Evaluation of Internet Service Providers
A few relevant terms are presented here. There are many available books
which describe the internet in more detail.
The major connection between ISPs. In reality, the
backbone is a multi-level network, but it can be considered as a
The amount of data that can be sent over a line
(such as a telephone line). The larger the bandwidth, the less
time it takes to send data. For example, T1 telephone lines
have a larger bandwidth than standard phone lines.
- Domain Name Server (DNS).
This is a computer at your ISP
that looks up your name and determines where to send the
message. For example, to send a message to
email@example.com, the DNS determines where netdog is.
Electronic mail. Eudora is a well known (and
considered one of the best) email program which you can use to
read and send email. There are others.
- Home Page.
When you are Web browsing and go to a new
location, you first see their home page. In many cases, you can
have one of your own, too.
- Internet Service Provider (ISP).
This is the company that you
contract with to give you access to the Internet.
- List Server.
This is a mechanism that distributes email (e.g.,
alerts, etc.) to everyone on a mailing list. You subscribe to the
list server to get the mailings.
The box that connects your computer to the telephone
line. Many brands are available. Reviews in PC Magazine
indicate US Robotics is the best. I agree. (See PC Magazine
October 1994 and March 1995 issues - good articles). An
internal modem is built into your PC. An external modem is a
separate component, and has lights that can help you see what
- Modem speed.
The faster, the better (but before you buy a fast
one for an old PC, be sure the PC UART (a communications
chip) and serial board can handle it). Typical speeds are 14.4,
19.2, and 28.8 kilobits per second (thousands of bits per
second). In the good old days, 1.2 kbps was considered
outstanding. A bit is a one or zero. It takes 8 bits to represent
one character. For internet access, especially if you plan to do
Web browsing (which involves transfer of lots of large graphics
files), get the fastest modem you can. If all you want to do is
email, speed is not as important.
Modems now adhere to V.32 BIS and V.34 standards, where
they try to communicate at the fastest speeds possible, and
then "fall back" to slower speeds if telephone line conditions
degrade. A good-quality modem will allow you to consistently
communicate at high speeds. When you use the same types of
modems on each end, connectivity is usually better.
A newsgroup is where people post articles.
Everyone can read posted articles and post their own
responses. There are thousands of newsgroups you can join.
- Response time.
You want fast response time when reading
email or browsing the Web. Slow response time is frustrating,
and uses up your connect time.
- SLIP and PPP.
When you connect to your ISP, the
communication protocol will be one of these two. SLIP is fairly
simple, while PPP (point to point) is more complicated, offers
error correction, and is more reliable. If you dial into your ISP,
you will connect using a dynamic SLIP or PPP protocol.
Uniform Resource Locator. This is a link between
documents on the Web. It might look like the following:
The http stands for Hypertext Transmission Protocol.
The actual computer site in the above example is
The single slashes separate directory paths at the computer
The final letter.html is a single document, prepared in
Hypertext Markup Language.
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The main criteria you should use to evaluate dialup internet access
- Modems and phone lines. Are there enough so you won't get a
- Response times. You want fairly fast response with few delays.
- Reasonable rates. A reasonable rate is $20 to $25 for 20 to 50
hours of access per month. Be careful about lots of hours (or
unlimited hours) for a low fee - this can sometimes mean that
your response time will be bad and you might busy signals
because customers stay connected for long periods of time.
Also note there may be a connect time limit and forced delay
before you can log in again - both are impediments to your
- Good technical support. To find out if a provider has good
technical support, determine their hours of support. Then make
a call or two to their technical support to determine if you get
placed on hold for a long period of time. Ask others who use
Criteria included in this evaluation also includes:
- Time in business. This older a company is, the more stable it
probably is, and the more reliable its service. Small start-up
companies can suffer from growth pains, which manifest as
inadequacies in technical support and equipment. Equipment
problems usually show up as busy signals (not enough
modems) or slow response (inadequate processors or
- Number of dial-in users. More customers means a more stable
company, but it could mean problems with technical support
and response time.
- Number of modems. The more, the better.
- Customer-to-modem ratio. 10:1 to 12:1 is considered good,
20:1 to 30:1 is considered poor, and means you may get
busy signals when you dial in. However, although customer-to-modem
ratio is a valid measurement for a small ISP with a few hundred
dial-in customers, it becomes less meaningful for larger providers.
With larger providers with thousands of dial-in customers, the
crucial measurement is the percentage of busy signals customers
encounter. Capacity in this case is determined by the number of
customers actively connected during peak periods as compared to the
total number of dial-in ports.
- Frequency of busy signals., based upon comments from various
parties. You want to avoid busy signals.
- Modem vendor and type. Good modems work better but cost
- Modem speed. The faster, the better. Expect at least 28.8.
- Connection type. Dynamic SLIP or dynamic PPP. PPP is
- Backbone connectivity. The faster, the better. T1 is good,
connecting at 1.45 megabits per second. Frame relay
connectivity means that you are dealing with slower connectivity
at 56 kbps. This usually indicates the provider is running out of
a low-cost home setup. T3 is much faster than a T1.
- Home page available. Useful if you want your own home page.
- Own Domain Name Server (DNS). Some ISPs don't have their
own DNS, and have to use some else's, which slows down your
- Own Newsgroup server. If your ISP has its own newsgroup
server (e.g., a separate computer), you will get faster response.
- Own Email server. If your ISP has its own email server (e.g., a
separate computer), you will get faster response.
- Technical support.
- List server technology.
If you want to set one up (with you as
the originating party), check if the ISP offers one to you, and at
what cost. Also determine if they are using MajorDomo,
ListServ, SmartList. MajorDomo is popular, but ListServ and
SmartList offer more features to the originating user.
How do your evaluate these criteria?
- Contact various Internet Providers
- Ask other users of Internet Providers
- This document
- Other similar comparisons between providers
What are your requirements? Consider your volume, measured in hours per
month. Basic users will probably use less than 20 hours per month.
America Online and other proprietary online networks offer Internet access
as part of their basic fee, but this may not be great access (in my opinion).
For example, you may not have complete graphical Web browsing
capability, or it may be slow. For a few dollars more per month, you can
have complete Internet access, with fast response time.
If you are a heavy-hitter, consider lots of hours at cheaper rates, which are
usually offered by the smaller and newer providers. If you want guaranteed
reliability, consider some of the older providers, although newer ones also
provide good services. If you represent an organization, you might want to
consider an established provider so that you will need to change providers in
One factor to consider when evaluating small versus large ISPs, and
established versus new, is how they will handle growth. Although this is
hard to anticipate, consider the track record as well as the intent of
provider. For example, some small providers claim to have a limit on
the number of dial-up customers. Larger and more established firms
may have more capital available for additional equipment required to
Select an ISP that offers reasonable service at
reasonable prices. You get what you pay for.
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- Do see The List - a comprehensive list of Internet Service Providers with a search facility.
- BudgetWeb.com offers the largest collection of low-cost web space services.
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