INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS (ISPs)
by A. Richard Miller
13149 visits since 041114 (created ca. 1998); last updated 06114.

If you're lucky, you get efficient, up-to-date, unlimited Internet connectivity from your school or employer (both for e-mail and for browsing the World-Wide Web), and it and your phone calls to it cost you nothing. That is good luck!

Linux users and other group members may have Internet services available to them, as well.  But unless this includes a local POP (a local phone number, a Point-Of-Presence) so you can make local phone calls, or you have unlimited long-distance dialing, it's an incomplete solution.

Some commercial service providers offer a free level of service, but also usually without a local POP. Worse, in exchange for use they make you accept their promotional ads, often random ads for others. These may be in the form of banners (which may interfere with the appearance you wish to present to others) or pop-up ads (which not only interrupt the chain of thought, but can embed code "snippets", from helpful cookies to harmful virus code). If you are considering such services, choose carefully.

A few heroes choose to maintain their own mail-server computers full-time, and become expert in a lot of new technology.

And some users only access the Internet from the computers of others, or by connecting their laptop computer to another's Internet feed. Wi-fi hotspots, becoming popular at libraries and coffee shops, provide these opportunities for free or by subscription. Web-mail becomes useful for these purposes; it's more limited in capacity, could be accessed by others, and is more awkward to use and search, but it can be accessed from anywhere.

But more typically, we hire a company, an Internet Service Provider, to provide that service and a reliable local connection to our home or office at a cost. MMS recommends that you find a competent, affordable local provider - or a more competitive remote one, if it provides good and affordable live tech support when you need it.

What MMS does may be helpful information for you. MMS provides professional client support on these issues, but also offers this section as a free introduction to the subject and to MMS.

A Dial-Up ISP

BBB (before broadband), MMS used Galaxy Internet Services as its dial-up ISP for e-mail, newsgroups and this website. Dial-up uses a telephone modem to slowly modulate-demodulate (code-decode) the Internet data stream through your voice-grade telephone connection. We still recommend dial-up and GIS to some local clients. For about $12 per month (plus a one-time $15 installation fee) GIS offers unlimited Internet connectivity at up to 56Kbps (V.92 mode), thousands of Usenet newsgroups, and up to 5MB of disk capacity for a small web site. Also newsgroups, real-time chat sessions, software to reduce spam and pop-up ads, and more. Dial-up works (and works well for light e-mail). But try the speed and ease of use of broadband, and most users won't look back.

A Cable ISP

We have used several other ISPs for broadband Internet service. We've been lucky to have decent local cable service on our street for many years, so we have not had to consider other broadband service types: DSL service or satellite service. Now our cable ISP is RCN, which provides telephone, cable-television and fast Internet connections in many towns including our Natick. We have RCN provide all three connections, adding very fast cable-modem service for about $45 per month. That included a free cable modem which converts this cable signal to an Ethernet signal.

The speed of that Ethernet signal is a "slow" 5 Mbps (megabits per second), instead of the usual 100 Mbps on a wired LAN (Local-Area Network). But compared to dial-up, that's blindingly fast: 5 Mbps is 5,000 Kbps (kiloBITS per second), nearly 1,000 times faster than a "56Kbps" fast phone modem! Whee! In real life the 56K modems can't run faster than 53K (that's 5.3 kilobytes, or characters, per second) in the USA, and are more apt to run 40-44K on typical connections even with other "fast" modems. We find that the 5 Mbps maximum speed of our cable modem slows down at busy times or when connected to slower sites, but we don't complain about the typical 300-3,000K we experience. That's still about 80 to 800 times faster than fast dial-up, with long downloads climbing to the fastest speeds. Uploads aren't quite as fast, but still excellent.

Bottom line: Full broadband speed transfers heavy e-mail and large pictures in seconds instead of minutes, large files such as music and video and even entire Linux CD-disc images in minutes instead of hours. It lets you do work and play that isn't practical on a dial-up connection.

Your computer catches that converted cable signal with any standard Ethernet or Fast Ethernet network interface card, or NIC. Recent computers have it built-in, and laptops now sport integrated wireless Ethernet hardware (which requires an inexpensive wireless Internet router between your cable modem and your computer(s). You use your normal communications software (our computers use the SeaMonkey version of Mozilla freeware) via a network rather than a telephone connection.

