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Here are a few things to consider when signing up with an Internet service provider for the first time. At a minimum, you want to find out about the reliability and quality of the ISP's basic services.
ComputerUser.com has an article (from 2002) on "How to choose an ISP" which may be helpful, in addition to information on dialups and DSL it also has content on cable, satellite, wireless, and Wi-Fi.
Can you expect busy signals at peak times? Some ISPs almost never have a busy signal, even at peak hours.
Will you sometimes experience bad connections or disconnections? How often? This varies quite a bit. It can be worse in some areas. It also differs from one telephone company to another. Some ISPs may be able to eliminate such problems almost entirely, through continual work on it. Other ISPs may have continuing problems. Experiencing bad connections is probably the single most common reason for changing Internet providers. Some connection problems aren't the ISP's fault, even though typically many of them are. With some problems that involve phone lines, getting them solved can be difficult.
Does the ISP have a backup phone number for another modem line that's a local call from where you are? There are many things that can go wrong with phone lines and with the modems and other devices connected to them. You don't want to find this out at a particularly awkward time, but you will.
How many hours of dialup connection are included in a month's basic service?
If it's not "unlimited," what's the charge for additional hours?
Are there restrictions on the length of an on-line session (for example, 45 minutes?)
Some ISPs' flat rate unlimited-time accounts have more or different restrictions than others.
"Unlimited" dialup accounts are for intermittent dialup use. True unlimited use requires a dedicated line. Compare the ISP's pricing for a dedicated line to its pricing for an unlimited dialup account. A dedicated line is several times more expensive.
What's a reasonable amount of use for an unlimited dialup account? The answer can be much different at different providers. But you should be able to connect to the Net for a few hours a day. An ISP's published policies for unlimited-time accounts might not mention a certain number of hours per month as a reasonable limit, but in practice often there is such a limit. If you're likely to need more than the average amount of connection time, make sure you find out beforehand what the time limits actually are. It varies a great deal.
How long does it take to deliver e-mail? With a good ISP, you should be able to conduct back and forth "almost-chat" conversations by e-mail, under ordinary circumstances. This varies a lot from one ISP to another. It's important because long mail processing times will delay not only your mail but whatever actions people take based on your communications.
Is the mail server down sometimes, when you need to send mail? If down times are infrequent and fairly short, and if all the mail is queued and saved during those times, then you haven't lost anything but time. But with a good ISP, significant downtime should be rare. Some ISPs publish a log of all service outages that affect customers. Others may not admit that there ever was a problem.
Will the ISP forward your e-mail for a time after you move elsewhere? If so, for how long? Many won't do this at all. If you can, you should have a more permanent e-mail address than the one at your current ISP, and always use your permanent address. Then you can forward the mail that comes to that permanent address onward to your current ISP account. Giving up an e-mail address after you've used it for a while can be a headache. Often it means that you won't be able to receive mail that people send you, for a long time afterward. You can surf the Web from any ISP you like, but be careful where your have your e-mail address.
How fast does the ISP transfer data over your modem connection at peak times? At those times, typically in the evening hours, can you download files at only half the speed of your modem, because of the volume of traffic sharing the ISP's high-speed connection to the Net? Overbooking a high-speed connection to the Internet backbone is not unknown at ISPs, or at their upstream suppliers. The reason behind this is to keep costs down. There are differences among ISPs in how they view this (and how they view your opinion about it).
How many days does the ISP keep Usenet messages before they expire, in popular high-volume newsgroups?
Are messages often randomly missing from newsgroups? Do you frequently see replies to messages that you never saw in the first place?
How long does it take for local Seattle-area messages to show up on the ISP's newsfeed?
If the ISP has only one newsfeed, instead of redundant sources, that's likely to be a problem someday.
Compare the messages over the past few days in a local newsgroup (for example, wash.assistive-tech) on your ISP's news server with the messages in the same newsgroup on a large news server like Nooz.Net. The propagation of Usenet messages from one news server to the next can be slow and sporadic. When you send a Usenet message, it might not be visible until hours later to users on some local systems, and until the next day on other systems.
Providing a good Usenet newsfeed is a headache for an ISP, and is a frequent area for economizing. Because of the poor completeness, slow propagation times and quick expiration times of some ISPs' newsfeeds, several national Usenet news providers offer accounts to individuals who want better Usenet coverage.
What hours of the day is help available by phone?
Does someone answer the phone, or do you usually get an answering machine?
Can you talk directly to the systems experts if necessary, or only to a less-skilled help desk person?
What's the current backlog, in hours or days, for answering e-mail help requests?
Is anyone there at night and on weekends?
Do they usually solve the problems you ask about? This isn't always necessarily true of ISP technical support.
Freedom of Expression
Does the ISP attempt to place contractual restrictions on what you can say, or the content of your Web pages, other than the applicable U.S., state and local laws? Some ISPs do have such restrictions. If so, you may want to choose another provider, unless you're sure you'll always agree with the company's managers.
Does the ISP not carry some Usenet discussion groups, as a matter of religious belief or other policy? Ideally, you should be aware of such restrictions beforehand, and choose this type of service if you prefer it, rather than finding out about it afterwards.
But keep in mind that any ISP's system administrators or the business' owners physically can, and in some circumstances actually might, review any of your files for any reason that they deem sufficiently serious at the time.
Whether an ISP will respect your privacy in difficult circumstances can be hard to determine before you sign up for the ISP's service. Some businesses might voluntarily give law enforcement agencies much more cooperation than you as a customer or as a citizen might wish, with or without informing you that they are doing so. The federal government's Carnivore monitoring system has drawn varying reactions from ISPs. Many dislike it, but have been unwilling to oppose it or to disclose their actual policies regarding compliance with Carnivore when questioned by their customers about whether they would (or do in fact) go along with it.
Civil lawsuits against an ISP's customer can result in legal requests to obtain information from the ISP about the customer and the customer's e-mail communications, for example. Noncompliance with a lawyer's demands for such information could lead to legal threats against the ISP itself. An ISP might be unwilling to strenuously oppose on your behalf lawyers who are overstepping their proper bounds while fishing for information. You might never know whether your privacy has been compromised.
Mailing lists (sometimes called listservs) can help people keep in touch and encourage discussion. But large, busy mailing lists can cause significant mail server loads and administrative headaches for the ISP's postmaster. Mailing lists usually are a separate extra-cost item. Your ISP might not be too eager to host mailing lists, and might not ordinarily make information about them available with their other account information. If you're considering setting up a mailing list, there's no reason that it needs to be hosted at the ISP that you use for your dialup Internet connection.