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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    All Internet service providers are not created equal, nor do all businesses need the same services


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #354 August 6, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    You've finally decided to take the plunge and do the Internet thing. But how do you go about it?

    For most of us, it means getting an Internet Service Provider (ISP)--a company that, for a fee, lets your computer connect to its network, getting you onto the Internet.

    There's been some consolidation recently among ISPs, and several well-known Vancouver services have been bought up by larger, out-of-town organizations. But Boardwatch, a U.S.-based magazine for ISPs and computer bulletin boards, counted 5,000 ISPs in that country recently, compared to 3,000 six months ago. In Vancouver, too, the number of services is still growing.

    So how can you tell what makes a good ISP? First, let's narrow the question down a bit: the needs of an individual or small business are different from those of a big company.

    Do you travel a lot? Will you need to be able to access the Internet from out of town? For that, you'll be best off with one of the national or North America-wide service providers, or with an international on-line service such as CompuServe or Microsoft Network. iStar, the Ottawa-based company that purch- ased three local ISPs, will soon be announcing how its users will be able to access the Internet in other Canadian cities where iStar has a presence. If, on the other hand, you only need local access, you may be best served by a local provider.

    Are you going to be content with modem access? Alright, alright, no one's really content with modem access to the Net, but are you planning for higher-speed access? An ISDN line from BC Tel can quadruple your access speed--but only if your ISP supports it. Again, on-line services CompuServe and Microsoft Network offer such support now, as do some local providers. If this is in your plans, check whether your service provider can handle it.

    How about other high-speed options? Surrey's Cyberion, for example, offers satellite connection. Will higher-speed service cost more? How much more?

    How busy are the phone lines? Ask around: in my experience, everybody's lines are jammed in the early evening. How much time do you expect to typically use? In some cases, a service offering a flat, monthly rate may be your best bet, but if you only expect to access the Internet occasionally, you'll be better off with a service that lets you pay by the hour--perhaps prepaying for a block of time.

    In general, local services are cheaper than the services offered by the phone company, the national ISPs, or the on-line services, but cost may not be the only criterion. Are there other fees? A setup charge, perhaps? Higher rates for peak time usage? Extra charges to post your own Web page? The wide range of fee structures makes it difficult to compare prices.

    If your business wants to get on the Web, can your ISP support you? Can it help you obtain a domain name (something like www.biv.com)? Can it help you design your Web site? Can you post your pages on their server? If so, can you easily access it to make changes?

    What software does your ISP provide when you open an account? Often, local ISPs provide a diskette or two with software that's already configured for quick and easy access to its service. Often, though, the software included is a generation or two old: can you connect with other, newer software? Also, some of the programs provided, such as the popular Netscape Navigator or Trumpet Winsock, are shareware: you're expected to pay a fee and register the software. Alternatively, some of the national ISPs require that you use their non-standard software.

    If you're a Mac user, does the ISP provide Mac software? And how about technical support? You'll most likely need it, especially during that first week or so when you're configuring your system, sending e-mail for the first time, and so forth. Is it available when you need it--typically on the weekend or after business hours? Will the ISP support the software you want to use? What if you have a PC at work and a Mac at home?

    As with other business services, get answers before getting locked into a commitment: changing your e-mail address is not as easy as sending a change-of-address card to Canada Post. Talk to the service provider, but also try to talk to a few of its customers. And assume that your needs will change: if you need more access, will this same service provider still meet your requirements?



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan