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Rob Pegoraro
Rob Pegoraro
Personal Technology section
Recent columns by Rob Pegoraro
E-letter Archive

Fast Forward: ISP Directory Update
With Personal Technology columnist Rob Pegoraro
Monday, Feb. 3, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Fast Forward columnist Rob Pegoraro and his Washington Post colleagues are producing a long-awaited update to their guide of Internet service providers in the Washington-Baltimore region. Rob was online to discuss the directory, which he previewed in his Jan. 27 weekly e-letter.

The ISP directory is broken out online by type of provider: Cable | DSL | Local National | Satellite | Wireless. In addition to Rob's column, readers should check out Mike Musgrove's feature article, "Broadband Broadens Its Pitch."

And don't miss Rob's Fast Forward On Demand video, in which he looks at five of the hottest PDAs on the market this year.

Fast Forward E-letter:

Want to know what upcoming topics are being covered? Sign up for Fast Forward e-letter -- get updated information on personal technology news and product demos.

Below is the transcript.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Rob Pegoraro: So much to talk about today: There's the ISP survey we ran yesterday (which has already stuffed my inbox with reader reaction), the other tech topics we've covered lately (Windows Media Player, iSync), and, of course, Saturday's terrible news. I suspect most of the questions here focus on the first topic of those three, but, as ever, no reasonable query will be refused.

Let's start...

Washington, D.C.: Ok, Rob, bottom line, what's the cheapest reliable dial-up Internet access provider? It seems like even Earthlink is charging as much as AOL these days.

Rob Pegoraro: You can get access for as little as $12 or so a month, but that usually means giving up things like out-of-town access, free tech support or a "click here to go online" software bundle. The going rate for nationwide, beginner-friendly Internet access is still about $20, though; the over-$20 plans from EarthLink, MSN and AOL remain exceptions to the pattern.

Ashburn, Va.: Hey Rob, Are there any discounts for ISPs if you pay up front for 1 or 2 years?

Rob Pegoraro: Almost always. But I strongly advise you not to do that until you've used the company for a long time and feel you can trust them, both technically and financially. Getting your money back if things change can be difficult or (in the case of ISP bankruptcy) impossible.

Arlington, Va.: To make high speed access useful, what are reasonable system requirements (both PC and Mac) to look for when buying a new computer to prevent immediate obsolescence? I am neither a gamer nor an audiofile, but would want enough memory to be able to store digital photographs and upload to Shutterbug or Ofoto. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Sure: Buy any computer made in the last year. Seriously, Internet access and photo sharing will not tax your processor or hard drive much at all.

(Can I get a link to my home-computer-shopping-advice piece from Nov.? That has some more details on this subject/).

washingtonpost.com: Here's the link to Rob's Home Computing column, from which you can navigate to individual PC reviews.

Washington, DC: Hey Rob,

I recently switched ISPs because I needed a static IP address. Granted, that's not something most home users need, so it's hard to find that particular service. (I need it for secure access to our corporate server). I have also found that even the sales/support people aren't sure how to deal with it.

Question: Is this a feature you might consider adding to the annual review, and how much do you think is a fair price to pay for it? I have seen anywhere from $5-$35/month.

Rob Pegoraro: We did list ISPs that offered each user a fixed, unchanging Internet Protocol address -- back in 1996 or '97. We haven't since, for the reasons you outline. Very few people need this option, and listing it takes up space we could use for other data.

If you need it, you need it, but paying more than $5/month seems a bit much unless you get other extras with it -- more Web server space, a second e-mail account, faster speeds or whatnot.

Falls Church, Va.: Your ISP directory listed a lot of small ISPs that I'd never heard of. What're the pros/cons of going with one of the smaller firms?

Rob Pegoraro: It depends

(You knew I was going to say that, right?)

Many smaller ISPs have chosen to stay that way. They're almost boutique providers; they prefer to offer more specialized services that the mass market may not care about, but which some users are willing to pay extra for.

Others, however, are trying to beat the majors on price, which can be a trickier game. When I see a company offering the same bundle of services as one of the big names at a quarter of the price, I start wondering how they're managing to stay in business.

Either way, a little investigation -- talking to other customers, finding out about the history of the company -- is worth doing.

Bethesda, Md.: I read that ISPs are going to charge on a bandwidth-used basis instead of a flat fee. Any ISPs actually doing that around here?

Rob Pegoraro: Only some of the satellite providers do, and even then it's in the form of a download quota; pull down more than you're allowed for in a month (usually, it's a fairly large number) and you may have to pay extra.

