One of the first things you'll notice when surfing around the WWW is the
mind-boggling number of acronyms out there: FTP, CGI, WAIS, AOL, CIS, SIG
... it's enough to make you stand up and shout "Is anybody speaking English
Don't panic. In time, you will catch on and understand those terms that
have meaning for you. However, your Web experience will be much more
rewarding if you can communicate quickly and effectively from the very
beginning with the company that brings you online -- your ISP, or Internet
Service Provider. So here, in plain English, is a guide to choosing the
best ISP for your needs.
1. Is Your ISP Available To Talk To You?
In other words, do they answer the phone? We're not yet at the point where
we can seamlessly communicate from modem to modem, no matter what current
news headlines tell us. Sometimes, a human voice is needed to explain the
intricacies of your connection, your e-mail program, or any other concerns
you might have. Endless busy signals or hold times from here to eternity do
not count as communication. Don't just insert your nifty Internet offer
disk into your computer and pray -- that's not making an informed choice.
Call up your potential ISP to talk about their services. Can you reach
them? And ...
2. Does Your ISP Talk To You In Friendly, Non-Technical English (Or Your
Language Of Choice)?
Let's face it. A CSR, or Customer Service Representative, who simply
repeats the technical jargon you don't understand in the first place is not
being very helpful. The Web is a community of users, some of whom have
technical expertise, but many do not. You are a welcome member of this
community, and deserve to be treated as such. That means that your
concerns, questions and problems should be heard and answered respectfully,
in a friendly tone of voice, in words that you can understand. Remember,
the Internet industry as we know it today is only a few years old. Nobody
out there was born with a mouse or a browser in their hands, so don't allow
yourself to feel intimidated by "techno-speak". Make sure that your unique
voice, and your level of knowledge, is heard and addressed. Which leads to ...
3. Is Price An Issue?
Like all things in life, you often get what you pay for. An understaffed
ISP that has their technical personnel
(or harried CSR's) answering the phones and handling customer questions in
an effort to save money may end up costing you more in frustration and
unusable service down the road. A fully staffed service department may cost
a bit more in terms of monthly fees, but if they are there when you need
them, at any time of day or night, the benefits could be enormous. Ask your
potential ISP about their customer service policy. How big is the staff?
How are they trained? What is the average hold or wait time until you speak
to a representative? Are they available day and night, or only during
business hours? Is it a local call to reach customer service, or are you
holding and paying the long distance charges? And is their level of
service, both online and off, acceptable to you?
4. What Is Acceptable Online Service?
Basically, you should get connected and stay connected, at your desired
modem speed, the first time or two that you try. Persistent busy signals
are not acceptable. Getting "thrown" offline in the middle of your Web
surfing is not acceptable. Logging on with a 28.8 modem and receiving a
14.4 connection in return is not acceptable. These problems all relate to
an overly high "user to modem ratio", which means that the infrastructure
of the ISP cannot support the number of users who are trying to get, and
stay, online. Many ISP's promote heavily and sign up numerous customers
before putting the necessary technical support in place to handle them.
This is not a good business practice, but more importantly, this leads to
frustration and downtime on your end. Make sure you "test drive" your
selected ISP during peak hours to ensure that the level of service is
acceptable before you make your final commitment. And be sure to find out ...
5. What Software Programs & Operating Systems Does Your ISP Support?
You may have certain preferences already when it comes to browsers, e-mail
programs or newsgroup readers (or you may develop preferences as your
knowledge increases). You may be a loyal Macintosh, Windows 3.1, OS/2 or
LINUX user with no intention of changing. Does your ISP support the
programs and operating system of your choice? Or do they require you to use
proprietary programs in order to receive the best service from them? Can
they answer questions specific to your operating system, or are they
specialists with knowledge of only the most common platforms? This industry
is changing and developing at a breakneck speed. New programs are invented
every day, and many are easily available to you on the Web. Make sure that
your service provider does not "lock" you into the use of their chosen
programs or platforms, or they may not meet your needs in the long term.
Which leads to ...
6. Is Your ISP With You For The Long Term?
One of the great things about the Web is that the more you know, the more
you are likely to want to know and experience. Today, you may be content
with sending a few e-mails and browsing through a few Websites. But who
knows? Tomorrow, you may decide to set up your own mailing list on a topic
of interest, or you may determine that your business needs a Website in
order to remain competitive. These decisions require more services from
your ISP. Does your ISP have a full range of services available to you as
your needs change? Are the services easily obtainable and well-priced? Or
will you need to look elsewhere in the long term to get the services you
want? Once you've established an online "presence", it's quite a hassle to
change providers, e-mail addresses and URLs. In many ways, it can be just
as complex as getting up and moving across the country. Like your phone
number or your address, you can't take it with you. A little research and
testing in advance will go a long way to making sure that your Internet
experience, and the community that you create, will be with you for the
This commentary is by Eileen Shulock who handles marketing and public relations for TIAC, The
Internet Access Company. Her e-mail is email@example.com she'll answer your Internet Service Provider questions :-)