In addition to extraordinary transfer speeds, RCN's flat monthly rate includes the usual unlimited use of e-mail and newsgroups (although it has limited storage capacity), will host up to 10MB of your web pages, etc. Broadband has another advantage: it doesn't use any phone line, and thus can be left on as long as you wish. Without broadband, we'd be paying at least $30 per month for a second telephone line, so we think the $45 per month cable-modem service is a good value. By the way, our $45 per month RCN bill would be $50 per month if we didn't also use its cable-TV service and supply our own (free from RCN!) cable modem. Cable modems have become small and reliable; good ones now sell for $50-80 and may be bundled in for free. We also pounced on a special RCN offer, waiving its usual $100 home hook-up fee.

We've told you a lot of positive reasons to use cable modem if this is available in your neighborhood. But it shares other problems with dial-up. Sometimes when a problem out there is affecting many users or is not yet well understood, the ISP tech support is frustrating, leaving our e-mail questions misanswered and often unanswered. Voice-phone support sometimes results in long holds, and assurances of early improvement are given whether or not it will be delivered. When the ISP has limited storage space, newsgroup articles may disappear in as little as two days instead of the common 2-4 weeks. Worse, on some ISPs, web-page support is artificially crippled. We've had ISPs claim to support the free Netscape/Mozilla software, but then tell you to buy the non-standard Microsoft FrontPage or do without commonly-supported web-authoring options such as CGI, SSI (Page Includes), and even an in-page hits counter. We solved the hits-counter problem, but the others remained until we switched to a better ISP. Your street may have no cable available, or your town may contract with only a single cable company. We are lucky enough to have two choices of cable ISP, and prefer RCN.

It may not be perfect at all times but, like other successful drugs, a broadband connection is highly addictive. It's also legal, and often is available and affordable. And as always, some companies are much better that others.

Web-Hosting Service

MMS outgrew RCN's bundled Web-site option for several reasons. Its 5MB (now 10MB) size became too small to host a lot of images, it didn't permit heavy reader traffic, and we didn't want its restrictions on HTML coding. It did not offer filters for spam, pop-up ads, etc. Its limited e-mail storage also became a problem when we were travelling, and wanted to keep all our messages on that server until our return.

We solved all those problems and more, by adding a separate web-hosting service. We currently use PowWeb for this purpose (see its banner, at the bottom of this page; click it, to help MMS). For less than $100 per year, PowWeb hosts our millermicro.com domain name for mail and website, it expands our web capacity to a gigantic 30,000MB (30GB) and very heavy visitor traffic, and it removes the coding restrictions. That large capacity can be shared by our e-mail messages, so we can keep many weeks of e-mail there while we're traveling. PowWeb also adds very good support through e-mail tech support, tolll-free phone tech support (normally with very short holding times), web pages full of routines and information, and a very helpful group of online community forums. In the past few years it has upped from 1GB to 30GB storage capacity without a price increase, and it also added an excellent set of spam protections.

When you use visit our millermicro.com web pages, you're visiting PowWeb. When you mail to us at millermicro.com, it also goes to our mail server -- because we choose to keep mail at PowWeb rather than at RCN. But rather than gather our mail at PowWeb, we normally set PowWeb's mail-forwarding option to deliver our mail to us at our RCN connection. Through the magic of the Internet, your connections to our east-coast ISP are routed through PowWeb in California -- in milliseconds and without any obvious difference!

That mail-forwarding (and URL-redirection, for web pages) has another great benefit. We can change our ISP and/or our web host, and simply reassign our domain name to the new locations. (It's our domain name, as long as we don't let it lapse.) When and if we switch providers, you won't see the difference - and we won't have to notify thousands of contacts over and over until they get it right.

What's best for you?

These are good solutions at MMS, but your own needs and solutions may vary. If you'd like consulting help to choose or set up a best provider for you, to improve your single computer or LAN, to hone your World-Wide Web skills or to help you create your own Website, please ask MMS!

Please remember: If you are even considering using PowWeb, help MMS earn a referral fee by clicking on the PowWeb banner below!
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