I *highly* doubt any ISPs are going to switch to full metered pricing anytime soon. The market has spoken clearly and loudly that it doesn't want to have to think about the incidental cost of spending another hour online or downloading another file.

Sterling, Va.: A suggestion ... please put an asterisk next to the Adelphia entry, classifying them as a "cable" provider. In my area of Loudoun County (Cascades) we still have 1-way cable modem access (with a 28.8K phone upload), with no definite plans for an upgrade. We have been promised a change for the last 3 years. Every time the company's response is "6 more months." I wonder if anyone from the local Adelphia office is watching (I doubt it) and would like to respond?

Rob Pegoraro: I did ask about this, and the general manager there did acknowledge that part of the system is not yet upgraded. Unfortunately, there wasn't a clear pattern as to where service was available and where it was not (same as in other cable-modem service areas). That's why I added that caveat about cablem-modem networks to the explanatory text; when in doubt, you need to check directly with the ISP.

I welcome anybody with Adelphia to chime in on this...

Alexandria, Va.: I've been a Comcast broadband customer for two years. Should I buy a modem or keep renting from them?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, buy the modem. Pretty much every cable ISP around supports the current standard, so even if you suddenly have to move to someplace without cable-modem service, you can easily sell your modem on eBay or to a neighbor.

Fairfax, Va.: How's Cox doing these days in terms of service reliability?

Rob Pegoraro: I haven't heard nearly as many complaints lately as I once did. OTOH, that may be because the leading source of complaints (one of my game reviewers) moved to a Comcast service area a few months ago.

Cox users, please report in...

McLean, Va.: I switched Dial-up ISP's to go from lousy SPAM blocking to Very-Good Spam blocking. (From Erol's / Starpower to att.net) That part has worked very well. (Incidentally, I found auxiliary SPAM-Blocking software such as Web Washer was incompatible with Starpower's servers.)
However, since Starpower NEVER gave me disconnects in a typical 12-hour connection, I got a Measured-Rate Modem line from Verizon to keep the bill under $ 20. (Yes, I know, it's tying up Verizon, but their sales person didn't seem to care.) Now ATT.net disconnects several times each weekday. Their "help" tree is not only splintered, it is very difficult to navigate because of incomplete signage. Also, the various branches of the tree tend to pass the buck to each other.
Even so, I have applied all the tune-ups recommended by one representative (INCLUDING ALTERNATE CALL-IN NUMBERS) and continue to have the same trouble. QUESTIONS:
1. Are other ATT customers having the same problem -- disconnects likely after 20 to 150 minutes of idle??
2. Does some other ISP provide Good Spam Blocking such as Brightmail WITH uninterupted Dial-up Service ??
Thanks for what I hope will be a productive Polling. McLean Dave

Rob Pegoraro: Uninterrupted dial-up almost always costs extra. Most ISPs do not want their users camping out on their lines and have their modem banks set to disconnect users who have been idle after a certain amount of time. I'm surprised that Starpower didn't have this policy as well.

Prince George's County, Md.: My family would love to get broadband, but even though we live in a relatively populated part of PG County, we're on a road with only a few houses on it, and both Verizon DSL and Comcast have told us we're just a little too far from their station for them to be willing to serve us. Can you suggest anything? People have suggested satellite, but our access to the southern sky is obstructed.

Rob Pegoraro: Chainsaw? :)

I would check with other DSL providers, many of whom do not rely on Verizon's circuits (they buy their lines from companies like Covad, which in turn rent space from Verizon to put their own DSL gear in neighborhood central offices).

Fort Washington, Md.: How do you go about registering a personal domain name?

Rob Pegoraro: Basically, you pay a company called a domain registrar $10 or $20 a year* to get the name for you, then forward all mail addressed there to your regular address.

Here's the story we ran on this topic last year.

* Network Solutions and Register.com charge more like $30 or $35 a year, but I have yet to be convinced that their higher prices get you any extra services, at least in the realm of personal-use domains.

Washington, D.C.: I noticed that the ISP I use was not listed in your table. BooNet (www.boo.net), based in Bethesda, has been inexpensive and reliable for me for over a year now. They're fairly small (I believe), and obviously don't have the national footprint of an AOL or Earthlink, but they have one of the most responsive customer service/tech support systems I've ever seen for any service. Of course, this is probably a benefit of being small. Regardless, I think they're worthy of inclusion in your next ISP overview.

washingtonpost.com: BooNet is listed on the ISP directory's DSL page.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the link. Our reader here has run into one of the awkward realities of putting this survey together -- since we prefer to list the broadband offerings up front, some local companies then don't appear in the "local" listing.

Columbia, Md.: Any thought to printing a map of the region showing what ISPs are available in various locations?

