If ever there was a most appropriate time to pull out that much over-used descriptive noun ‘plethora’, the ISP discussion is it. Australia’s ISP numbers are large (over 600), and their differences vast. Ever-changing laws, economics, geography, logistics and an eager Aussie population have caused a stampede of operators, large and small to see the offering of a connection to cyberspace as a potentially viable business venture.
From backyard enthusiasts who just love the net so much they wanted all their friends to hook up so they could play MUD games together, to multi-national conglomerates keen on annexing their slice of market share from their competitors and generating a steady revenue stream for their investors, this army of modem-wielding entrepreneurs has switched on this great country of ours and plugged us into virtual reality at an astonishing rate. In one respect, this is great news for us bandwidth-munching surfers, but the extreme disparity of services available has made it very difficult for anyone to know which dotted line to sign on, when it comes to choosing a provider.
In this feature, we look at a small cross-section of ISPs and compare their respective services, but by no means can we tell you that one is right for you. Most factors that determine your choice will involve your personal circumstance. What we can do is give you some parameters to consider, what to look out for, and maybe help you figure out just what it is that you might expect in the way of ‘Internet Service’ from your ‘Provider’. It’s a buyer’s market with so many providers around, so you need to remember how important it is to shop around for the best deal that gives you everything you need, because it’s definitely out there, somewhere.
One thing is for sure – no matter what you choose, it won’t be the last time you’ll need to make such a choice. Most people I know, myself included, have used at least three or four different ISPs over the last few years as the deals changed, their needs changed, and the technology continues to change.
CHOOSING AN ISP
What Do You Want?
Before you start being swayed by the hype and hullabaloo of the big-budget ad campaigns, or the convincing spiels of your sister’s friend’s neighbour’s mate who happens to be a computer boffin with his own server in his bedroom, the first thing you ought to do is ask yourself what it is that you want to get out of your Internet experience. If you have already spent time on-line you may have a fair idea, but if you are new to the medium, your mind hasn’t even begun to be boggled by what’s out there, so you may not yet know how you might conduct your on-line life. Sure you’ve read and heard all about it, but your own interests, personality and lifestyle are going to go a long way in determining your Net usage – how long you will spend on-line, how fast you will want to access your information and how many Megabytes (or Gigabytes) your thirst for content is likely to consume.
Between Two Extremes
My mother has been on-line for over 5 years and she has never once used a Web browser! She is convinced that there is nothing on-line she can’t find in her library in half the time, and she is quite happy sending off a few emails every day to friends and family, and receiving the occasional email newsletter. A friend of mine has spent the same five years with his brain almost hard-wired to the Net, downloading everything he can get his mouse on, making a nuisance of himself in every imaginable newsgroup, discussion forum, chat channel and his own Website. My mother is happy logging on for a maximum of about 10 seconds a day (total – 5 minutes a month) to check and send her emails (she composes them off-line), while my friend needs the best damn fast and unlimited deal he can get. ISPs have to try to cater for these two extremes and everyone in between. That is why there are so many different package deals, and that is also why you really need to know where you fit in to the spectrum of different customers, to have any hope at all of choosing the right deal.
The Bottom Line – Price
The big factors affecting price are time, speed and bandwidth. Time, because your provider can generally only allocate so many connections to so many people in a given time, and speed and bandwidth, because the more you download and the faster you download it, the more your ISP gets charged by the actual owners of the telecommunications cables and Internet resources which they rent to allow you access, so the more costs they have to pass on to you.
Most ISPs use formulas to average out expected usage between their subscribers, so some light users may be subsidising the heavier users, but generally the deals are worked out so that heavy users are charged at higher rates, or are offered different deals to help offset the costs. ISPs may offer unlimited accounts, but cut you off every four hours, or limit your connection speed, to restrict your ability to download too much information. Other accounts offer limited hours and data transfer per month at cheap rates, with additional hours and Megabytes charged at a much higher rate. If you think you may be a heavy user, you should think carefully about your chances of going over your quota, as it can get expensive. Most ISPs should allow you to log into their site and check your usage, and you can also get software that sits on your computer to monitor your on-line activity. If you are a light user, almost all ISPs have very reasonable deals to cater for your needs, and you won’t have any trouble finding a suitable deal.
Some ISPs charge a small setup fee to cover the software and time taken getting you up and running. You should weigh up the charge against exactly what it is they are giving you to set you up. There is no point paying a setup fee if the whole process is going to be confusing, drawn out and frustrating.
