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With speed comes cost

Web surfers in the Tampa Bay area have options: regular dial-up service, cable modems or digital line service.

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999


When it's time to connect your new computer to the Internet, you can have choice, you can have speed, you can have a good price. You can't, though, necessarily get all three from the same place.

Surfing the Web is one of the top reasons people buy PCs, and new users will find a bewildering number of Internet service providers (or ISPs) available to provide access.

Some are well-known, such as giant America Online, with more than 19-million subscribers. Others are small, local outfits -- more than 200 for just the 727 area code. (One directory of providers is available at www.thelist.com, assuming you can borrow someone's Internet connection to reach it.)

Users will find prices from about $10 a month on up. Way up. But in many instances, you'll find that you get what you pay for. Speed varies, too, from traditional connections over phone lines to fast cable modem and digital subscriber line service.

Here are some of your choices:

Dialup access: The modem that probably came installed in your computer is the way it connects to the Internet through a conventional phone line. The fastest modem available on most computers is 56 kilobits per second, though the technology of phone lines doesn't allow people to get the full 56K speed.

The biggest problem with such dialup access is getting the connection in the first place. Modem-scarred AOL veterans tell battle stories of the days after their dialup provider first went to a flat-rate fee. Users overwhelmed the service, busy signals seemed to be the national anthem and protests were loud and angry. AOL and the industry learned their lesson since that problem three years years ago. Two friends who use AOL tell me things are much better, though during peak times they still can get locked out for as long as an hour.

Among the advantages of a service such as AOL is that it likely came installed on the computer you bought. All you have to do is plug one end of a phone wire in the modem and the other into the phone jack, make your way through the sign-up process and start surfing in an environment that's friendly to newcomers.

But big doesn't necessarily mean best, and many computers come with a number of services installed, such as AT&T and CompuServe, many with free trial periods. For the brave among you, it might be a good idea to try a few of those services to see what you like and don't like before settling on one.

Beware, though, that it's up to you to cancel the service when the free trial ends, or the bills will start rolling in on your credit card. And AOL, which promotes the wonders of online commerce for everything else, insists that you phone them if you want to quit their service.

Local service providers and national ISPs are a hit-and-miss proposition. My advice is to test the phone system before signing up. Call the ISP's technical support and get your local modem number. Then, dial that number randomly during the evening and see if you hear the electronic screech of a modem picking up. If you do, it's a sign that your computer will probably get connected when it dials.

You also can call a service and ask questions. For example, check the user-to-modem ratio: 10-to-1 or less is good. If you get a number higher than 12, politely hang up and find another ISP. The higher the ratio, the less chance you stand of getting in at 7:30 p.m.

Finally, find out the technical support hours and, if it's not a toll-free numbers, whether the ISP will call you back to save you a long-distance call. Some people need a lot of handholding and others just need to talk to the senior-level geeks to report network problems. You know which type you are, so it's a good idea to see if you like your interviewee's style.

Dialup services are the cheapest way to access the Internet, with most services charging about $20 a month. Some are cheaper, some more expensive.

And a note about the "free" PC offers and rebate programs that seem to be everywhere: Read the fine print closely. You don't want to lock yourself into a long-term contract and then find you don't like the service or, worse, the PC. These great deals don't seem to be all they're cracked up to be.

Cable modems: Now you're taking a step up in price -- and a quantum leap in speed. A cable modem connects you to the Internet through the same cable that brings in television service.

The cable modem providers claim speeds up to 50 times faster than dialup connections. However, speed can be affected by a couple of factors.

Cable modems are a network in your neighborhood. The more people on it, the slower it gets (though the slowest speeds on cable modems are far faster than dialup connections).

Some people in the Tampa Bay area have a choice of cable modem providers -- GTE's World Wind or Time Warner's Road Runner. My neighborhood can get either.

After careful consideration, I chose GTE. I've been impressed with both its technical support and reliability. There have been some annoying outages over weekends but during business hours things have been stable.

Both cable modem services are competitively priced, $40 or so a month, and Time Warner seems to have the edge in local coverage.

Though I don't take advantage of it, GTE will give you unlimited dialup modem access on top of your cable modem service for $10 a month. That's very useful if you travel a lot and need to connect by phone on the road.

If you choose a cable modem service, you also get that company as your Internet service provider -- unless you pay extra to add on a service such as AOL. There has been a great debate this year among companies such as AOL that want to offer their services over cable wires, and the owners of the cable wires who want the business to themselves.

Digital subscriber lines: Here we have a speed competitor for cable modems, although the trade-off has been a higher price.

DSL is similar to cable in speed but uses your telephone service wire. Unlike a dialup modem, it's much faster and you can talk on the phone while you surf the Web.

You have to be within a certain distance of a phone company's switching equipment to take advantage of DSL service, which is one reason it's not as widespread as cable modems. The farther from the switch, the slower the service. Too far away and you can't get it at all.

From a consumer standpoint, the main difference between DSL and a cable modem is that you get to pick your own ISP when you have DSL service.

DSL has tended to be more expensive than cable, at least around here. But that may be changing. GTE, the bay area's top local phone provider, is promising to roll out a package that includes AOL and high-speed service. No specific date or price has been announced for that service, though initially it was expected to cost about $42 a month.

If it comes in at that price, it is slightly less than a plan GTE offers for $49.95 a month, including its GTE.net service, with speeds up to 768 kilobits per second. Or people can sign up for the same speed for $32.50 a month and arrange -- and pay -- for their own ISP.

The good news is that GTE has waived DSL installation fees -- they normally can cost from $99 to more than $300 -- through the end of the year. If you ask -- nicely, of course -- the cable companies also have been known to give breaks on installation fees that can cost up to $100.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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