Archive for May, 1997

Getting On-Line

Thursday, May 1st, 1997

(This column first appeared in the May/June 1997 issue of Dive Report)

Well over a year ago in these pages, we asked the question, “Do you need The Net?”. At that time, the answer was a tentative maybe. The Net was still in its relative infancy, and the relationship of non-computer industries, like the diving industry, to The Net was hazy at best.

It’s now mid-1997, and if you’re not on The Net, you’re a dinosaur. Your competitors who are on The Net have an incredible leg up on you. They know divers tend to be reasonably affluent, technically adept, and on-line (i.e. on The Net) in greater and greater numbers every day. So, what do you do about it?

Over the next several issues of Dive Report, my column (a new regular feature of the magazine) will give you all the information you need to get on-line, understand what the Internet is all about, and then show you how to make the best use of your new on-line presence. On top of that, I’ll occasionally be writing about other forms of marketing and self-promotion which have not been previously covered here, but belong in every business owner’s bag of tricks. Let’s get started…

Getting on The Net
Perhaps the most basic requirement for getting on-line is some sort of computer with a modem (a device that connects computers via phone lines). If you want to just explore the Internet and check things out, and happen to be in the U.S. or Canada, your best bet might be the WebTV device available from Sony or Phillips at most any consumer electronics store. This will give you a taste of e-mail, the Web (the graphical “interface” to the Internet), and other Internet offerings for a $300 machine investment, plus $20 a month in access fees. Oh, and you’ll need a TV to use your WebTV box.

If you want to dive right into high-end Net surfing, I’d suggest a full-fledged PC running Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, along with a fast modem.

Modems are rated in terms of “thousands of bits per second” or Kbps. Currently, a universally acceptable fast modem is one with a speed of 28.8Kbps or 33.6Kbps. A complete Internet-capable computer, with all necessary accessories (like a monitor) will run you around $1500-2000, depending on the features you select. Check with your local computer store for details.

Once you have your Net surfing device at hand, with a phone jack nearby to connect you to the outside world, you’ll need to sign up with a service which provides access to the Internet.

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP)
At present, there are nearly 4000 companies in the U.S. providing Internet access. These companies are collectively called “ISPs”, short for Internet Service Providers.

ISPs offer varying levels of service, hand-holding, and software. Most are local, while some are nationwide (or even worldwide) in scope. The things you’ll want to consider in an ISP are the following:

  • Accessibility. Unless you spent the last six months diving in a remote location, you probably know about the access problems America Online (AOL) experienced – constant busy signals, slow access, and never-ending complaints. Unless you’re a masochist, you probably want to avoid similar hassles. Here’s how: When scoping out ISPs, make sure they have ample local phone lines and modems on their end for the number of users they have – the ratio should be no worse than 12 users per line (AOL was at around 30:1 during their nightmare).
  • Support. In my experience, ISPs generally provide pretty poor customer service, and usually don’t know how to properly support non-technical users. Support issues start with the sign-up – if you’re not a computer whiz, make sure the ISP either provides real simple sign-up software for to get on-line with, or can send someone over to help you get started. The good software is usually provided by larger ISPs (like AT&T), while some small, local ISPs make house calls. You should also call the ISP’s support phone number to see how easy or difficult it is to get through to someone.
  • Price. Don’t base all your decisions on price alone. However, you should be able to get unlimited (or close to it) Internet access at somewhere between $19.95 and $35 per month in the U.S. and Canada. Outside North America, you’ll probably be charged an hourly fee. Also, CompuServe, an ISP of sorts, still charges a sizable hourly rate instead of a flat fee.
  • Reliability. Finally, even if an ISP excels in the above three categories, you should talk to existing users of an ISP you’re considering to see how reliable their Internet access is. If you discover that the ISP’s lines are frequently clogged, turning speedy 28.8Kbps access into a snail’s race, it probably means the ISP doesn’t have reliable access to the Internet backbone (the main “highway” of Internet data). Any serious ISP should have at least a “T-1” connection (1.5 million bits per second) to the Internet backbone in order to provide decent service to its customers.

With so many ISPs hanging around, finding a couple in your neighborhood isn’t too difficult. Most local Yellow Pages now include a category for Internet Services, so look there for local ISPs. In the accompanying sidebar, I’ve listed 10 of the largest national ISPs, in case you feel more comfortable with their reputation. Also, if you or a friend already have access to the Web through some other means, the most comprehensive lists of ISPs appear to be at http://www.boardwatch.com/isp/index.htm and http://www.thelist.com.

When is an ISP not an ISP?
There are a few on-line services that are both more and less than they seem, namely AOL, CompuServe, Microsoft Network (MSN), and Prodigy. I call these services “hybrid ISPs”.

AOL and CompuServe are what’s known as proprietary on-line service providers. In addition to giving their users access to the fruits (ripe and rotten) of the Internet, they offer a huge amount of proprietary content that can only be accessed by their paying customers. AOL offers $19.95 per month flat-priced access (which was the cause of their recent woes), while CompuServe is the last hold-out of pure hourly pricing (five hours for $9.95/month, plus $2.95 for each additional hour). In both cases, I’ve found Internet access to be slower through these services than going directly through a dedicated ISP, but if you want the additional information services these companies provide access to, it might be worth your while. Both AOL and CompuServe provide decent sign-up software that’s easy to use.

Prodigy started as a proprietary on-line service, operating that way for many years at a loss. Thanks to the rapid growth of the Internet and Web, Prodigy has since evolved into a national ISP with an enhanced Web site. Microsoft Network (MSN), the newest hybrid on-line service provider, has followed Prodigy’s lead, going from a proprietary service to being an ISP with proprietary content on its Web site.

The Name’s the Game
In choosing an ISP, you may want to apply a little vanity. Specifically, you want an ISP where you can register your name or your business’s name as a contact point, and not just a near random string of letters or numbers (as CompuServe and AOL seem to force on you). This is important for e-mail – the point-to-point communications medium of the Internet – as well as for building the right sort of image. Suffice to say, unless you’re representing solely yourself, I’d recommend staying away from the big hybrid ISPs I mentioned earlier, and possibly going with a local provider that can offer you more in the way of customization.

Since I’ve just about run out of space, you’ll have to wait until my next column to see why the whole naming issue is important. In that column, I’ll go over the various Internet name options in greater detail, ranging from e-mail addresses to something called a “domain” name, and the marketing benefits and detriments of choosing the right (and wrong) name.

Until then…


Sidebar:

Ten of the Largest ISPs/On-Line Services

Name Phone Number Web address
America Online (AOL) 800-827-6364 http://www.aol.com
AT&T WorldNet 800-967-5363 http://www.att.com/worldnet/
CompuServe 800-848-8199 http://www.compuserve.com
EarthLink Network 800-395-8425 http://www.earthlink.net
internetMCI 800-955-3565 http://www.internetmci.com
Microsoft Network (MSN) 800-373-3676 http://www.microsoft.com/msn/
Mindspring/Pipeline 800-719-4332 http://www.pipeline.com
Netcom 800-638-2661 http://www.netcom.com
Prodigy 800-776-3449 http://www.prodigy.com
SpryNet 800-777-9638 http://www.sprynet.com