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How to choose an ISP

To connect your computer to the Internet, you'll need an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Some ISPs are large and well known, such as AOL, MSN, Time Warner Cable and Earthlink, while others are literally one-person operations. Some companies strictly limit their service to providing Internet access. Others, like your telephone and cable company, may offer Internet access as part of a much larger package of services.

If you have limited Internet expertise, you may want to start with one of the well-known ISPs. They usually offer user-friendly startup software. This software often includes features such as a browser, instant messaging, parental controls, and pop-up blockers. Many also offer 24 hour tech support. Of course, all of this convenience results in higher monthly user fees. Once you are comfortable with how the Internet works, you may discover you don't need all the 'extras' and switch to a lower-cost ISP.

Whatever your present level of expertise, you will want to consider these factors when selecting a provider.

  • Speed. If all you want to do is check e-mail and read web pages, a dial-up connection may be enough. But most people also want to download music, television shows, or watch videos. For these, you will need a faster connection with "broadband" access, such as a digital subscriber line (DSL), a cable model, or satellite
  • Availability. For dial-up service, is there a local phone number or toll-free number for access?
  • Wireless access. Can you get a wireless connection for other computers in your home?
  • Email. How many e-mail accounts come with the service? What will be the storage limit on your mailbox? How many days does the ISP keep your mail before deleting it?
  • Website Space. Do you want to create a personal website? If so, find out whether your provider offers web space and software to create your page.
  • Software. Is there any software required to activate the service? How do you get it? How large is the software? Can you use whatever browser or e-mail program you'd like?
  • Support. What kinds of support are available-phone, e-mail, chat, etc.? What are the hours of support? Are there any additional charges for support?
  • Special Features. What services are provided in terms of spam blocking, virus protection, instant messaging, and chat rooms?
  • Terms of Service. Is there a limit to the number of hours per month you can use the service?
  • Cost. What is the monthly fee for the service? Are there any additional equipment or setup fees? What is the fee for extra e-mail accounts?

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