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Choosing An Internet Service Provider (ISP)




This guide is mainly about Australian Internet Service Provider (prices are in $AU). The focus is on dial-up connections, which remains the most popular choice. For a discussion of alternative arrangements (such as cable internet and ADSL).

================================
Items Covered in this document
================================

• Free Access
• Starter Kits
• Location
• Types Of Account
• Speed, Variables
• Connectivity
• Price Typical Plans
• Service
• Web Pages
• On-Line Time Measurement
• Complaints
• The Verdict

  Free Access:

Before you pay for access to the internet, consider the possibility of connecting for free.

A number of internet service providers (ISPs) offer free access, funded by advertising or sponsorship. Of course there are various limitations: providers may offer a limited range of functions (e.g. no POP e-mail, news, chat or FTP), or restrict the duration of each on-line session, or limit the web sites you can visit, or require the continual display of advertising in your browser. They might also sell any personal information you provide. You should also expect difficulties in connecting, especially at peak times. Despite all this, a free ISP may be a good introduction to the internet and you can't beat the price.

Australian PC User magazine (August 2000) tried 8 free ISPs, but found only one that worked satisfactorily: Global Freeway. (But I don't even know if they are still in business becaus the link has been down for a while ;o)

Also, if you teach at a university or other higher education institution, or if you are undertaking postgraduate study, you may be entitled to free internet access through the institution. Contact its IT section. Note that universities sometimes offer e-mail access but not access to other features of the internet.

  Starter Kits

You may have got a free starter kit from an ISP when you bought your modem or your computer. They usually include a certain period of free access. Be wary about such offers. First, the "free" hours may be conditional on signing up for a certain period. Second, a starter kit sold with a modem often has outdated software on it. Third, whichever ISP you choose may provide a more up-to-date starter kit and some free time.

  Location

Your first question is: what are the choices in your area? You need to get an ISP that you can dial into for the cost of a local call, either because they have a point of presence (POP) in your area or because they offer dial-up access for the price of a local call.

  List Of ISP's

In Australia, there is a plethora of choice in the capital cities, and a wide coverage of rural and regional areas. You can find a list of ISP's In your area by taking a look at: The Australian ISP list, which:-

    • lists ISPs by location
    • Search for an ISP near you, by simply entering your phone number.

If you are browsing by location, remember to look under both your State and the national list: national ISPs (such as Ozemail and TPG) each have many POPs. Also look for those ISPs that provide local call dial-up access numbers: Telstra Big Pond is a notable example.

If you live outside the capital cities and these lists don't provide enough options, ask around. The local computer retailer or the IT section of the local council might know of other ISPs with an access point in your area.

Many people need to use a computer in two different telephone areas. For example, you might have a computer at the office in the city and another at your home or holiday home outside the metropolitan area; or you might travel interstate often. You should then look for an ISP that has a POP in each STD area or one that provides a local call access number. An account with an ISP lets you dial in to any of its POPs from any computer. This means that you can set up a connection on each computer you use, or you can set up multiple connections on your laptop computer (e.g. one to "Ozemail Sydney" and one to "Ozemail Melbourne").

  International ISP's

A few large international ISPs (e.g. AOL, AT&T and Compuserve) provide access in several countries. Some other ISPs also offer "global roaming", through reciprocal arrangements with ISPs in other countries.

While this facility might be handy if you travel overseas often, you don't need an international ISP to access your e-mail. Wherever you are in the world, if you can log on to the internet from a computer (e.g. from an internet café), you can collect your e-mail by using your account name and password.

  Types Of Account

While there are many different account options (for example, you may see references to a "shell account"), for most people, the simplest and best is a dial-up PPP (point-to-point protocol) account. (An earlier protocol, serial line internet protocol or "SLIP", is now largely superseded by PPP.) That's all I discuss here.

  Speed, Variables

What you want above all from an ISP is a fast connection. The speed of connection varies a great deal from one ISP to another. In general it depends on the speed of the equipment they have answering calls, the efficiency of their network servers and (especially) the speed and bandwidth of their connections to the rest of the internet.

  56k Modem Support

If you have (or intend to buy) a 56.6kbps modem, you should look for an ISP that supports 56.6kbps dial-up connections at the POP that you will dial into. If the ISP has 56.6kbps access, but does not support the V.90 standard for 56.6kbps modems, you will need to ensure that your ISP supports modems of the same type (X2 or K56Flex) as yours - otherwise the speed of your connection will be limited to 33.6kbps.

  Rules Of Thumb

While you can usually find out what type of modems an ISP supports, unfortunately there is no easy way to find out other things about their performance and value for money. Part of the problem is that there are so many ISPs (over 500 in Australia) that no comprehensive studies are done. In general, you are left with rules of thumb and word of mouth to choose between them.

