Not all Internet service providers are alike. Take stock of what you need -- in services, speed, and technical support -- before hooking up to one

So you've decided it's time to venture into cyberspace. Maybe you want to use the Internet to stay in touch with your suppliers and customers. Maybe you want to surf away the hours looking for business tips or schmoozing with other business owners in real-time chat rooms. Or maybe you want to bring your own business on-line via the World Wide Web. Whatever you want from going on-line, you're not going to get it unless you pick the right Internet service provider (ISP) -- the company that provides the link between your computers and the Net.

How do you go about making that choice? The first step is to pinpoint why you want to go on-line; the next is to ask lots of questions. We've broken down the evaluation process into six components, ranging from the basic services ISPs make available, to Web-page help.

Herewith our guide to finding the right ISP.

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Services

Does the ISP provide all of the basic services you need? These may include E-mail, Gopher (which is like the World Wide Web minus the graphics), file transfer protocol (FTP -- an essential tool for transferring files between two parties or from a database), Usenet newsgroups (electronic discussion groups), and Web support

If you're going on-line solely to get customer feedback, E-mail alone may be enough. But if you want to ship reports to satellite offices, your provider will have to pack FTP. Research the options out there, and then see whose service list best meets your needs.

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Technical support

How good is the ISP's technical support? Your business, with all its specialized needs, must have an ISP with a solid technical-support staff. No matter how good its services are, if the ISP can't help you with technical problems and glitches, the fact that it offers support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doesn't mean very much.

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Connectivity

What bandwidth is appropriate for your business? Look for an ISP that provides a connection speed of at least 28.8 kb -- even if your modem is only a 14.4-kb telephone dial-in. Any provider whose minimal connection speed is less than 28.8 kb is too antiquated to consider. For most small businesses, a simple 14.4-kb or 28.8-kb dial-in is enough to handle routine functions like E-mail or browsing the Web. But if you have large groups of people who'll be using the connection simultaneously, or if you're looking to do information-intensive tasks like market research, soliciting consumer opinions, or put-ting up a Web page, consider a faster option -- you'll need a large, quick connection to handle the traffic.

When it comes to information transfer, a 14.4-kb dial-in is to an ISDN (an integrated-services digital network connection) what a trail is to a superhighway: 10 people tramping single file down a mountain trail will take much longer to get where they're going than a line of people racing 100 abreast down an open superhighway.
The high end of the speed scale is a T3 link, which for most small companies would be like using an 18-wheeler to transport one peanut -- a prodigious waste of horsepower. T3s also cost a bundle -- anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 a month. The more affordable and realistic high-speed connections, in descending order by size, are a T1 link (if you need a sophisticated, high-speed connection), an ISDN, and a 56-kb connection. All of them provide a direct, full-time connection to the Internet.

Some providers -- among them, Sprint, UUNET Technologies, and BBN Planet -- have their own regional or national backbones. This larger bandwidth means faster access and the ability to accommodate greater volume -- which translate into less lag on the customer's end. If you think you're in the market for a higher-speed connection, make sure the ISP you choose has the bandwidth to support it. Many smaller providers don't.

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Cost

How much are you willing to spend? Although monthly charges for 28.8-kb and 14.4-kb dial-up connections vary from provider to provider, they usually fall in the range of $10 to $40 a month for a fixed number of hours. UUNET, for example, charges $30 a month for 25 hours, with $2 for every additional hour for a dial-up account over a regular analog line. ISDNs cost considerably more ($70 to $400 a month), as do a 56-kb line ($300 to $700 a month) and a T1 link (a whopping $1,000 to $3,000 a month).

Charges for setting up and running a Web page are additional and vary considerably from provider to provider. Be sure to get a breakdown if you're planning to use your ISP for those services. In many cases, small design companies and one-person Web-page developers are a more economical alternative.

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Coverage

How many points of presence (POP) sites does the ISP have? This is an important question if you must travel a lot for your business. POPs are usually bare-bones operations that serve as remote links to the ISP's main system. If you're on business in Duluth, Minn., for example, you don't want to have to dial directly into a Miami server. Instead, you want to be able to dial a local access number and get routed to your provider's main server machines.

Larger providers, such as Netcom, UUNET Technologies, and MCI, are generally the ones to turn to for an extensive network of national and even international POP sites. However, some strong regional providers, among them BBN Planet (Cambridge, Mass.) and Wing.Net (Berlin, Conn., and Woburn, Mass.), also feature significant POP networks that extend well beyond the providers' immediate areas.

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Web-page help

Do you plan to use the ISP to help you set up or maintain a Web page? Not all providers offer Web-related services (design and support, for example), but the majority supply "hosting capability"; that is, they maintain customers' Web pages on their computer systems. Maintenance can include anything from providing space for a page and making sure it doesn't crash, to monitoring the page for hits. Usually the larger the provider, the more assistance a user can expect. Many larger ISPs have in-house ancillary services, like Web design, content development, and technical support. Their design and development services range from providing a template of a generic page for customers to fill in, to designing a unique page from start to finish.

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Now that you know what you're looking for, where do you go to find it? Given the current Net mania, finding an ISP in your area shouldn't be a problem. Your local newspaper has probably run a roundup of regional providers in the past several months; the clerks at the nearby computer store are a great source for names; and even the Yellow Pages likely contain a few leads.

If you want a complete list of ISPs, you'll have to go to the Web. One good resource is http://www.clarinet.com/iap/iapcode.htm. The site lists ISPs by area code and provides contact information and some prices. Another good place to start is http://www.commerce.net:80/directories/products/isp, which breaks down Internet service providers by geographic area and has links to their sites. A third is http://www.thelist.com. This site, which lists ISPs alphabetically by country, is more user friendly but may not be as complete.

Currently there are few hard-copy alternatives to the Web resources. Books about the Internet, like The Internet Yellow Pages (third edition), by Harley Hahn (Osborne McGraw-Hill, 1995, $29.95), may be helpful but are far from comprehensive.

Once you have some names in hand, let the providers themselves take you to the next level. "The ISP needs to be part provider and part educator," says Tom Brett, of Wing.Net. The more people you talk to, the better equipped you'll be to select from your list the ISP that will work best for you.

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Vladimir Edelman (vladimir_edelman@incmag.com) is an editor for Inc. Online.