I f you can conceive it, the Internet can facilitate it. If you doubt that, consider the 1998 gubernatorial race in Minnesota.

Former pro wrestler, radio talk-show host, and character actor Jesse Ventura won 37% of the vote in a three-way race, earning him the keys to the governor's mansion over wealthier, more-established Democratic and Republican opponents. Without so much as a campaign headquarters, the minor party candidate and his followers, among other things, effectively used the Internet to mobilize voters and communicate the candidate's message.

You may not want to run for office, but you likely want to explore what the Internet has to offer�economically and efficiently. Internet service providers (ISPs) arrive, metaphorically, in homes and offices via modems and telephone lines. Connecting with a service involves using a modem to automatically dial an ISP telephone number. Modems are standard equipment on most new computers, or you can purchase and hook them up to existing computers.

The Internet can help you and your family learn, join, work, play, and communicate by connecting your home or office computer to a vast array of other computers, experts in various fields, and people half a block or half a world away. With such benefits in mind, your first question should be, "Which ISP will best suit my needs?"

Prices range from
as little as $3.95
to around $20 monthly,
depending on the time
a subscriber uses.

The most popular ISP
The easy and immediate answer may well be America Online Inc. in Dulles, Va. AOL, as it is known, is the 900-pound gorilla of the Internet-provider business, with customers numbering more than 16 million subscribers here and abroad. Subscribers pay $21.95 per month for unlimited use of Internet services, as well as AOL's usually user-friendly interfaces with various Web sites.

There was a time when AOL was far from ideal. As recently as 1998, subscribers frequently were greeted with busy signals when they attempted to sign on to the service. Now, AOL has solved most problems by adding enough equipment to handle its growing number of subscribers.

Yet the overwhelmingly popular service has disadvantages. First, $21.95 monthly is a premium price for Internet service. Second, AOL seems too parental, deciding for its subscribers what those subscribers want. Third, the service bombards users with an endless stream of advertising pitches. "You're left with the impression that AOL is trying a little too hard to make money. Service seems to be a sideline," says one subscriber.

As low as $3.95/month
Past AOL, there are more than 200 national ISPs and approximately 6,000 regional ISPs. (The 1970s rock group, Kiss, is among 6,220 ISPs in existence at the moment!) Prices range from as little as $3.95 to around $20 monthly. The differences usually relate to the amount of time allotted a subscriber. The $3.95 price, for example, gives the user a scant 10 hours of access every 30 days, an average of 20 minutes a day. Providers figure prices many ways, but price may not be the most important criterion.

Those who pay for the lowest-priced service seldom use anything except e-mail, the instantaneous back-and-forth Internet messaging system. Twenty minutes daily will allow a user to check for messages and to answer them in a succinct manner. But that's about all.

Most e-mail users grow accustomed to the convenience and branch out from there. One such person is Monica Abress who lives in Stacy, Minn., one hour north of the Twin Cities. A part-time freelance writer, township official, mother of four, and genealogy buff, Abress has been using the Internet since January 1996.

After three years� experience, she has yet to find the perfect ISP. She began with Microsoft Network but dropped the provider because it was down for a couple of days six different times in one year. Abress switched to Prodigy but backed out because there was no local calling number for her location, and because Prodigy "wasn't working right." At the moment she is with AOL—but she isn't pleased.

"It's hard to communicate internationally," she says, adding that much of her genealogical interests involve e-mail to and from Ireland or the Netherlands. "More annoying, AOL automatically cuts you off if the system thinks you've walked away from your computer." Actually, most ISPs disconnect you if your connection is inactive for 10 minutes.

Such a cutoff is particularly exasperating to Abress because she often finds news on the Internet and downloads it (moves it into her computer for reading or printing) for potential sharing with friends and family. That's hard to do unless she stays in front of the screen, because some downloads take several minutes and AOL asks to be prompted whenever no one is using the keyboard.
     A local service
     almost always will be
     less expensive
     and more responsive—
     if the call is local
     and its equipment
     isn't overtaxed.

Jesse Ventura won
37% of the vote
in the Minnesota
governor's race by,
among other things,
using the Internet
to communicate
his message.

Internet traffic
can overwhelm it,
regardless of the ISP.
Excess traffic
"We expect it to be easy and it's not," Abress says of Internet use. She also finds that traffic on the Internet can overwhelm it, regardless of the ISP. "From about 4:30 p.m., school kids get on and it's hard to get work done. I connect at around 2 p.m. and stay on to maintain the connection. I know that further clogs the system, but I have to be able to do my business."

Still, when the ISP is working right and not everyone is on the Internet, service is rewarding. Abress and millions like her can search for cheap airfares, plan a vacation, get help with taxes, contact grandparents, retrieve medical advice, and more. They also can use newsgroups, those highly focused bulletin boards (pre-dating the Web) that deal with microbiology or pro football or vegetarian recipes. Participants in such groups exchange and advance knowledge on the subject at hand.

Huge providers such as AT&T; Corp. with WorldNet and other national and international players may not necessarily provide you with the best service. A local service almost always will be less expensive and may be most responsive to your particular needs—if the call is local and if its equipment isn't overtaxed.

There are potential problems with local providers. They may be undercapitalized and not long for this world. They may have adequate funding but be in a competition with a larger provider they cannot win. And they may not be as adept at blocking electronic junk mail that's usually annoying and can be objectionable. Ask friends.

Asking friends, in fact, may be the most efficient way to make sure you find the ISP that will best meet your needs. Acquaintances often advise getting on-line and conducting searches for various providers. If you're not yet connected, hop on a friend's computer and look up the Web sites of ISPs, which come in all shapes and sizes.

There are several quality ISP summaries, with each service broken down by area code, geographical location, size, and more. One of many worthwhile sites is www.thelist.com. You can reach it from many different servers, the free paths that take you through the Internet once you�re connected. Check individual ISP Web sites, too.

Should you look up MediaOne Express, for example, you will learn that the company prides itself on the speed with which users can download sizable files. A 4-megabyte file, for example, takes 21 seconds to download on MediaOne, compared with 18 minutes using another service and a 28.8K modem. This is a high-speed access provider, not a standard dial-up provider. High-speed access providers require special equipment to work their magic, cost substantially more, and they are geographically limited. Such capability would be valuable to anyone who must sift lots of information on a particular subject. If your boss says, "Find out what's out there," you want a speedy method.

"Cost should be secondary to execution and service," according to Informationweek, a magazine that covers the industry. Most of the national ISPs currently charge $19.95 a month for access, but some offer discounts for multimonth payment. Prodigy recently cut a deal with Staples, the big office-supply chain, whereby Staples offers unlimited monthly Prodigy use for $14.95 if the customer signs up for three months. And don't overlook the local phone company, which may have a discounted ISP as part of its package.

Monica Abress may have the best advice: "Take full advantage of free offers from all the companies. Try out each one for a month, then decide which one will work for you." While such tactics necessitate a new e-mail address with every ISP switch, the odds of finding a responsive and cost-effective provider are very, very good.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.