The best national and regional ISPs
If you aren't getting great service, now's the perfect time to switch. PC World rates 20 ISPs that are hungry for your business.
February 8, 1999
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- Mike Winckler doesn't ask for much from US West, his Internet service provider. He would like to get online on his first try and have quick, reliable access to his e-mail. Oh, one more thing -- he wants unlimited access for a reasonable price.
US West, however, hasn't quite met those modest expectations. "I try to log on and don't get an answer," explains the exasperated computer programmer from Omaha, Nebraska, who depends on the ISP for work and recreation. And there's the maddening problem of occasionally being unable to retrieve his e-mail.
But as with many dissatisfied ISP users, the hassle of registering with another provider and informing friends and colleagues of the new e-mail address keeps him from changing providers. "Eventually, I'll switch," says Winckler.
Now couldn't be a better time.
A wild and woolly market
Today's bustling market of some 4500 ISPs -- a bit larger than last year's -- has one undisputed king: America Online, with its 14 million subscribers. No other ISP comes close to AOL's 13 percent market share worldwide, according to the market research firm DataQuest -- but not for lack of trying.
Large national ISPs, local phone companies, and cable operators are consolidating to form global Goliaths -- witness last year's merger of MCI and WorldCom, or the pending union of AT&T and TCI. Regional independent providers like Rocky Mountain Internet and CyberGate are gobbling up little ISPs in the quest to become nationals. And regional Baby Bells, hoping to leverage their brand recognition and telecommunications expertise, have quickly emerged as dominant players, particularly in the business market. Meanwhile, local ISPs keep springing up everywhere, providing users with a homespun touch. In fact, nearly half the respondents to our ISP satisfaction survey access the Internet through a local provider.
This market competition may be short-lived, however. Experts forecast rapid consolidation as cable and other broadband technologies take hold, squeezing out ISPs that can't provide new types of service or cut deals with cable companies. "We expect the market to shrink to well below 1000 providers over the next five years," says Zia Daniell, an analyst at Jupiter Communications' Bandwidth and Access Strategies Group.
You're in the driver's seat
But for now, consumers and businesses have the luxury of a buyer's market. So if you're running into busy signals, long waits for technical support, or other snags, don't just sit there -- start looking for another provider.
"Consumers have a huge number of options to choose from," says Daniell. "ISPs are looking to differentiate themselves, and they're just beginning to explore all the options they can offer."
To help you find the best ISP, we rank 20 competitors. In addition to evaluating the 10 leading national ISPs, as we have in the past, we've added 10 up-and-coming regional providers -- including five Baby Bells -- because of their growing role in the market. In selecting regional ISPs for our review, we divided the United States into five regions (Midwest, Northeast, Rocky Mountain, South, and West) and chose two major providers in each area. (Erols, one of the regionals, took the name of its parent company, RCN, during the course of our review.)
We evaluated the 20 ISPs from almost every angle. To gauge speed and reliability, we contracted with Inverse Network Technology of Sunnyvale, California, a leader in ISP performance testing. We surveyed nearly 8000 PC World subscribers to assess their satisfaction with our 20 target ISPs as well as their competitors (for detailed results, see "ISP Support Satisfaction Results," link below). We signed up with each ISP to test the installation and start-up process (except with US West, which provides Internet service only to its local phone customers), and we researched each ISP's features and options, including business-oriented offerings (for details, see "Keeping Score: Rating the ISPs," link below).
Whether you're logging on for work or fun, one Internet service provider stands above the rest: AT&T WorldNet.
Backed by big investments in infrastructure and by partnerships with content providers, the huge phone company's aggressive push to become a leading ISP and challenge America Online for customers seems to have paid off. In a single year, AT&T has risen from the middle of the pack in our rankings to the top of the heap.
In addition to AT&T WorldNet's top-rated performance, users get easy installation, a free trial period, no start-up fee, up to six e-mail accounts (more than any other ISP we reviewed), national coverage, good V.90-modem access, a customized start page, and nonstop toll-free technical support.
