|Back when the World Wide Web was starting to get the public's attention, Microsoft had a "better" idea: The Microsoft Network (MSN), a centralised system they'd run, one that required Microsoft software - and subscription fees - to access. The public wanted access to the internet itself instead, so MSN has since been converted to a combination of Web sites and dial-up internet access, to make it more attractive. Microsoft uses their control of Windows to steer buyers into signing up with MSN when they first start their new computer, making it look like just another step in the setup process. They've even cut deals with stores to sign buyers up for MSN, whether you want it or not. You may save some money on the purchase price of a computer that way, but it'll cost you dearly over the coming years as you're contracted to pay Microsoft for it every month. Meanwhile, Microsoft gets a step closer to transforming the Web itself into their original vision of MSN: a pay system run by them. But you don't have to settle for a bad idea warmed over; you can get on the internet through an independent ISP and remain free to make your own choices.|
|The ideal solution is to find a local company that provides internet access. Either check an online directory or database or look in the yellow pages under "Internet". With a local service provider, you'll usually be able to talk to a real person when you have problems, they'll pay attention to having enough local lines to handle traffic, and you'll be keeping your dollars in your own community, which is good for your local economy. Most of the two-geeks-and-a-modem outfits have gone under by now, so the remaining ISPs in your community are probably the ones with solid business sense, good customer service, and competitive prices. Many can even provide services you'd expect from a national service, such as toll-free dial-in nationwide and broadband connections. Bottom line: start locally, and look further down this list only if you can't find what you need in your community.|
|EarthLink bills itself as the "#1 Provider of the Real Internet", referring to the fact that they don't provide a packaged, advertising-filled "online experience" that focuses on their web sites (like MSN) or a specialised software package that merely uses the internet to supplement its own services (like AOL). Instead they put you directly on the net and encourage you go wherever you want, and respect your privacy. They offer both dial-up and DSL broadband services. They're very Mac-friendly, and get high ratings in independent reviews.|
|SpeakEasy primarily provides DSL broadband connections and does a fantastic job of it, at very good prices for the quality of service. They also maintain a 56kbps dial-up network, which is available to their DSL customers when away from home. Unlike so many DSL ISPs, they not only tolerate but support Mac users and Linux users (offering shell accounts on their own systems with most packages), and they don't mind residential customers running web servers or multiple computers (they offer multiple static IP numbers) or even neighborhood wireless access points. This page was served to you over a Speakeasy DSL line. disclaimer: As a subscriber, I receive a commission for every new DSL subscriber who signs up from this link.|
|MegaPath is one of the top-rated providers of DSL broadband for residential use in the US, scoring well in all rated categories, even in the face of a "collapse" in the independent DSL carrier business. They offer business services as well, and their residential service is aimed primarily at business users (they call it "small-office/home-office" service), so they're used to providing the level of service that professionals expect.|
|NetZero and Juno are two veterans of the advertiser-supported free-internet industry, now owned by the same company, which could reduce their collective costs enough to keep that business model viable. They both offer free but limited-hours internet access (currently only for Windows, but with Mac support planned for NetZero), and fairly inexpensive advert-free service.|
|BAMnet (also known as 10-10-2000) offers internet access without an account, paid through your phone bill. You just dial their toll-free number (10-10-2000 in the Atlantic northeast, a longer "888" number for the rest of the US) and you're online. The catch is that it's billed by the minute at long-distance rates (6.5 cents/min. at the time of this writing, or $3.90/hour), so it's not very affordable for regular extended use, but it's handy for light home or travel use, and better than paying both long-distance rates plus access fees if you can't find a decent ISP in your local calling area. disclaimer: I receive a commission on sign-ups for their travel service from this link.|
|AT&T has been around forever, so they're a safe choice if you're worried about your ISP going under. They offer dial-up access over standard phone lines. But they're about as responsive to customer questions and complaints as they were back when they were the telephone monopoly, so don't expect much hand-holding from them.|
|Comcast is the latest owner of the TCI/AT&T/@Home cable network, and while the business may change hands frequently, they have contractual municipal cable-TV-service monopolies all over the place, so they're a safe choice if you're worried about your broadband provider actually going under. They are accustomed to hooking up non-techie customers, but like most partial monopolies they're not very responsive to customer questions and complaints.|
|CompuServe was the giant of the online services in the 1980's (when I first got connected), before the more open, less commercial (at the time) evironment of the internet lured people away. The company has adapted, however, leveraging its huge network of dial-in lines to provide internet access, in addition to the content on their central system. It wasn't enough to keep them from being bought out by AOL (so the caveats below about AOL as a corporation apply to CS), but it was a strong enough system and brand name that AOL has kept CS running as a separate entity for more tech-savvy users than the AOL system.|
|America Online rode the wave of internet growth in the 1990's by having software that made it easy to get connected, and with a relentless marketing campaign that stopped just short of dropping setup diskettes from bombers. AOL software tends to sabotage people's computers so they can't access other service providers, and they have a deal with CompUSA in which the store signs people up for AOL (want it or not) when they buy equipment... all of which puts the company next on the list of companies deserving class action litigation, and suggests that they're little better than Microsoft in the ethics arena. I list them here as a final alternative mainly for their grandparent- and child-compatible software, and for their support of browser alternatives like Netscape and Mozilla.|
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