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Choosing an ISP can be difficult. ISPs definitely vary in level of service and quality. If the internet is important to you, so is choosing the right ISP.

Are some ISP's better than others? Which are more reliable? Can you help us? We are thinking of going to another ISP.

Absolutely, some ISPs are much better than others.

With one exception, I can't make a specific recommendation, but I can definitely offer some suggestions on what to look for when shopping around.

First lets look at the various types of ISPs:

  • Multi-Service Providers like AOL or MSN premium - services that provide you not only with connectivity, but with their own software and premium content. In the past they've provided dialup, and now also often partner with some of the companies below to provide broadband connectivity as well.

  • Telephone Companies like Qwest, Verizon, BellSouth and the like. Since these folks provide you the phone line into your home, they've been quick to offer ISP services in support of their DSL offering that uses those phone lines.

  • Cable, Satellite and Cellular Companies like Comcast, HughesNet, Verizon Wireless and many others. These companies all provide the physical connectivity over cable, satellite or your cellular phone. In these cases they also act as your ISP for this connection.

  • National ISPs like Earthlink or PeoplePC. Once again, these folks offer dialup, and conveniently nationwide, but can also provide you with the ISP services for your DSL broadband as well.

  • Regional ISPs exist in many communities, and are often a great value. They operate in many ways like the larger national ISPs, but within a more limited region.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Next, you need to understand yourself.

If you're a complete neophyte, you're going to want a service that places ease of use and solid customer support over everything else. Does any software that's included make sense to you? If you call the customer support line, (go ahead and do so before you commit - see what happens), do you get a person or a machine? With all due respect to anyone who speaks with any accent - can you understand them? Can they understand you? Are they genuinely helpful, or just following a script? AOL is often recommended as a good place to start because it's proprietary software is apparently supposed to be very friendly for new and inexperienced computer users.

If you're a little bit more knowledgeable, services like AOL can become more annoying than useful. You may want an ISP that's solid about performance without a lot of that hand holding. I left my previous ISP because they refused to deal with me on my terms - they insisted on following the beginners script each time I called. That may well be appropriate for some, but if you know it's not for you, then find an ISP you can talk to on your terms. How? Call 'em and ask.

If you're a business, then beyond competent support, reliability might well be topmost in your mind.

You also need to understand your options.

"For DSL your telephone company does not have to be your ISP."

If you're looking for a good dial-up ISP, you have many choices. Besides an appropriate level of support, you'll want to look at their coverage area. If you travel a lot, you'll want to make sure that the ISP you select has local dialup numbers in the areas you travel to.

At the other extreme, you may have no choice. If you're on cable, then your cable provider will be your ISP. Similarly for satellite and for cellular, the provider is your ISP. Once you're connected to the internet you can, of course, use many other services, but it'll still be your cable, satellite or cellular provider that's getting you that internet connection to start with.

DSL is interesting. For DSL your telephone company does not have to be your ISP. While they are still involved in providing the physical DSL signal to your house, you can select from many ISPs that will provide the actual connectivity to the internet. And that, of course is where things remain interesting.

So how do you find out which ISPs are available to you, and of those which meet the criteria you select?

Unfortunately, most of the comparison sites compare features and price - not quality of service or user experiences. That makes it difficult to determine what they're really like once you've connected.

While it's a bit on the geeky side, I strongly recommend spending some time out at Broadband Reports. In particular the Reviews section, as well as the Find Service section can be used together to not only see what you have available to you, but the site includes reviews detailing what other people are actually experiencing. Looking around their discussion forums can also be enlightening.

As I mentioned earlier, calling a prospective ISP's support line (not the sales number) can be very educational. If the ISP has an on-line support site or forums, spend a few minutes browsing to see if it matches your expectations and level of knowledge.

Talk to your neighbors. This is particularly helpful when choosing a DSL provider, or choosing between cable and DSL broadband. See what your neighbors use, and how happy they are with the service.

I strongly recommend against choosing based on price. Obviously it factors in to the overall equation, but my experience here on Ask Leo!, based on the questions and problem reports I get, is that service is roughly (though not always) proportional to price. In other words, you get what you pay for. I get more questions relating to problems with low cost ISPs than with others. And it's not typically about their ability to deliver connectivity - it's more often about their ability - or failure - to deliver customer support when something goes wrong.