AT&T WorldNet also offers business customers many extras, including custom Web site design and hosting, credit card processing, and the fullest range of options for high-speed access. The company charges a few dollars more for monthly service than many of the other ISPs here do, but we found that the extra cost is money well spent.
Nationals edge out regionals
Whether you're in Fresno, California, or Bangor, Maine, and logging on for business or pleasure, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better all-around ISP than AT&T WorldNet, our Best Buy. AT&T has made big improvements since earning only a Fair rating from us last year. In addition to offering coverage in all 50 states, AT&T WorldNet boasts outstanding performance, easy installation, a comprehensive set of standard features and services, free start-up, and top-notch support policies. It also offers a full range of business-specific features, from six high-speed access options and Web-design services to credit card processing. But no ISP is perfect, and besides costing a few dollars more than most of its competitors, AT&T has been slow to respond to e-mail requests for help.
As a group, the national Internet service providers outscored the regional ISPs in most major categories such as installation and support, but not by much. Though AT&T, IBM Internet Connection, and MindSpring took the top three slots on our chart, the regionals (led by Ameritech, a Baby Bell) followed close behind, claiming fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth positions.
Should you care whether an ISP's service coverage is national, regional, local, or even global when selecting a provider? If you travel a lot within the United States and need to stay connected to the Web, you probably should choose one of the national ISPs -- they offer local access numbers in almost all major urban areas and many smaller cities.
Occasional travelers can also select from many local and regional ISPs that increasingly offer "roaming" services (which allow users to connect to another ISP's network) and toll-free lines (for a surcharge) to permit access on the road.
Traveling abroad anytime soon? Driven mostly by the needs of Fortune 500 companies with offices in several countries, large ISPs such as Concentric and IBM are going global. While the market for global access is tiny, these ISPs are beginning to offer it in Western Europe and Asia at no extra charge. Concentric, for example, has thousands of access points in 72 countries, and even offers technical support in many of them. IBM includes international access numbers in its dialing software -- all preconfigured and ready to dial.
Getting online -- and staying there
Anyone who has encountered a busy signal when trying to access e-mail or waited forever for a download knows the importance of fast, reliable performance. Our survey respondents count a reliable connection, a lack of busy signals, and fast e-mail among an ISP's key assets.
"Downloading patches sometimes takes a few hours. I want reliability and good performance -- and I'm willing to pay extra for it," says William Robbins of the commercial real estate firm Cushman Wakefield in Dallas.
With this in mind, we turned to Inverse Network Technology to run our performance testing. Inverse put the 20 ISPs through a rigorous suite of tests, dialing in to each one at least 2864 times to test connection, log-in, and download times, and -- for all but AOL, CompuServe, and Microsoft Network -- e-mail send and receive times. The PC World Test Center performed the e-mail tests for those three providers because they use proprietary e-mail systems. AT&T, IBM, and SBC/Pacific Bell are the only Outstanding performers; AOL (a perennial bottom-dweller in performance) and US West both receive an Unacceptable rating -- the lowest we give.
By some measures, ISP performance in general has improved in the past year. Busy signals -- the bane of every ISP customer's existence -- have dropped to a fraction of last year's rate, says Chris Roeckl, research manager at Inverse. In January 1997, slightly more than a quarter of all calls to an ISP resulted in busy signals. By October of last year, that figure had dropped to just under 7 percent, thanks largely to major services' investment in additional capacity.
Still, don't expect ISP performance to match that of your telephone company anytime soon. The technology involved in connecting to the Web is more complex, and ISPs are having a hard time keeping up with their own phenomenal growth. "As providers try to deliver services to more places, something's always broken," says Lance Weatherby, an executive vice president at MindSpring. "When MindSpring served 3000 customers, we were small enough that we could yell across the room to fix problems. We can't do that anymore."
High speeds down the road
According to our survey, roughly 50 percent of respondents now use a 56-kbps modem to connect to the Internet. But owning such a modem doesn't guarantee you'll actually connect at that rate.
