Get Good ServiceNot all ISPs are created equal.
Susan Silvius is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When PC World asked more than 6000 subscribers to rate their Internet service provider, editors got an earful, and a few surprises.
Broadband users: You're happy with your provider, which you've probably been using for years, and you're also likely to get television or telephone service from the same company that delivers Web access to your home.
Dial-up users: You're less thrilled with your Internet service, but for the most part you're resigned to the technology's slow speed and aren't necessarily inclined to move up to broadband.
And while all of you use the Internet every day, you're still more likely to be checking your e-mail and browsing text-heavy Web sites than streaming video and audio or using voice over IP. PC World asked readers to rate their ISP's tech support, reliability, speeds, spam blocking, and more, to see which ones deliver the best experience. Among their favorites: EarthLink cable, Cablevision, and Time Warner's Road Runner service were ranked the best cable ISPs, while Verizon got top honors for DSL.
To read the full results of the survey, go to PCWorld.com.
Whether you want to switch ISPs or get a better deal from the one you have, shop around a bit and do your homework before calling a provider, to maximize your service and minimize your costs.
Research options in your area: Check sites such as BroadbandReports.com and FindAnISP.com to determine which providers serve your location. Often you'll discover that you have more choices now than you did last year.
Ask about promotions: Call your ISP's competitors to ask about promotions and upgrade specials. If you're a broadband subscriber dissatisfied with your download and upload speeds, you may find a higher-bandwidth service you can afford.
Richard Wise, an SBC Yahoo DSL subscriber from North Little Rock, Arkansas, offers some astute advice. "I get my TV from one provider (Dish Network), and my phone and Internet access from the local telephone company (SBC)," Wise says. "I could get all three on one bill, but then I'd lose my leverage. Now when I see SBC advertising a special for new Internet service subscribers, I call them up and tell them to re-rate me. When they tell me I'm ineligible because I'm a long-term subscriber, I tell them to reward me as a valued customer or else I'll switch," he says. Wise applies this technique liberally. "When I see my [satellite TV] rates start to creep up, I simply tell them I'll switch to cable unless they keep my rates down."
Do the math before bundling: Cable ISPs and telephone companies almost always offer a discount when you order multiple services, such as both television and phone. For example, Cox customers who already subscribe to the company's cable TV service save $10 a month on Internet access. But remember, the savings probably won't be more than $5 to $15 per month. Providers love bundles because the practice brings in more revenue per user over the same lines, while simultaneously making customers less likely to switch, notes Yankee Group analyst Patrick Mahoney.
Many ISPs now offer voice over IP telephone service, which sends voice traffic over the Internet rather than on the traditional telephone network, as part of a bundle or as an extra service. Despite potential savings for heavy out-of-area callers, none of the survey respondents we interviewed expressed much interest in signing up for VoIP service. Instead they generally preferred to remain with their existing local and long-distance carriers.
Read the fine print: Before you sign up for one of those low-introductory-cost specials, make sure you know exactly what you're getting into. Many DSL and cable providers entice new subscribers with a low initial monthly charge, but they lock you into a long-term agreement with penalties up to $250 for breaking the contract before the term expires. That isn't to say these are bad deals. Just be sure you identify all the gotchas before you sign up, including fees for activation, equipment, and installation, as well as term commitments and early-cancellation penalties.
Get ready for a new e-mail address: Whether you're trading dial-up for broadband or moving from, say, one DSL provider to another, changing your Internet service can be a real hassle. For example, if you've been using the same e-mail address for years, you'll have to notify all your contacts about the change (though most ISPs now offer free e-mail forwarding services for the first several months after you sign up, and for a slight charge for subsequent months).
One option is to create a permanent address through a Web-based e-mail service such as MSN Hotmail or Yahoo Mail. Both offer basic service for free, as well as a premium service with more storage and other add-ons for a nominal fee. Keep in mind, though, that users of such free e-mail accounts often get a lot of spam.
Mahoney says his surveys show that the difficulties related to changing e-mail addresses are the primary reason people are reluctant to switch ISPs. And Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler notes a demographic reason users retain their service: older people are less likely than youngsters to switch Internet providers, primarily because they want to avoid the hassle of an e-mail change.