How to Choose an Internet Service Provider

by Contributor

These days, a computer without Internet access is like a car with flat tires--it works, but it won't get you very far. To get online, you need an Internet service provider (ISP). You have two general choices: dialup service, which is cheap but slow; and broadband service, which is more expensive and much faster.

Determine your needs. Do you want to send and receive e-mail and occasionally surf the Web? An inexpensive dial-up account, which uses regular telephone lines, is probably enough. If you want to connect to your office network, play online games, or download and exchange music and video files, you'll want a speedy broadband connection, such as DSL or cable.

Find out what hardware is needed. For a dial-up account, a modem is required. Broadband service uses a network interface card (NIC), sometimes called an Ethernet connection. Both are standard equipment on newer computers.

Ask your friends and neighbors what Internet service they use and whether they're satisfied with it. Customer service varies from region to region, especially with broadband providers, so seek out a local recommendation.

Dial-up users should make sure an ISP has local access numbers (telephone numbers) in your area to avoid long-distance charges.

Check for DSL and cable broadband providers in your area. (DSL ISPs use telephone wiring, while cable ISPs use cable TV wiring.) For technical reasons, DSL is sometimes not available in rural or suburban areas.

Ask potential broadband providers about package deals. Cable companies may discount Internet access if you buy cable TV service, and phone companies sometimes offer DSL-telephone packages.

Consider other broadband options. Try satellite broadband if you live in a rural area. People in some urban areas can get broadband access from a fixed wireless ISP, which use flat, square antennae mounted on your roof to send and receive Internet traffic via radio waves. Some brand-new housing developments have built-in fiber-optic Internet access.

Get a T-1 line only if you have heavy use and serious business needs, as this service can cost $500 or more per month.

Choose AOL if you want to take advantage of some of its special features, such as content from Time Inc. magazines like Sports Illustrated or People. If you have a broadband connection, you can still use AOL with a "bring your own access" account that costs a little more than half of the usual $24-per-month AOL dialup price. AOL is useful if you travel a lot with a laptop because you can use its toll-free number almost anywhere.


  • check A broadband connection can be shared by several computers. See How to Network Your Computers.
  • check Some experts recommend choosing an ISP that does not require you to install its own specialized software on your computer.


  • close With a broadband connection, your computer is always connected to the Internet. Get firewall software to protect against potential snoopers. See How to Buy Computer Software.
  • close In the fast and furious internet world, even big name ISPs go out of business. This means you'll have to find a new service, and possibly a new email address. See How to Get an Internet Domain Name for an easier solution.