As a general rule, the larger national providers tend to be faster. Larger ISPs are better equipped to invest in expensive hardware and to buy large-bandwidth connections. Some even have their own private links to the rest of the internet. Smaller ISPs generally sub-let bandwidth (from Telstra or other companies), for which rapid growth in demand tends to outstrip the growth in supply. Smaller and cheaper ISPs also tend to operate on very slim margins, which limits their capacity to invest in expensive hardware (and raises questions about their long-term viability). The gap may widen as 56.6Kbps modems become more commonplace, since their introduction requires substantial infrastructure investment by ISPs to take advantage of the higher speeds.

Some ISPs commendably provide detailed information on their web sites about the performance of their system from day to day. See, for example, Labyrinth and Zip World.

  Tests & Surveys

Computer magazines publish periodic comparisons of ISPs. You can find some on the web sites of leading magazines. They provide some useful information, but use these results with caution, for several reasons:

    • Results tend to date quickly. For example, older tests used 33.6kbps modems; the spread of 56.6kbps services may substantially change the ratings. Also, a flood of new customers, or conversely a rapid expansion in bandwidth, may greatly alter performance.
    • Local and regional providers, which may be excellent performers, are generally overlooked.
    • Most of the tests focus on a single POP (usually Sydney). The performance of an ISP may vary greatly from one POP to another.
    • Performance can be measured in different ways. An ISP may have a preponderance of home-based customers, so that its network slows down in the evening, but is under-used and fast during office hours. Some ISPs have fast local links, but slower links to the US and other countries; if you mainly access local sites, this may not matter. Some ISPs provide excellent file transfer (FTP) speeds, but slower web access. You need to look behind generalisations of good or bad performance to see what is relevant to you.
    • Many publishing houses have close commercial links with particular ISPs, whether through dependence on advertising revenue or through common ownership. There is a risk that those links might (consciously or unconsciously) affect the independence of a review.

  Connectivity

It is one thing for an ISP to have a fast connection to the internet, but can you connect to them whenever you want? There are several types of 'connectivity' problems that are common sources of frustration for internet users:

    • Your computer dials your ISP, but the dial-up telephone number of the ISP is busy or does not answer.
    • The telephone answers but the ISP's server generates strange messages that prevent your computer from making a connection.
    • You make a connection, but it suddenly drops out. (This can have several causes, including poor telephone line quality, but it may
    occur because you are 'bumped' by your ISP's over-taxed server.)

Most internet users will experience one or more of these problems at some time; often, you just re-dial and connect immediately. With some ISPs, however, it happens far too often. Try to find out whether your preferred ISP is prone to these problems. In particular, find out how many account-holders the ISP has per line: if the ratio is not adequate, you risk getting an engaged signal when you dial in at busy times. The accepted standard is 10 users per line. Remember, too, that the ratio may vary from one of the ISP's POPs to another: an average ratio of 8 or 10 users per line overall may mask a ratio of 15 users per line at the POP you want to use.

  Price, Typical Plans

Most ISPs have different plans, with cheaper rates for high-volume users. As an indication, national ISPs commonly offer deals like these:

    • a basic standard arrangement might be a setup or account fee of $25, then $4 per hour for access on demand;
    • higher volume plans might be 20 hours per month for $35, or 30 hours per month for $50, with excess hours billed at $4. (Unused hours usually do not carry over.)

Local or regional ISPs often have cheaper rates, which may or may not be reflected in much poorer performance.

A few ISPs also sell pre-paid blocks of hours. For example, Netspace offers pre-paid blocks of 50 hours for $64, 100 hours for $120 or 200 hours for $215, which you can use at any time for up to 12 months. This is a very attractive option if you are new to the internet and do not know what your usage patterns will be, or if your usage fluctuates from month to month.

  Choosing A Plan

The key to choosing a plan is to know how many hours per month you are likely to spend on-line. If you overestimate, you may pay for hours that you don't use; if you underestimate, you may pay high rates for the hours that exceed your allotment in a particular month. For someone new to the internet, it is very difficult to make accurate estimates, especially since usage varies widely. For that reason, it may be wise to pay by the hour for a month or two, or to pre-purchase a block of hours, until you see what your usage pattern is. When you have a clearer picture, switch to the appropriate plan for you, whether with the same or another ISP.

Many ISPs now also offer "unlimited" access. This is usually not what it seems. Some ISPs limit the amount of time on-line in any one session, so your connection may be abruptly terminated after, say, one hour. ISPs also often impose a limit on the volume of data that may be transferred in any month, with hefty penalties for exceeding the limit. Worse still, you may often encounter a busy signal when trying to connect.

Note that a small number of ISPs have gone into liquidation, taking subscribers' money with them. This is a risk you take in any plan involving pre-payment.