Rob Pegoraro: It wouldn't be very informative, in two ways:

1) DSL access really cannot be mapped in that way;

2) Until you get to the outskirts of the D.C. area, there isn't a meaningful distinction between competing providers' dial-up access.

Washington, DC: I have heard that cable Internet users compete with cable TV users. In other words, traffic on the lines might be high during prime time TV hours, and you might notice a slow-down on your cable Internet connection. Any truth to that?

Rob Pegoraro: No. What *can* happen is that other cable-modem users can start subtracting from your available bandwidth. In the usual cable-modem setup, you share a certain amount of bandwidth with everybody else on the neighborhood node. If you log on at 4 a.m., you might have almost all of that speed for yourself. But at 9 p.m. on a weeknight, you could find yourself having to share it with everybody else.

University Park, Md.: Why didn't you mention one of the many ISP finder Web sites? There are far more providers than the ones you listed. For the truly cheap (like me) there is the many local and regional providers that are far cheaper than Netzero's Platinum account. Check out Hawk Communications at hawkcommunications.com, my ISP. If you want to pay two years in advance, you can get unlimited service for $6.49 per month.

Rob Pegoraro: I've never found an ISP-finder site that actually works all that well. All the ones I've seen seem to let ISPs list themselves, which results in rampant grade inflation -- companies claim to offer local access where they do not.

The deal you mention is exactly the kind of thing I discourage. You're taking a substantial risk to save very little money -- there are easier ways to squeeze $10 or so a month out of a budget.

maryland: Have you heard pro or con about Starpower's DSL service?

Rob Pegoraro: Neither. They do offer business DSL, IIRC, but nothing residential, and I've yet to see any assessments of it.

Herndon, Va.: Any word from Verizon as to when DSL will be available in the north Herndon area (Dranesville road)? We keep getting flyers advertising the service as now available but each time we call to sign up, it isn't available.

Rob Pegoraro: No idea. My advice would be to check to see if you can't DSL through any ISP that uses service from Covad or another competing telecom carrier.

Fairfax, Va.: I came on to ask about DSL, but, since all questions are open, what's your recommendation on Turbo Tax/Quicken v. Tax Cut/Money?

washingtonpost.com: Last week, The Post's Mike Musgrove wrote about Intuit Inc.'s TurboTax, FYI.

Rob Pegoraro: I've used Web TurboTax the past few years and have generally been pleased with it. If I had to choose between the CD-ROM versions of TurboTax and TaxCut... that would be a tough one. This is a question of ethics as much as anything else. The guy we quoted in Mike's report put it right: We trust Intuit with our taxes, so why can't they at least tell us what they're doing on our computers?

Derwood, Md.: Regarding Static IPs -- I pay $5 extra per month to have one. Its advantage is that I get to run my own web server, on one of my own computers at home.

It is a perfect solution for running a non-commercial Web site with few users, but lots of large files. For instance, I can share family photo albums with high resolution pictures ... since only family members would be looking at them, my network connection doesn't get saturated and remains high-speed.

The $5 per month to have the static IP, plus the incidental electric use that results from leaving my firewall, network switch and server on 24/7 is much less than it would cost to host the photo albums (in high resolution) on a commercial Web site.

(But, truth be told, I'm really just a computer geek that needed an excuse to a small home network 24/7.... I wouldn't recommend it to casual friends.)

Rob Pegoraro: Some info on static IPs, for anybody curious about the previous exchange on this topic:

Washington, D.C.: I live in what seems to be an Internet undesireable zip code (20010). No one offers Cable Modem service or DSL, and I'm stuck in dial-up hell that is continually getting more and more unreliable. The worse part is no company seems to have an answer to when ungraded service will be available. Do I have any realistic options?

Rob Pegoraro: Not to sound like a broken record -- but have you checked with DSL providers besides Verizon? I have a really hard time imagining that part of D.C. (we're talking just north of Columbia Heights, right?) has *no* broadband access at all.

VA: I have been using EROLS since 1995. It is now STARPOWER after merging with RCN. Why no mentioned of Erols?

Rob Pegoraro: Because Starpower/RCN dropped the Erols name years ago. Existing users have been able to keep their old e-mail address (and my thanks to Starpower for doing the right thing in this department), but nobody has been able to get a new erols.com account in a very long time.

Olney, Md.: First, my comments about Comcast:

Their tech support staff are for the most part competent, but they took FIVE visits to finish installing TV and internet service properly. I did have service most of that time, though.