First, your ISP must support your modem protocol -- V.90, x2, or K56flex. V.90 became the global standard last fall, and ISPs began scrambling to implement it. Most providers claim to have achieved close to 100 percent V.90 compliance. Only SBC/Pacific Bell and GST Whole Earth Network earned a Poor rating in this category. Many providers expect to complete the transition to V.90 by the end of the first quarter this year.
But even if your provider supports V.90, antiquated phone lines make 56-kbps access a pipe dream for many users. "What's the use of having a 56K modem if you can't get on at that speed?" asks Ed Duran, who trades stocks and commodities online from his office in Inverness, Illinois. "I'm getting cable access as soon as it becomes available," he says matter-of-factly. "I want the speed, no matter what it costs."
AT&T, IBM, EarthLink/Sprint, MindSpring, RCN, and Voyager were the only ISPs we reviewed that currently offer limited cable connections, though availability will expand this year. In the meantime, many ISPs tout Digital Subscriber Line technology as the high-speed option of the future. All the Baby Bells offer some form of DSL, and MCI WorldCom has tapped EarthLink and America Online as partners in the telecommunication giant's 1999 rollout of DSL service.
Cherry Rose-Anderson, a research analyst with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Connecticut, believes cable will ultimately reign as the high-speed access option for consumers. "Right now, cable's strongly positioned for the consumer market," she says. And look for DSL to take hold in a big way in the business marketplace.
A bounty of options
Not long ago, ISPs gave you access to the Web and an e-mail account -- period. But providers have begun to greatly expand their offerings in order to compete with feature-rich AOL for customers. They provide more Web space, pricing schemes, and extra e-mail accounts, among other enticements.
A year ago, $19.95 was the de facto rate for unlimited monthly Web access. Now pricing is beginning to vary, from the high teens to the mid-20s among ISPs we reviewed. At the high end, we find CompuServe and GST Whole Earth Network at around $25; midrange are America Online, Ameritech, and AT&T at $21.95. CyberGate, at $17.95, is the least expensive among the ISPs we reviewed.
More and more Internet service providers offer discounted rates in exchange for long-term commitments. EarthLink, for example, charges $19.95 for a basic month-to-month account, but subscribers who sign on for a year pay $18.40 monthly. Although making a long-term commitment with an unknown provider is risky, it can be a great way to save a few bucks with an ISP whose services you know and trust.
"My friends thought I was crazy," says Massachusetts software engineer Tom LaRoche, regarding his decision to sign with Erols (now RCN) for three years at a bargain monthly price of $9.95. Two years into the service, he's glad he did.
A year ago, multiple e-mail accounts (a necessity for households with several Web users) were rare. Seven of the ISPs in our review now offer them.
Internet service providers are even trying to challenge America Online's dominance as a content provider by offering subscribers customizable home pages and one-click access to Web-based content (see "Imitating AOL: ISPs Strive for Easy Web Access," link below).
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of personal Web pages, more ISPs now include server space for Web hosting, dispensing from 1MB up to 20MB.
When we add up all the features that our 20 providers offer, AOL no longer stands alone as the best. AT&T WorldNet in particular matches AOL service for service and even surpasses the online giant in some areas.
Signing up with an ISP
After many years of refinement, getting up and running with an ISP and properly configuring the software today should be a snap. Unfortunately, on many of the services it's more of a drag.
Our experience registering with these 20 ISPs ran the gamut. AT&T's automated phone-ordering system made registration a breeze, while a hyper-responsible Prodigy salesperson insisted on recording our lengthy phone conversation to document acceptance of the member agreement, turning registration into a pain.
Ease of installation also varied. We appreciated AOL's no-brainer procedure; CompuServe's unnecessarily complex and confusing process, with misleading instructions and confusing error messages, made us wonder how the company expects to attract new subscribers.
You can register with most ISPs online or by phone. If you switch ISPs, it's easiest to use your existing browser and register online. Many ISPs post step-by-step instructions for configuring a Windows dial-up connection; tech support can also walk you through the setup. Barring technical glitches, you should be online with most ISPs in a matter of minutes. The only downside: You'll miss out on any custom features the ISP has added to the commercial version of the browser.
