"Just tell me, who's the best Internet provider?"

If I had a dollar for every time I'd been asked that, I'd be ready to pick up a couple of good dinners at New Heights. Unfortunately, I've only collected once, so I can barely afford a Krispy Kreme doughnut for my troubles.

On the other hand, my answer to that question may not be worth the $1--there is no one "best" Internet provider. If there were, we'd all wind up using it sooner or later, and this survey of ISPs would run about one paragraph.

Instead, we have over 100 companies to choose from, a number that's increased every year since we first did this survey in 1996. (At the time, we figured that a consolidation was around the corner and the job would only get easier. Wrong!)

How can so many companies stay in business when they're all providing the same service? Easy. They're not. Online services such as America Online and CompuServe promise all-in-one setups free of complicated configuration hassles. Nationwide, name-brand providers such as Earthlink and Prodigy sell convenience and local-call access from nearly anywhere in the United States, plus more flexibility than AOL. Small local shops tout their ability to pick up the phone on the first ring and know your name. And, lately, cable-modem and DSL (digital subscriber line) providers promise an Internet that's always on and never slow.

But what's important to you? A CD-ROM with a click-here installer? A help desk that's staffed 24 hours a day? Support for operating systems besides Windows and the Mac OS? Geeky extras like a Unix shell account?

For some people, the decision is simple. They must have that shell account, or CGI access for their Web pages, or some other such propeller-head thing. (I would have to place myself among the latter, even though I am at best a fair-weather geek; I haven't had a personal Web page up in almost a year.) Other people just want a high-speed connection and don't much care whether the phone company, the cable company or the power company delivers it. Others just want a low bill, while a growing number of people will sit through ads if it means not having to pay anything at all.

Put another way, some people know exactly what they want out of an Internet connection. Others just want An Internet Connection--much the same way people want A Phone Line.

If you're in the latter group, you really might as well pick a provider based on what your address will look like. It's perfectly valid to ask if you'd rather have @crosslink.net, @compuserve.com or @concentric.com at the end of your e-mail address. (Hence, one local provider, Heller Information Services, a k a his.com, allows its subscribers to opt for a hers.com address.)

This is why I often recommend smaller providers to people when they keep asking that question (or give me a buck). These firms give you a better chance of grabbing a user ID that looks like you--say, robp instead of rob2675 or robpegorar345.

But despite all that I've written here, I know I'm still going to get that question. So here's my final answer, which is probably only two cents' worth: Get an account on a month-by-month basis with the cheapest company you've heard of that offers 24-hour, toll-free tech support and a CD-ROM to set up your computer for Internet access. That company might be the firm that sold you your computer, your long-distance company or your co-worker's favorite Internet provider. Don't take a chance on a complete unknown--but don't reject a local company you've heard of just because a bigger competitor runs more ads. And take the first-person testimonials of friends and family members seriously.

But above all, don't stress out about this. This isn't like buying a car or a house; you can always bail out if things don't work out. Go through enough providers in this manner and eventually you can be the one dispensing advice.

After last week's column on the difficulty of changing e-mail addresses, several readers wrote in to note the free forwarding some of the Web e-mail sites offer, in which mail sent to the Web-mail address is automatically sent to your current address. Bigfoot and Mail.com offer this service, for instance. Unfortunately, these sites have also been often abused to send junk e-mail; messages sent from one of these accounts may get filtered out by spam-weary recipients. These things are hardly ever as simple as they should be.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

FFWD editor Rob Pegoraro will host a live Web discussion about shopping for Internet providers at 1 p.m. today. To join, visit www.washingtonpost.com.