We don't usually say this about our articles, but when it comes to the immense chart to the right, please don't read the whole thing. Instead, read this first, then decide which parts of the chart will be relevant.

Those parts are: cable-modem providers, DSL (digital subscriber line) providers, local companies (i.e., those based in the District, Maryland or Virginia), nationwide companies and free providers (one of which itself sells DSL accounts, confusingly enough). To keep the chart at a manageable size, we only list nationwide providers with at least 50,000 subscribers; the ones that didn't make it into print will be in the online version of the directory, coming soon to http://www.washingtonpost.com/ffwd. If a provider isn't listed online, it's most likely because it didn't return our questionnaire.

Here's what the terms in the chart mean:

BASICS:

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, rounded up to the nearest whole dollar. 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; almost all other speeds indicate DSL from Covad Communications. But 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. In general, Covad DSL costs more to get installed but 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 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.

EXTRAS:

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.

CONNECTIVITY:

Coverage: Where the provider is accessible in the greater Washington area via a local phone call or cable or DSL connection. Outside what we call the "D.C. metro 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. 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.

EXPERIENCE/RELIABILITY:

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 past year.

CUSTOMER SUPPORT:

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.

ETC.:

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.