WHAT YOU MIGHT GET FOR YOUR MONEY.
Besides the obvious Internet connection, ISPs generally can offer bonus services as part of their package deal. You may or may not require some of these, so you should make sure you are getting more of what you want and less of what you don’t need.
ISPs are basically charging for an Internet connection, but you may get free Web space thrown in to the deal, as well as an email address, which is pretty much standard. If you think you might like to have a Website, then free space at your ISP is a great start. Basic free Web space is not that functional, but can be useful for basic information, or a few pictures or other files. You must remember that if you change ISPs, you will lose your Web address, so if you are wanting a Website in the long term, you may want to look at other free Website services, or even getting your own domain name, rather than risk losing loyal visitors to your space. These days, you can get free Web space at hundreds of locations around the Internet; so free ISP space is not such a valuable asset to your package deal.
Does the prospective ISP offer tech support by phone or email? Is it accessible 24/7, into the evening, or just during normal business hours? Have they taken the time to offer a range of common solutions to problems, on their Website? Go and look at their Website and see how much information is provided. Before you sign up, you should be able to ask technical questions about setting up, and you might get a good idea of just how helpful they might be.
For smaller ISPs, sometimes the tech support, sales team and management are one and the same person. You may prefer a one-on-one relationship with someone who knows his stuff, and may go out of his way to help you - not only to get connected, but also perhaps to upgrade your computer or set up a web site at a later date.
Staying in Touch
A good ISP will keep in touch with their subscribers with regular emails, or postings to their Website. This enables them to inform customers about service upgrades, outages, technical issues, even cultural info their subscribers may be interested in. It is very reassuring to know that your ISP has taken the time to let you know if there has been a problem and that they are doing their best to rectify it, rather than being forced to sit there wondering what the hell has happened to your supposedly fast connection that is crawling along at 1.5Bytes a minute. The Internet is a technical arena, so technical problems do occur. ISPs should keep their customers informed at all times. Check their Site for evidence of how diligent they might be in this area.
The ISP Portal
Many ISPs have turned their own Web Site into a portal that their subscribers can use to access the Internet. Direct access to search engines, communities, chat groups, categorized sites, humour, news feeds, sport results etc. You don’t have to be a subscriber to visit these sites, but often members will get added benefits, and it is all part of adding value to the actual connection service you have paid for.
Some hardware suppliers are ISPs and some ISPs sell hardware, so you may be buying your computer, modem and software from the same place you connect through. Some even have special deals of free access thrown in with every computer sold. This can be helpful when it comes to setting everything up, as they are more obliged to make it all work and can’t blame a third party if it doesn’t, but you should be sure that the connection service they are giving you is the kind of service you will want to pay for once the free honeymoon period expires.
SETTING UP AN ACCOUNT
A good ISP should provide virtually all you need on a CD or floppy disc, and full instructions on their Website, covering issues like email configuration, FTP, newsgroups, billing info and what to do if you get stuck. Once you are sure you have the right hardware (modem, leads, phone line) connecting should be no more difficult than going through a simple set-up process, using either your own computer’s system components, or the software provided by your ISP. So long as all the right information is put in all the right places, the options are selected and the boxes checked, connecting should be a matter of putting in a phone number, user name, password and you’re away! Sounds easy, but there are a lot of variables. Your provider should be quite experienced with the kinds of issues you are likely to encounter and should be able to take care of them very quickly, if not eliminate them altogether by providing accurate instructions and good software. For experienced surfers, setting up a new account may be a breeze, but for beginners, it would be advisable to go for the easiest, most helpful option at first, or at least get a friend to guide you through configuring whatever software and/or hardware your ISP has provided.
Speed and Performance
The faster your connection, the more you are going to download, so the more of a liability you are to your ISP. In general, faster connections have greater restrictions on how much you can download and quite often the deals that sound the best on a dollar for dollar, hour for hour basis, may make up for it by restricting your connection speed, or you may find it hard to get on in busy times because they have oversubscribed their modems. Check out the details and fine print on every deal you are considering. The best thing to do with any provider is to try to get some feedback from current subscribers as to the performance of the service. Every ISP I have used has come from word-of-mouth recommendation by existing users. They can verify whether the performances claimed by the ISP are actually up to standard.
If you think you will be a high-end user, it is definitely worth considering cable modems or ADSL, as the speed is exponentially faster, and with a good unlimited download deal, it can even work out cheaper than a standard phone line connection, because you don’t have to pay for a phone call every time you connect. Unlimited download cable modem deals often have you operating at below maximum potential speed, but when you can download so much, so fast, it can be very risky having to pay for every megabyte over and above your monthly quota.