  Service

All ISPs have some kind of help desk to assist you in setting up and to deal with any problems, but the availability and standards vary greatly. At one end of the spectrum, some (like JustNet, Optus, Ozemail and Pacific Internet) have 24-hour telephone, e-mail or fax support. At the other end, some help desks are business hours only. Most ISPs are somewhere in between.

Just as important, however, is that a call to your ISP for support cost only the price of a local call. Even the national ISPs don't necessarily have local call access to support: I once had to be on the telephone from Melbourne to Sydney for 25 minutes to get help. A service based in your home town may have the edge in this regard.

Most problems that require a call to your ISP's help desk occur when you are setting up your connection. Once your connection is running properly, you may not need to contact them again.

  Web Pages

Many ISP's give you a certain amount of free space on their server (usually 3, 5 or 10Mb) for you to have your own web page. This will be quite sufficient for many lawyers or law firms. Some ISPs also provides detailed (password-accessible) information on their web site about hits to a web site that they host; this lets you determine where the traffic is (or is not) coming from.

If you want to have a web presence but your ISP doesn’t have the facility, or charges for it, you can still get free space. Try one of these:

    • Open a second account with another ISP that offers free space. Many ISPs allow you to open an account for free (or for a small setup fee) and pay only for any hours in which you use them to access the internet. You can set up and maintain a web site with the second ISP using access through your first ISP.
    • Set up a web page at one of the sites that offer free web space. Examples are CyberCities, Fortune City, Geocities, Xoom and Australia's Emu Cities.

Creating a web site can be difficult or easy. A rudimentary web site is a very simple matter; in fact some ISPs have on-line wizards to help you create your own. This will be sufficient to set out the nature of your work and your contact details (including your e-mail address). However creating a more sophisticated site is something of a black art. If you want sophistication, it may pay to have your site designed by a professional. Some ISPs offer this facility (for a fee).

  On-Line Time Measurement

Unless you have deep pockets or an account which gives you unlimited on-line time, you need to know how many times, and for how long, you have been on-line in the current billing period. Most ISPs have a place on their web site (password access only) where you can find out details of your time on-line. Sometimes the information is provided on the screen and sometimes by an automatically-generated e-mail message. Other ISPs will only tell you if you ask them, and they may take their time about it.

  Complaints

If you have a problem with your ISP that you have not been able to resolve, you may complain to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. (Links to the TIO can also found on my "Adult Links" page.)

  The Verdict

I have, or have had, accounts with five ISPs: Telstra Big Pond, Ozemail, AOL, Netspace, ION, and TPG. Here are my comments on them:

    • Telstra Big Pond: Australia's largest ISP, Telstra Big Pond is not cheap, but it provides a consistently fast and reliable service, 24-hour/7-day support and a large network of POPs. Big Pond also offers high-speed (and high-cost) cable internet in some areas. Note that there have been a number of complaints about Big Pond's billing system; I once had unauthorized charges imposed. If you do sign up, watch your account carefully.
    • Ozemail: Australia's second-largest ISP, Ozemail has fast links, many POPs and 24-hour/7-day support. It is also a very good host for a free web site, providing comprehensive information about hits. All of this (not to mention its large marketing budget) does not come cheaply. Although Ozemail's bulk plans are competitive with other leading ISPs, in my opinion Ozemail's service should be better for the price: for example, the mail can be intolerably slow and difficult to access.
    • AOL: It is another one of the largest ISP's in australia. I'm afraid this has to be one of the worst ISP's around. I found the service useless (If I got a reply, or got through) and when I loaded up there software it nearly cost me all my information on my computer.
    • Netspace: Netspace's steady growth from regional to national ISP has been built on very competitive pricing, a fast, reliable and accessible service, good support and a high rate of user satisfaction. My perception is that Netspace's connectivity and its mail server are not as reliable as they used to be, but Netspace remains a safe choice and good value for money. Netspace's block accounts are well priced and mean you pay precisely for the hours you use.
    • ION: Went bust! What can I say? :-(
    • TPG: There are only two reasons to prefer TPG over other ISPs: first, it is very cheap and, second, with its very wide regional coverage, it may be the only choice in your area (which is why I chose it). I have found its connectivity and performance to be mediocre (although magazine surveys suggest its Sydney POP may be better). TPG is one of the few ISPs that charges (heftily) for help.

I will start with AOL because I only have two words for it, Don't Bother! (and if you do deside to use it, don't say you haven't been warned). As for the other ISPs! In my opinion Telstra Big Pond probably shades Ozemail for overall performance, although Ozemail provides better web-site hosting. If price is no object, I would probably choose Big Pond over Netspace. On the other hand, if price is the only criterion, consider TPG. If you are looking for value for money, Netspace is one of the cheaper one.

Happy Surfing ;o)

---- Rookie


A complete List Of ISP's Can be found at:
The Australian ISP List




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