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Our ISP Database: A User's Manual

Find an ISP
You do not need to answer all of the questions below, but doing so will help narrow down your search.
Do you live in the Washington area?
  Do you need access outside the Washington area?

How much are you looking to spend per month?

What kind of high-speed access do you need, if any?

Do you need 24-hour tech support?

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer

Welcome to the 1999 edition of Fast Forward's annual survey of Internet providers. The first thing to know is who's in this survey and who is not. We started by looking for every company offering access--via cable-modem, digital subscriber line or modem--to households in the D.C. area. We then e-mailed questionnaires to these companies, following up with reminder messages and phone calls, and published a selection of the results in the Oct. 29 issue of Fast Forward.

What you see here is what ran on that day (plus a few subsequent corrections), with the addition of providers that didn't meet our criteria to be listed in print (to keep the survey at a manageable size, we required that companies based outside the D.C. area either offer some form of high-speed access or serve at least 50,000 subscribers). This online database also includes a few companies that didn't return our questionnaires in time for our print deadlines. If your provider doesn't appear here, e-mail us at ffwd@washpost.com and we will try to get in touch with it.

What do the terms in each entry mean?


Who: The company's name, where it's based and how to reach it.

Price plans: What you'll pay each month (unless only yearly rates are offered) for a modem, cable or DSL connection. With free providers, we describe the ad banner that appears on your screen while you're connected. With cable and DSL accounts, we list download and upload speeds in either kilobits per second (kbps) or megabits per second (mbps), followed by the fee. So "2.88 mbps/128 kbps, $50" means you'd pay $50 a month to download files about 50 times faster than a 56-kbps modem would allow.

Note the different levels of DSL service, which vary depending on what telecommunications firm provides the DSL connection. Anybody selling 640 kbps/90 kbps and 1.6 mbps/90 kbps accounts offers Bell Atlantic's DSL; all other speeds, with three exceptions, indicate DSL from Covad Communications. Those three exceptions--GTE.net, Double D Network Services and Staffnet--use DSL provided by GTE as part of its local phone service in Prince William County and points south. What's the difference? Covad DSL tends to cost more to get installed, but it reaches more homes and is supported by more Internet providers than Bell Atlantic's.

With all DSL connections, we include the cost of the DSL link itself and the Internet provider's services. Actual billing structures differ: Bell Atlantic and GTE put the DSL connection on your phone bill, with an Internet provider's rates paid separately, while with Covad the entire cost shows up on your ISP's bill.

Most providers offer discounts of 10 percent or more if you pay for a year's service in advance, but we don't recommend doing that until you've had a month or two to make sure you're happy with things.


Extra e-mail accounts: How many accounts are available beyond the one that's almost always included with the Internet connection itself. We don't include Web-based e-mail here, but that's an option to consider too.

Web server space: The amount of disk space, in megabytes, a provider makes available to subscribers on its Web server. This is good if you want to put up a personal Web site, but useless otherwise. Free personal Web hosting is also available at numerous sites.

Junk e-mail filter: If the provider filters incoming e-mail for junk e-mail, or spam, by scanning it for the addresses of known spammers. This is no guarantee that you'll never see some idiotic piece of junk e-mail beamed into your inbox.

Newsgroups: How many Usenet newsgroups a provider carries on its news server. If you don't know what Usenet is, ignore this; if you do enjoy newsgroup discussions, look for somebody carrying at least 20,000 groups.

Shell: "Shell accounts" allow you to access your e-mail, the Web and newsgroups in text-only mode by connecting to the provider's servers with a "telnet" program. This requires some familiarity with the command-line interface of the Unix operating system, which is why shell accounts are often beloved by geeks but ignored by others.


Coverage: Where the provider is accessible in the greater Washington area via a local phone call or cable or DSL connection. Beyond the core counties and cities of the area--the District, Montgomery, Prince George's, Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax--we list who offers at least partial coverage in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Howard and St. Mary's counties in Maryland, plus Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia. This data is based on our own estimates and those of providers; check with your phone company before assuming that a number is a local call.

Cable and DSL providers are special, often exasperating cases. Few cable providers cover the entire counties in which they operate, and DSL coverage is the most limited of all, especially in rural settings. The only way to check is with a call to your cable company or a visit to the DSL Web sites of Bell Atlantic, Covad or GTE.

Total bandwidth: How big of a pipe does the provider have "upstream" from its own computers to the Internet at large, as measured in mbps or gbps (gigabits per second). This can be a useful but rough gauge of a provider's capacity.

Users/modems ratio: How many customers exist per each modem at the provider. Look for a 10:1 or lower ratio to reduce the odds of getting a busy signal.


Total users: How many consumers use this company for their Internet connection.

Years as an ISP: How long this company has been providing Internet access. In the case of online services such as AOL or CompuServe, this leaves out their experience with running their own proprietary systems.

Downtime: What percentage of time a provider's servers were unavailable over the last year.


Software: What consumer operating systems--Win 95-98, Win 3.1 or Mac--providers offer software kits for. "Required" means you can't set up an account without it.

Phone tech support: What times the help lines are open, and if they're a toll-free call.


Self-promotional quote: The provider, in its own words.

For more details on these items, or to receive a copy of the questionnaire Internet providers received, e-mail us at ffwd@washpost.com.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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