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Guide to Selecting an ISP


There are now a considerable number of Free ISPs to choose from. I initially looked at the Dixons Freeserve internet access from the point of view of OU students who are obliged to use a commercial ISP to access FirstClass and the web. I have been a user of Freeserve from almost the start and it is still the standard by which all others must be judged and mostly found wanting.

I have looked at many alternatives and usually have 6 or more ISPs loaded on the main machine to choose from. CompuServe, although unreliable, at last now offers pay on use option and has survived because some people still use our email address at CompuServe and enter our web sites through the CompuServe homepage. The OU service was first restricted to tutors only then withdrawn - that must count as one of the most costly mistakes the OU has ever made by restricting the service when others were exploiting the opportunity (The share price has at times valued every Freeserve client at about a thousand pounds and the OU had 50,000 captive users!). The others all offered something additional when they were loaded.

There is now a further comprehensive review looking at ISPs for Small Business use in the new Small Firms section of the web site.

It is worth briefly examining why Freeserve is so successful. Firstly it is very fast and they have always kept up with demand - I have never in 21 months had a busy line and rarely fail to negotiate a connection first time. Freeserve is fast because it is on the Energis backbone, uses the latest Internet standards and has a cache between you and the main web so much of the time there is a local copy of the pages you are accessing. Secondly Freeserve set very high standards and keep you informed - any interuption to service is not considered acceptable and there will be advanced warning for even a few minutes planned outage and explanations for delays or outages available almost immediately on their Web site and Newsgroup. The management and technical staff at Planet Online which provide the service are extremely professional in their approach - they have also responded to the views of their users. Thirdly their original help pages were excellent and usually enough to solve problems and perhaps most important of all they initiated many dedicated newsgroups full of people who were very knowledgeable and willing to help people at every level. I have never needed to ring their help lines.

So why does one need any other ISP other than Freeserve? The approach which gives them the edge in performance can have occasional drawbacks - 99.9% of the time you never know a cache is present except that you get access only limited by your modem and telephone line, however there were a few ISPs/Domains which did not initially implement standards rigorously and sites implemented particular security barriers where I suspected this could be a problem. I felt it desirable to have a fallback and that led to my installing Telinco (now called Tiscali after a series of takeovers). Another compromise is in Dial-up access - to avoid misuse of the system Freeserve demand that Caller Line ID (CLID) is enabled which can rule out use through some switchboards and use from some contries. They have now enabled partial functionality enabling web use and accessing mail without CLID but you must use their telephone numbers with CLID to send mail or upload a web site.

Other providers now offer additional specialist features and that is why I have investigated most of the other providers. BTcellnet's Genie was an excellent service but is no more since Cellnet became O2. Freezone not only offers a very good and reliable free service (using Tiscali (which was called Telinco before a series of takeovers and mergers) to provide most of the basic facilities) but also offers a very cost effective Domain Name hosting service linked back to hosting packages - for under 75 you can set up the first year of a .co.uk domain or 85 a .com domain. I used an even better early offer for hosting pcurtis.com .It also has a free email virus checking service which alone makes it a top choice. The Prudential 's Egg Internet Service is worthy of watching as it promises access to a group of ISPs offering local call access in many coutries although it is not clear if that will be free.

Features of Selected ISPs

Provider Email No Web Space POP any DUN Upload any DUN SMTP any DUN Web Mail SMS Domain Name Hosting Global Access Backbone
Freeserve Many 15 Y           Energis
Freezone 3 20 Y       Y   Tiscali
CompuServe 1 5 Y Y         Y CS
Egg 5 10 Y Y         ? C and W
Tiscali 1 50 Y     Y   Y   Tiscali


Is there a best buy? There is no simple answer and it is sensible to keep ones options open with a portfolio of providers - see my page Using Multiple ISPs for how to set up a new ISP and live with several. Freeserve still comes at the top of my list of suggestions for core holdings for most users but it needs more care to install without problems on your system than most. Read my Freeserve Guide and Tips page before installing it and you will minimise interactions on your machine. If you are looking for a provider with web signup with virtually no information needed Freezone has proved good and they offer very cheap domain name registration and hosting which I use for my own site . I have used Telinco (now called Tiscali for new users) since the start and there is a Telinco/Tiscali Guide and Tips page - others I know are very satisfied. Egg has some benefits but read my page Egg's Internet Service before loading their CD especially if you use IE5.

The field is moving fast - this is a snapshot and my choices for investigation have been biased by our needs for mobile access in the UK and abroad. Check the date at the bottom of this page!

The views here are entirely our own and are not endorsed in any way by the Open University, Freeserve Ltd or any of the other ISPs mentioned. What is written on these pages is our own experiences and is not intended to replace in any way the documentation supplied with any of the Open University, Freeserve or other provider's software.

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Content revised: 5th August, 2002
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