cost $20 to $40 per month. Not all offer unlimited access, but most set
fairly high usage limits per month.
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