Question for you (and possibly the peanut gallery):

Comcast told me that my router won't release the IP address, so once a week or so I have to bypass my router, release and renew my IP address, and then plug my router back in, rebooting between every step. That doesn't sound right. I understand that I have a dynamic IP address, but since it's an always-on connection, it stays the same for 5-7 days, then changes (unlike dial-up, where it's different every "session").

Why does this sound like Comcast's problem, not mine? The router automatically picked up the IP address when it was first plugged in, so why not when it expires?

Rob Pegoraro: Wish I could answer that last question, but I don't have Comcast service at home -- so I'll turn this one to the peanut gallery.

Any help for Olney?

Merrifield, Va.: What firewall and anti-virus software do you recommend for those moving to high-speed Internet access? Any other software, besides that which is required for access, which you find necessary when going to DSL or cable?

Rob Pegoraro: First, yes, a firewall program of some kind is *mandatory.* Whatever operating system you use. Windows XP and Mac OS X 10.2 include one built-in; otherwise, you'll need to download and install one yourself. If you use Windows, try ZoneAlarm; for Mac OS X, try Impasse or Brickhouse. I'm not sure what the options are for Mac OS 9...

Fallls Church, Va.: Hi Rob, nice hearing you on WAMU last week. I am still a Verizon DSL fan -- the customer service experience has been generally good. I had a problem with my (their) modem that took a while to diagnose but after I got the new one they gave me a month of service free. Last week they had problems with connectivity, my connection was like dial up. When I called to complain they gave me another free month for my trouble and the service was restored quickly. I think it is unrealistic to expect perfection from an ISP but when I call about a problem I want to get a human fairly quickly, I want them to acknowledge the problem and offer a solution/explanation. Verizon could improve the "acknowledge the problem" aspect but overall I am a happy camper.

Rob Pegoraro: Here's a positive report on one provider from one of the regulars here (thanks for the kind words about my appearance on Kojo's show :)

Bethesda Md.: As to Comcast, if you get Comcast cable the price I was given was $39,95 + $5 modem rental. They do acknowledge that one can buy their own modem BUT they will not offer service on it - only the rental. I have AOL DSL now but they raised the monthly fee by $12 in November now that makes it more expensive that Comcast

Rob Pegoraro: Sure, they won't offer service on it. That's where the manufacturer's own warranty comes in. But when's the last time a cable or DSL modem malfunctioned? These devices aren't like printers or CD burners; there aren't any moving parts inside. Unless a power surge fries the thing, your cable modem will probably outlast your computer.

Washington, D.C.: The pricing for every aspect of the PC revolution to date remains static while the service/technology improves, except Internet access. The market clearing price for Internet connection, regardless of dial-up, DSL, cable, etc., should be roughly $20 per month, give or take. When big broadband companies stop trying to roughhouse consumers into the $40/month price, that's when they'll see consumers jump on the broadband wagon.

Rob Pegoraro: Fair enough. But if it's that easy to offer broadband at $20/month, why hasn't somebody done it already?

(The answer is that people have -- other firms gave DSL away for free. And their businesses were not sustainable at that rate.)

Silver Spring, Md.: Can you tell us more about the new small ISPs using T1 lines and Wi-Fi? What kind of equipment do they need to be an ISP? What kind of reliability issues and technical issues do they have?

Rob Pegoraro: They don't need much hardware at all--one PC to act as the server, plus an upgraded WiFi antenna. (GeekSpeed's home page has a list of all of its gear -- it's not long to read.)

The basic issues are the same as with any other ISP: maintaining uptime and the promised speed. But there's the extra wrinkle of security, since regular WiFi connections make it fairly simple for other people to eavesdrop when you're not using a secure channel -- for instance, shopping at an encrypted page or using an SSL logon for your e-mail.

(It's also worth noting that other people can try to sniff your online traffic even if you're not using wireless; WiFi just makes it easier to look for *your* data, since you can just drive up to somebody's house to listen in directly.)

Alexandria, Va: I have a Three part question. What is broadband and how is it faster than dail-up? I now have over the phone access to AOL. Do I have to get a new address if I go to a broadband service?

Rob Pegoraro: Broadband is high-speed, always-on access. Both parts are important:

* High-speed usually means at least 300 kbbps, or about 6x modem downloads;

* Always-on means you never have to sit through the modem's screech. If you want some data off the Net, you can get it immediately.

AOL does offer broadband service over DSL, and you can also switch your account to a bring-your-own-access plan and use that over some other broadband connection.

But it may be cheaper to switch entirely to a separate broadband ISP.

Bethesda, Md: Can I connect both a Mac and PC to a cable modem installation? How difficult is it to wire my house for networking?