And based on the problems I hear about, I would also avoid ISPs pushing "accelerator" types of technology that promise to deliver faster downloads - I get a fair number of issues relating to them.

I mentioned at the start that I can't really recommend a specific ISP. That's because things vary greatly depending on where you are and what services are actually available to you.

But I also said I had one exception.

If you're in western Washington state, and kinda, sorta, know what you're doing - meaning you don't need a lot of hand holding, I can heartily recommend Avvanta Communications for your dialup and DSL needs. Formerly known as Blarg! they actually have grown to cover at least 9 western states.

I've been a happy Avvanta customer for over a decade - both in my home and at my wife's business.

Recall that I indicated I'd left my previous ISP because they refused to speak to my level? The local telephone company, they insisted on using, and could not deviate from, their customer support script. Every time I've called the folks at Avvanta it was clear that they didn't need a script - they simply knew what they were talking about and dealt with whatever issue on the spot.

If you're not in an area Avvanta covers, my experience with them leads me to recommend that you make sure to check out your local and regional ISPs as you go about selecting your next provider.

Article C2780 - September 6, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Catmoves
September 8, 2006 9:04 PM

AOL's new "mail only for free" service is pretty darn good. I've used them for some years even with my DSL line. I pay only $9.95/month for the complete service and over the time I've used AOL9SE, I have trained their built in spam filter to recognize a lot of spam that used to inhabit my mail. It's very rare now that any spam sneaks into my in box. Now, with the new free stuff, I can save that monthly $9.95 bill by simply using a different browser. Ain't progress grand?

Bill R
September 9, 2006 2:09 PM

Yeah,I know there area lot of 'good' ISPs. I want
one that is LESS than $9.95 a month and dependable
too.I found it with ISP.com $8.95 monthly, they
bill my crerdit card monthly, and I've NEVER had
any problem with them, NEVER.

Eli Coten
September 9, 2006 2:51 PM

I have heard about a lot of problems with AOL customer support, especially if you are thinking about cancelling. AOL customer support is often following a script. An extreme example can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaaAYVUWP0I, but I know of a number of AOL users and I do not like a number of things about their service including software.

Barath
September 19, 2006 7:12 PM

I need to talk to you Leo Sir.

tracey
October 14, 2006 11:27 AM

we currently use ntlworld broadband but want to change but the last time we tiried to change to aol i couldnt use my hot mail we are trying to find one that this wont happen on again but no one will commit to saying if we will or not be able to use it we have looked as talktalk and ticali but cant get a straight answer from either can you help

channing
November 3, 2006 7:41 PM

Aol giving you free email, beware when they come bearing gift. Aol and I parted company as their customer support is very scripted, very pretentious/or nonsupport support,like to collect/sell your personal info, gave me hell in my attempts to cancel account(work you over like a felon to keep you), alway keep you on hold a long time, no accountability. Thats how they value you as customer!!!

CaptainCracker
July 3, 2007 12:09 AM

If anyone is thinking of getting AOL....DO NOT!!! I had them for 4 years now and it has been nothing but hell. AOL will not stay connected, and then you're forced to restart your computer, just to get you back online, only to work for a few minutes before it freezes up again. And then when you've got fed up with trying to fix the problem yourself, don't bother calling AOL up, because you'll be greeted with someone who can hardly speak english, and then go through a list of things you've already done, then at the end they tell you it's not AOL it's that you have a bad modem, when you know you don't. So then you decide to delete the AOL software...somehow it reinstalls itself..hmmmmm Then you decide to let your credit card expire to stop payment to AOL, but they find another way to charge you...WHAT THE HELL!?! The only thing I can tell you is, if you get stuck with AOL don't use their software; use Firefox, it'll make your experience a little less annoying. Try Earth Link if you don't know what other service to use. It's cheaper and far better.

kim
June 2, 2009 7:44 AM

I own my domain name and would like to find a new email service provider-I now use register .com and it is not compatible with my iphone-i cannot receive or send email from my phone and frankly I am tired of dealing with it-do you have suggestions for another provider that is compatible with the iphone??? I do not want free service either thanks

crazyredsextuplet
March 30, 2011 10:27 PM

hi sir, i use internet at internet cafe but connection is slow. how can i do ? i want to download . what should i do ? (i use from myanmar). bye.

Find an internet cafe with a faster connection? I don't think there's anything else you can do but find a faster connection elsewhere.

Leo
31-Mar-2011

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