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Choosing an Internet Service Provider


Title: Choosing an Internet Service Provider
Author: Randal Pittelli
Date Published: 08/12/2003

 


Choosing an Internet Service Provider
You will need to choose an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to connect your computer to the Internet. This article is a primer to help you decide how to make this choice.

The first thing to realize is that there are two main methods today of gaining access to the Internet: (1) using a dial-up modem, and (2) using broadband. This was not always true as broadband technology did not exist just a few years ago, and a dial-up modem was the only choice. Even today, in many small towns and rural areas of the country, broadband is not available and thus using a dial-up modem is still the only choice. This is not altogether a bad state of affairs however, because the use of this technology is inexpensive, secure, ubiquitous, and highly portable. Business travelers can dial in from wherever they happen to be.

Broadband technology exists in three forms:
  • Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)
  • Cable
  • Satellite
All three are called broadband because of their tremendous speed in downloading data. Broadband connections are typically 10 to 15 times faster than a dial-up connection. Furthermore, an extremely important feature of broadband is that it is always on--it is said to be persistent. This means that you don't have to spend a few minutes waiting for your computer to dial-up the Internet and then wait for a successful connection, which does not always happen with the first attempt.

Very fast download times and the always-ready, persistent nature of broadband is making web surfing a more pleasurable and profitable experience. Information can be found quickly; music and video can be listened to or viewed in real time; graphic video games can be played on-line, and large software updates can be downloaded quickly. With broadband, the always-ready networked computer becomes a bonefide time saving resource tool.

The first decision to make in choosing an Internet Service Provider is to decide whether a dial-up modem or broadband connection is right for you. In many instances you may have no choice in this selection because a broadband connection may not be available where you live. However, if such a service is available, and it is your choice to use it, there are several considerations to keep in mind. First, it is important to understand that DSL, Cable, and a Satellite Service each come into your home in a different way.
  • DSL uses your existing phone line and "piggy backs" the digital signal for your computer onto the voice (analog) signal for your phone. This is a very significant fact because the digital signal is different than the analog signal, allowing you the use of your phone for conversations at the same time you are using the computer to surf the net. The upshot of it all is that you will not need to have another phone line to get on-line as you would with a dial-up modem connection!
  • A cable connection uses the same cable that brings your TV signal into your TV. With both DSL and Cable, the incoming signal must run through a special digital modem that will need to be installed in your house. This modem separates the analog and digital signals before connecting them to your computer via its network card.
  • Satellite Service is really a hybrid between dial-up and broadband--data get beamed down to your satellite dish at about the same speed as DSL or Cable, but data must be uploaded using the slower, traditional dial-up connection. A satellite connection is also much more expensive than either DSL or Cable, costing about $90 per month. For most people, this kind of service should not be given much consideration unless you live in area of the country where neither DSL nor Cable is available.


Since the choice for the overwhelming majority of people is between DSL and Cable, how does one make a decision? If you consider price, DSL was more expensive than Cable at first, but DSL prices have come down over the past few years to around those of Cable, and are even lower in some markets starting at about $40 to $50 per month. If you consider speed, Cable was much slower than DSL in crowded markets since many users shared the same cable lines, and thus the available bandwidth on those lines, with everyone else in the neighborhood.

While DSL is a dedicated connection whose entire bandwidth is available only to you, Cable companies have responded by increasing the available bandwidth on their lines. They have been able to do this in a cost-effective manner because of their use of standardized networking equipment. Meanwhile, DSL providers have had a hard time increasing their speeds due to technical limitations and because their infrastructure is far more costly. As a result, cable speeds are now typically somewhat faster then DSL.

One concern some may have in choosing broadband over a dial-up modem is the level of security it provides. In the recent past, Cable was probably more vulnerable to hackers because many users shared the same cable lines. Today, ISPs routinely use firewalls and routing software to prevent hackers from gaining access to your private information. They also can make available for your connection the option of having a dynamically changing Internet address, making it very difficult for a hacker to trace your computer. Broadband can be almost as secure as a dial-up connection if some common sense procedures are followed, like not opening e-mail attachments from strangers, installing a decent virus protection program, and turning off either the computer or the digital modem at night.

So, what is the answer on how to choose an Internet Service Provider? The answer is that there is no single criterion or set of criteria to make a decision that will work well for everybody. You will have to decide what suits your needs and circumstances best. Here is a checklist of the main points you should consider when making your decision.


Price
Price is starting to favor DSL in some markets and this trend is expected to continue. Many service plans require that you commit to a 12-month contract at a fixed monthly price. Compare prices to get the best deal.

Speed
Check the download speeds. Faster is better.

Convenience
While either the cable company or the phone company may need to come to your house to upgrade your lines before you can get broadband service, DSL providers will typically mail you a digital modem with instructions on how to install it. Cable operators, however, will often show up at your house and install the modem for you.

Travel
A dial-up modem is essential. If you wish to use a broadband ISP, choose one that also allows a certain number of dial up hours each week.

Security
Check to see that the ISP uses a firewall to filter connection ports used for file sharing (ports 137-139), windows messaging (port 135), and other insecure portals into your computer.


Check out these Related Links for more information...
You can search for available broadband ISPs in you location and also read reviews of the providers at: http://www.dslreports.com

You can check your computer for security vulnerabilities at:
http://www.grc.com/default.htm

About the Author
Randal Pittelli has been an independent technical consultant since 1994, specializing in the development of Internet applications and computer-controlled neurobehavioral test systems. He recently spent two years in the IT department at Goldman Sachs and is currently attending medical school.


If you have questions or comments about this article please contact
James Eastman at:
james@colophonpublising.com
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