Rob Pegoraro: You can only connect one computer at a time to a cable-modem (or DSL) connection. To share that you'd need either Ethernet cables and a router, or a WiFi setup. We plan on doing another review of wireless-networking gear towards the end of March, FYI...

Falls Church, Va., Follow up: With all due respect- my Westall modem from Verizon did "break" in about 3 mos. It was "losing packets". Apparently it is a rare problem b/c the tech support people tried all kinds of things before finally concluding the modem must be bad, of course I kept saying "guys we've tried all these trick before, how about a new box" Did the trick. Tina

Rob Pegoraro: First time for everything, I guess...

Silver Spring, Md.: Have you ever heard of highstream.net. I know of no one locally who has used them, but I heard about them on a talk show. One of the researches I did gave them a 7 or 8 out of 10.

Rob Pegoraro: This is the first I've heard of this company, and so all I can tell you is that, well, its Web site appears to be professionally done. I'd try searching on its name at groups.google.com, to see if it's drawn any favorable or negative mentions in newsgroups.

Olney, Md.: For the Comcast customer: CHECK WITH COMCAST BEFORE YOU BUY A CABLE MODEM!

They will not accept any old DOCSIS compliant modem, they must have the exact model in their database. I bought a 3Com cable modem that's supposed to a stripped-down version one of their more popular models, and should be recognized as that popular model. When I tried to set it up, Comcast asked me for the serial number, and then said "Sorry, the -popular model] has a 14-digit serial number, so if you don't have that serial number, we can't enable it."

(Yes, I tried faking the extra numbers, but that didn't work. But then the "authorized" cable modem that I bought didn't work until the third time I called them.)

Rob Pegoraro: One caveat with Comcast and cable-modem purchase...

Washington, D.C.: Great resource, but people might also want to check out the CNET ISP guide, which has some (seemingly independent) ratings. A few months ago I used their guide to find highstream.net; $52 for 6 months no frills dialup. So far, so good.

Rob Pegoraro: Alright, here's one posting in favor of the ISP I just mentioned. People are now starting to read my mind!

Bethesda, Md: What's the deal with high-speed wireless access. The 'in-crowd' seems to think it's the wave of the future, but so was bubble memory...

Rob Pegoraro: Depends if you mean WiFi or the various cell-phone-derived technologies. I have high hopes for WiFi myself, because it's cheap, it works and it's fairly simple to deploy. This isn't a fad; it is real, and I think it will lead to some really interesting results over the next year or so.

Washington, D.C.: Is it true that Sony will be replacing the T665 Clie' this month? Have you heard anything thing about the model?

Rob Pegoraro: One other non-ISP question. Knowing Sony, which has never kept a Clie model on the market for more than a few months before bringing out a replacement, I'm sure it has a newer version in store. PalmInfoCenter.com had some rumors about this possible successor a few days ago; it's worth a read if you're shopping, because this site has usually been correct in its Clie news.

Washington, DC: Re sharing a cable connection with both Macs and PCs: I've had two Macs and a PC wirelessly sharing a single Starpower connection for 2-3 years now. Apple's Aiport hardware and software makes it pretty easy, even across platforms. Starpower doesn't "support" such setups, but all that really means is that you can't call them with questions. They don't seem to object to it.

I'm sure you'll cover this in your upcoming story, but I wanted to offer some encouragement to the person who asked --

Rob Pegoraro: And thanks for doing so...

Silver Spring, Md.: Will the Post do a "business ISP" survey?

Rob Pegoraro: Maybe, but somebody else will have to do that. That would have to involve a different set of criteria and probably many more companies; as the *consumer* tech guy, it's going beyond my own expertise.

Adams Morgan, D.C.: I've noticed that my Erols (I guess they're owned by Starpower now, right?) dial-up connection has been performing poorly over the last few months, dropping me often during peak hours. My suspicions are that they are no longer adding infrastucture like dial-in modems to support their dial-up customers in a move to force us towards broadband. Is this a common practice among other dial-up providers? I'm not going to pay the current inflated prices for broadband...

Rob Pegoraro: I won't rule out any theories, but it wouldn't make much sense for Starpower to try to stage a forced march to broadband, since it can only offer high-speed access to a small set of its customers. Rather, I tend to go by that saying about never attributing to malice what can be attributed to incompetence (or, in this case, maybe not incompetence but neglect or inattention).

Baltimore: Has Consumer Reports ever rated the major ISPs?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes--they reviewed broadband service in the September '02 issue.

Rob Pegoraro: And that, folks, is all the chat we have for today. It's a busy news day here (under the circumstances, unfortunately so) and I have to turn my attention to deadlines. If I missed your question, you can e-mail me (rob@twp.com) or post a thought or question in this discussion forum.



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