From the October, 1998 PC ALAMODE Magazine:
A Baker's Dozen of Questions to ask a Prospective ISP
 
by Susan Ives

Signing up for Internet access for the first time can be intimidating. Most people want friendly service (technical support that doesn't treat you like a nuisance or an idiot); reliable service (no crashes or down time) and rare busy signals, even at peak hours. A reasonable price is nice, too. Here are some questions you can ask of a prospective ISP before you sign a contract:
     
  1. How long have you been in the ISP business?

  2. The growing pains in this industry are enormous. An ISP who starts out fast and responsive can soon become popular and overwhelmed with customers. ISP's who have been around for a while have proved they can work through these problems. 
  3. What does it cost per month? 

  4. Price isn't everything, but it is an important factor. Prices seem to have stabilized at between $16.95 and $19.95 per month. If the price quote is lower, look carefully to see if corners are being cut in technical support or the modem-to-user ratio. If higher, find out what "extras" you will be getting. Also ask about hidden costs. Although the practice is no longer common, some ISP's charge by the hour or impose other time limits on your use. It doesn't hurt to ask about discounts for Alamo PC or AARP members (the answer may be no, so be gracious.)
     
     
  5. Can I get a break on rates if I pay in advance? 

  6. Some ISP's offer discounts if you opt to pay for 6 months or a year in advance. Most require you to pay six months in advance if you pay by check rather than by credit card.
     
     
  7. Which software do you distribute? 

  8. Your ISP should provide you with the software you need to get on the Internet. All the stuff they hand out is freeware, so don't be overly swayed by a big bundle of software. ISPs are more likely to offer competent support on the software they routinely distribute. If your ISP distributes Internet Explorer and you have a yen for Netscape, expect to be disappointed.
     
     
  9. Do I get Web space for a personal home page?

  10. Most local ISP's offer free web space, ranging from 1 MB to as much as 50 MB for a non-commercial web page. However, if you don't envision ever crafting your own web page, don't be dazzled by the higher numbers. Unless you go crazy with graphics, most personal web pages can fit onto 2 MB.
     
     
  11. Do you offer any free classes?

  12. Depending on your degree of knowledge, a get-acquainted class may be beneficial. Don't forget that Alamo PC offeres introductory Internet classes, too!
     
     
  13. What kind of technical support do you offer? 

  14. The standard is now 7/24 (seven days a week, 24 hours a day.) Is technical support a local or 800 number, or is it a long distance call that you will have to pay for? You want it to be absolutely free and available when you need it.
     
     
  15. What is your user-to-modem ratio? 

  16. Anything higher than 10:1 will probably result in busy signals. Many ISPs are cagey about answering this question.
     
     
  17. How big is your pipe?

  18. The speed that you can access pages on the WWW is not only related the modem speed but also to the size of the ISP's connection to the Internet Backbone. Do they run a T1 or a T3 (DS3). Bigger is better. Another factor is how much of their capacity is used up at any time. ISPs may also hem and haw about answering this question.
     
     
  19. How many e-mail accounts do I get?

  20. Most ISPs offer one e-mail account for a personal Internet account. If you think you may need more, find out how much it will cost. 
  21. What speed modem do you support? 

  22. Make sure your modem speed is supported. If you have a 56K modem (X2, Flex or V.90), make sure the ISP supports your variety. 
  23. What is your refund policy? 

  24. Make sure it's something you feel comfortable with. A 2-week or month-long free trial period is also good.
     
     
  25. What access can I get when away from home?

  26. If you travel frequently, having access to your account outside San Antonio can be useful. Some ISPs have an 800 number, or local access numbers across the United States. AOL allows you to sign on as a "guest" on a friend's AOL account so that you can check your mail. 

    Susan Ives is the co-leader of the Alamo PC Internet SIGs.