To connect your computer to the Internet, you'll need an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Some ISPs are large and well known, while others are literally one-person operations. Some companies limit their service to providing Internet access only. Others, such as a telephone or cable company, may offer Internet access as part of a larger package of services. You may also have access to fiber-optic service in your community. It is important to compare service providers and options to make sure you are getting what you want and the best deal possible to meet your needs.

If you have limited Internet expertise, you may want to start with one of the well-known ISPs. They usually offer user-friendly startup software. This software often includes features such as a browser, instant messaging, parental controls, and pop-up blockers. Many also offer 24-hour technical support. Of course, all of this convenience results in higher monthly user fees. Once you are comfortable with how the Internet works, you may discover you don't need all the "extras" and can switch to a lower-cost ISP.

Consider these factors when selecting a provider:

  • Speed. If all you want to do is check e-mail and read web pages, a dial-up connection may be enough. But if you want to download music or television shows or watch videos, you will need a faster connection with broadband access, such as a digital subscriber line (DSL), a cable modem, or satellite
  • Availability.. Which companies offer service in your area?
  • Wireless access. Can you get a wireless connection for other computers in your home?
  • E-mail. Do e-mail accounts come with the service? What will be the storage limit on your mailbox?
  • Software. Is any software required to activate the service?
  • Support. What kinds of support are available: phone, e-mail, chat, etc.? Is the support free?
  • Special Features. What services are provided for spam blocking, virus protection, instant messaging and chat rooms?
  • Terms of Service. Is there a limit to the amount of data you can use per month?
  • Cost. What is the monthly fee for the service? Are there fees for renting a modem or set up?

Bundling and Other Promotions

Do you want to get Internet, telephone, and TV service from the same provider? Buying a bundle of services from one provider can be a good deal, but could make it more difficult to change providers for any one service if you're tied into a long-term contract.

Special promotions such as introductory pricing may be enticing, but read the fine print. The promotion price probably does not include taxes or the cost of extra equipment or fees. Get all promises in writing. Ask when the special promotions end and what the post-promotion cost will be. Also find out whether you have to install any special equipment and whether the provider will help troubleshoot on the phone if you have any problems.

Some deals are available only online or by phone. Even if you have to order online, call the provider first to ask questions. When you are online, review any frequently asked questions, minimum system requirements, and fine-print terms and conditions. Read the entire customer service agreement and print a copy for your records. For help deciding on the best values from telephone, TV, and Internet service providers; filing a complaint; or learning more about consumer protections, contact the Federal Communications Commission.