In regional areas, there are choices between major national providers, who have secured local phone numbers through which to hook up to their system, or smaller local operators. In the ISP listings we give you here you can see the kind of coverage various providers have. www.cynosure.com.au gives quite a comprehensive listing on-line.
The difference between local and national providers is the difference between economy of scale advantages, like more connections, 24/7 support etc, against local operators who might be more friendly, take more time with you, and have a local shop or office you can call into for help or advice, but could be under-resourced in other areas. Naturally the more choices you have in your particular area, the better off you are, since you can switch providers if you are not happy. Some areas have very few choices.
One option for remote and regional areas is Satellite Internet, which might have a higher set-up cost, but will provide a fast connection where you might wait years for cable or other high-speed services. Many providers are beginning to offer this option.
More than Just an ISP?
An ISP, after all, is essentially a plug-in point - a connection to the Internet. Once connected, you are free to roam the world and use all kinds of different services, servers and technologies – you can even configure your own computer as a service provider of sorts. So as the industry evolves and matures, it is becoming more and more important for ISPs to move beyond simple connection points and become more involved in their customers overall Internet experience.
The larger ISPs are opening doors to multi-media content delivery, chat communities, auctions, shopping malls, news feeds, travel agencies, banking and stockbroking services. Smaller ISPs are also doing what they can, within their budgets, to provide services like on-line gaming servers, web design and hosting services, consultation, hardware installation, customized programming.
Us consumers are very fortunate that in our desire to get the most out of the Internet, we are encouraging the entrepreneurship of our ISPs to compete with one another and strive to offer us a whole world of opportunities through their technical facility as a direct link to the Web. The more experienced we get at using the Internet, the more we become aware of the kinds of things we require, and the more able we are to choose the right Service Provider for our needs.
We may be content to surf endlessly into the night, so we might be quite content with a budget-priced fast unlimited connection, but we may have far more sophisticated and ever-evolving requirements, so we will be looking for an ISP who can deliver a whole range of services over and above a cheap, fast connection, particularly if we are using the Internet for business.
So long as we don’t make too many bad decisions along the way, we will find the journey both rewarding and enlightening as we stumble ever onwards towards our unavoidable destiny as interconnected humans. Our ISP is our partner in this journey, so they need to understand us, and we need to understand ourselves enough to know that we are both heading in the right direction – at least for the remainder of our fixed-term contract. Who knows, if they play their cards right, we might even renew.
Questions to ask yourself to help determine what kind of Internet Service you may require:
Do you love music (MP3s)? Film? Animation? Multimedia? Or is plain text really your thing?
Do you like the idea of chatting to strangers for hours, even days on end?
Are you an email junkie or a Web Site surfing maniac?
Is the Internet vital to your income earning capacity?
Will your whole world fall apart if you can’t log on?
How technically proficient are you on a computer? Can you ‘go it alone’ or does the idea of having 24-hour tech support make you feel slightly more secure?
Are you likely to want to create your own personal Web Site?
If you want to connect at your business, how many people are likely to want to use the Net at one time, and for how long, and what for, and how many email addresses might be required?
Will you be looking at getting a domain name and building a serious on-line presence for your business as well as just using the Net for email and surfing?
Do you want to access the Internet while you are travelling the world?
Might you wish to access the Net from numerous Australian locations, say at your place of business in Gosford, your home in Sydney, and your holiday home in Perth?
Are you really only wishing to use the Internet for very specific purposes – eg to trade shares, or to research your favourite subject, or to stay up with current affairs?
Will your whole family want to share your connection? If so, you need to ask everyone these same questions.
Do you want to shop, book travel, do banking, have fun, join clubs, change the world, publish your memoirs, trace your family tree, laugh, cry or just look at lots of funny cartoons?
Asking these questions will help you refine some key aspects of the kind of service you might require and as you investigate the services offered, you will see how your needs might fit into the various package deals –
The amount of time you are likely to want to be connected each month; the amount of data you are likely to be downloading; the speed at which you will be happy to operate; the restriction of questionable content or lack thereof; the ability of the ISP to act as a “tour guide” or offer suggestions of other services you may wish to use, like travel and stockbroking; their ability to offer upgraded solutions as your Internet needs grow and change, and the kind of price range you will be looking at to get what you want.