Choosing the wrong online or Internet service provider costs you. You're already stressed at work and on the freeway. The last thing you need at home are problems with the Internet.
Snapping at the kids because you can't get online again, or wasting an hour online because of interrupted or slow downloads (when you could be helping Johnny with homework) is not the kind of home life you want! And you want the most value for your dollar, too.
How you get on the Internet (Internet access) is separate from what you do once you're on it (content and services). For access, you can either use an online service content-based provider like AOL, Prodigy, or CompuServe, or an Internet Service Provider such as Earthlink, zNET, ConnectNet, A+ Net. (To figure out what type of access works best for you, see the accompanying story.)
Your content and services can be combined with your access (i.e. AOL), or supplied separately, and is largely a matter of personal preference. Content-based services are inevitably higher priced than access from an ISP, and are bundled with features that not all users need. There is a prevalent myth that if you want to chat with people on AOL, you have to be a member of AOL, and that's not completely true. You can have a one-on-one real time chat via a "messenger" program, with anyone, using free software that works no matter what type of access you have. While there are AOL chat rooms available only to AOL members, there are thousands of similar, topic-oriented chat rooms available through clubs on Web sites like Yahoo!. You can have an online community without being on AOL.- What To Look For In An ISP
So now that you know you really have a choice, here's what to look for when picking a provider and a service package for home use:
o Cost. You're probably not making money off your Internet access, so the cheaper the better, as long as your needs are met. If you live in the city, you shouldn't pay more than $10-$20 a month for dialup access. Moderate to intensive users will pay more for higher bandwidth options.
o Getting Online. Typically you're online evenings and weekends, and need to get online without much trouble. If you get busy signals, or can't get mail from the mailserver, or experience "server latency" (outgoing mail takes forever to get through the SMTP server and ties up Microsoft Outlook, or your web browser takes forever to "find" a web address because the ISP's DNS server is overloaded), you'll spend more time online than you want to.
o Email. You should be able to get your mail as both POP mail and Web-based mail. POP mail downloads permanently onto your computer. Webmail just lets you read it, from wherever you are, and you can set up folders and filters too. Yahoo! is a well known example of this type. When you're done, the messages are still on your provider's mailserver, so you can look at them again from another location, or download them permanently from home as POP mail. Both are password protected. You should have 2-5 email accounts included in your basic service, so that you can have generic addresses to use on mailing lists, one to use with friends/family, one for your spouse/kids, etc.
o Personal Web Pages. You should have 25-50 megs of storage space available for web pages and mail storage, included at no extra charge in your basic service. Your service provider should have tools/links that help you build your home page, free. If you want your own domain name (www.mylastname.org) it should cost about $10 a month more, and you should be able to get any email username you want for use with your domain name, i.e. email@example.com (that's "virtual web hosting").
o Tech Support. Must be available evenings and weekends when you are online. They must ask the right questions to quickly troubleshoot and solve your problems. Good tech support can point you to resources outside their company, such as helpful links and software downloads. They should have access to lots of information (on their own intranet and FAQs), and should be able to point you to lots of canned, helpful, information on the ISP website. If they are unable to solve the problem with you the first time, and need to get advice, they should get back to you within 2 hours with a fresh approach.
o Billing. These issues are more time-sensitive for the consumer vs. the business user. The consumer user typically has fewer resources. A $50 billing error must be resolved immediately, while a business can wait. Your ISP must get answers for you promptly, and solve the problem in 24 to 48 hours. You should expect courteous staff with real answers, and a "customer is always right" attitude. If you make a change of any kind, make a note about who you spoke to and when, your request confirmation number if there is one, or the time/date of your website change order.
o Customer Service. Since customer service and billing staff are often not available on evenings/weekends, some kind of web-based account management is critical for the home user so you can change your password, change your billing method, add another email box, etc. during your leisure hours. Most ISPs have this feature. If you make a change of any kind, make a note about your confirmation number if there is one, or the time/date of your website change order.
o Community (or, the Online Service vs. the ISP). The moderate to intensive home user has an online community: mailing lists, clubs, chat friends, shopping, personal Web pages, subject-related links, etc. Typically, people think that if they want this kind of community they must use a content-based Online Service. Not true. All the free web-based mail sites have an extensive online community (example: Yahoo!, Excite, and Hotmail) that matches what you can get from AOL (or better). There are stand-alone chat and instant messenger programs you can download for free, and can use to talk to AOL members and others, without being an AOL customer. Yahoo! Messenger is one example, and there are others you can use regardless of where your email is hosted.
You can use Web-based services for your online community, regardless of the type of access. I personally like Yahoo the best, with Hotmail a close second, and don't recommend Excite. My preferences are based on the available features/services, and the account management and customer service I've experienced with them. Yahoo has the most user friendly account management, and a wide variety of features and services.
I recommend choosing a good ISP and Yahoo. Then use the time and money saved to finally get started on that personal project you've been putting off, and get those concert tickets you've been promising yourself for a year.
Mann the director of marketing for zNET Internet Services.