First-timers are better off ordering the software by phone, even if their PC came with a browser preinstalled. You'll have to wait to get the CD -- from a few days up to two weeks -- but in most instances the simplified setup is worth the delay. And some ISPs offer ways to speed up delivery: RCN will expedite its start-up kit for an added cost; Prodigy expedites shipping if you sign up over the phone.
One word of caution: Although some ISPs, including AT&T, EarthLink, and IBM, give you a choice between Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Explorer, few supply and support both of these leading browsers.
Support: A paper tiger
On paper, just about all 20 ISPs have established customer-friendly support policies. All but six offer around-the-clock telephone support. CyberGate and Microsoft Network are the only providers in our review that skimp on both nonstop support hours and a toll-free support line. Netcom offers toll-free support, but only for the first 30 days.
But getting 24-hour service on a toll-free line doesn't guarantee that your questions will be answered satisfactorily when you call. Among our 20 ISPs, only EarthLink/Sprint, IBM, and MindSpring can boast even a Good satisfaction rating for support quality. Of the remaining service providers, all but one received a Fair score; AOL earned a Poor rating. A full 20 percent of all our survey respondents said their problems were not resolved by calling technical support. And even though 73 percent of respondents got through to a technician within 15 minutes, 27 percent of them said that they waited longer.
When you're thinking about signing on with an ISP, try this experiment: Call that provider's tech support line at roughly the time of day you expect to be using the service and see how long it takes you to get through to a rep. Although your experiment won't be scientific, it'll give you a first-hand glimpse of the service you might receive when trouble comes knocking.
AOL dominates the ISP market, but not because of its support practices. Less than two-thirds of AOL subscribers said they were "completely satisfied" or "satisfied" with the support they received, compared to 82 percent of AT&T users.
Whereas some ISPs struggle to improve their support, others grumble about the impracticality of the 24/7 toll-free standard. "A small percentage of customers use a large percentage of our technical support service," says Ed Callan, SBC/Pacific Bell's vice president of consumer marketing. "I expect that as the industry grows, we'll see the majority of ISPs introducing pay-for-support plans."
Three of the national service providers -- IBM, MindSpring, and Netcom -- have begun charging for premium service. For a few more dollars a month, subscribers receive upgraded technical support, along with convenient extras such as quarterly CD-ROM software upgrades. Concentric is considering whether to require customers with older operating systems to pay even for standard technical support.
Roughly 40 percent of the Web-goers we surveyed have received help via e-mail. Some 23 percent received a response in less than 3 hours (not bad), 17 percent heard back in 3 to 8 hours (not very good), and 23 percent waited 24 hours or more (yikes). Of the ISPs reviewed in this report, IBM proved the most responsive, answering nearly half of all e-mail queries within 8 hours. America Online, AT&T WorldNet, and Netcom were among the slowest at fielding e-mail inquiries.
Survey respondent Verne Cole, a retired newspaper editor from Fresno, California, has given up trying to use Netcom's e-mail support option. "Frankly, I have a great deal of difficulty trying to figure out who or what to ask. I've sent e-mail messages to them and much of the time don't get any response back," says Cole, who uses the Internet to stay in touch with his family and friends.
For now, e-mail support is really an option only for those individuals who can connect to the Web and who don't mind waiting for an answer. Companies will have to devote more resources to e-mail support -- and respond to messages more quickly -- before they'll see a noticeable drop in the number of phone calls they receive.
Change for the better
ISPs want your business badly, and they're doing back flips to get it. They're adding capacity to improve performance, bolstering their list of standard features, and offering a smorgasbord of pricing and service options to fit the needs of just about any Web user. The leading national ISPs are sweetening their appeal with goodies like international roaming or extra space for Web hosting. Regionals, too, are offering an enticing mix of solid performance and broad-based services in aggressively priced packages.
Is switching providers a hassle? You bet. But the selection is terrific -- at least for the time being. Come next year, who knows. As new bandwidth technologies hit the already tumultuous ISP market, the number of providers and their offerings may change substantially. Maybe for the better, maybe not.
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