Tips for choosing an ISP

At the request of the Kanabec Broadband Initiative group, I was updating our List of ISPs for 2011. There wasn’t room for the lengthy advice section anymore, so I had to chop it off of the print version. But it’s still good info – so I’m making sure it gets preserved here.

Some of the info is a little dated (first written in 2007), but most of it still applies today.

Who do we recommend? Tough call – they’re all good. If you are already a customer of one of these companies, you’ll probably want to stay there. If you want to switch, remember that the two telcos (Qwest and NorthStar) will only give you the rates shown if you have their phone service. If you live more than a mile or so out of town, Qwest may be your only choice. If you have need for additional Web services (such as website hosting, co-location, or wireless broadband) or insist on giving your business to small businesses only, go with NCIS.

Choose the kind of provider – ISP, ILEC, or CLEC – that you’re most comfortable with. After all, it all goes into the same Internet.

What should I watch out for? Be sure to ask lots of questions, and make sure that you are comfortable with the service you’re choosing.

Ask what kind of modem you’ll get. We highly recommend avoiding internal modems and/or any modem whose only interface is USB. Don’t be too quick to judge, though – some providers’ modems will primarily discuss USB in their documentation, but will still support Ethernet (which is far more desirable, especially for use with older or multiple machines). Qwest’s new modems are a prime example of this.

Ask how the modem is paid for – do you buy it, lease it, or is it included in the service price? What happens if it should break down? Are there any restrictions on how you can or cannot use it (i.e., only on one computer at a time)?

Avoid services that require proprietary software be installed on your computer, as such a setup limits flexibility. It is our opinion that an Internet connection should not come with minimum requirements (outside of having an appropraite hardware interface and TCP/IP support) or force you to run extra software (other than a PPPoE client or similar). Having a connection that requires proprietary software may limit your ability to use the connection directly on your older computer, and will almost always prevent you from using off-the-shelf networking products (such as routers) directly with the connection.

Also, be aware that proprietary software is often (but not always) optional. For instance, Qwest’s MSN software only provides access to enhanced content, and is not required to get on the Internet.

Examples of GOOD modems would be: NCIS.com’s Netopia modem/router combination devices (the standard issue), Qwest’s new ActionTec modem/router combo devices (also standard), and NorthStar’s basic Ethernet-based modems.

You should also inquire about installation charges and any other non-obvious fees, as well as whether or not the price offered is part of a promotion, and how much the service fee will be after the promotion ends. Qwest is known for offering lots of promos (free installation, special pricing for the first year, etc). NorthStar isn’t a stranger to such deals either, but doesn’t use them quite as widely or frequently. NCIS.com does not typically run any promos, but they sometimes are willing to negotiate their pricing.

Be sure to read and understand the provider’s Acceptable Use Policy before signing the contract. Some providers may place restrictions on the amount of data you can transfer, what applications you may and may not run, and so forth. Also, find out how long your contract will be, and if there’s a trial period during which you may cancel the service if it doesn’t work as you expected.

If you will be using the connection in conjunction with any Kanabec server solutions, for running other servers of any sort, as a VPN endpoint, or to access a corporate network from home, ask whether or not you’ll get a static IP address, and if it costs extra. NCIS.com and NorthStar assign static IPs for all their customers at no additional cost; Qwest will lease them for $5.99/mo and charges a $25 fee to do the setup.

Once it’s complete, the List will also be linked here.