Most people who connect to the Internet do so through an Internet service provider, or ISP. The ISP business is intensely competitive right now as thousands of entities offer their services -- from hackers operating out of a spare bedroom to giant telephone companies.

If you're not yet online and are looking for an ISP, or if you're dissatisfied with your current ISP, how do you choose?

One way is to investigate various ISPs by comparing performance, reliability, services offered, customer support, future viability and cost. Another is to take advantage of the testing and experiences of others.

The Ranking

Two computer magazines recently ranked national ISPs. PC magazine analyzed 13 different services by measuring reliability, comparing features and conducting a user satisfaction survey. EarthLink Network (800/395-8425) and Prodigy Internet (800/776-3449) received the "Editor's Choice" designations. "Honorable Mentions" went to IBM Internet Connection (800/455-5056) and Sprint Internet Passport (800/747-9428).

Earlier, PC World magazine performed a similar analysis with 12 national ISPs and awarded "Best Buys" to MindSpring (800/719-4332) and IBM Internet Connection. MCI Internet (800/550-0927) and SpryNet (800/777-9638) also did well.

CNET, an Internet-based computer news service, has regularly ranked ISPs based on readers' views. It's currently changing its rating methodology and doesn't provide ratings data. But, if you already have Internet access, you can still use the list of ISPs.

You can also get recommendations from trusted co-workers and friends or savvy sales people and support personnel at your local computer store. If you're already online, you can read the experiences and recommendations of others -- and their sometimes biting criticisms -- in the online discussions of local Usenet newsgroups.

Go Big or go Home?

One decision you'll have to make is whether to go with a large national ISP, such as those evaluated by the computer magazines, or a smaller regional or local provider. A number of industry analysts predict that there will be a shakeup in the ISP industry, with the larger players buying up the little guys or forcing them out of business.

Odds are that many of the stronger local ISPs will survive by providing niche services not available from the big boys. Even today, you'll likely find that a smaller ISP offers more personal service.

Here are some questions to ask any ISP you're considering:

* Do you have a POP (point of presence) that's a local phone call for me? If you can avoid it, you don't want to pay per-minute toll charges to the phone company each time you connect. This will depend on the type of phone service you have and the number and location of the ISP's POPs.

* Do you support my modem? Virtually all ISPs support 28.8K modems and most support 33.6K modems. Make sure they do so at the POP you'd be using. Also, if you have a newfangled 56K modem, make sure the ISP supports the kind you have -- either x2 or K56flex.

* Do you support my computer? Some ISPs are more friendly than others to less popular operating systems such as Mac or OS/2.

* What payment plans do you offer? Most ISPs offer unlimited access for $19.95 a month, but there are lots of options if you want to pay for multiple months in advance or use the service only a limited number of hours each month.

* Do you charge a setup fee? Going with an ISP that does means it will be more expensive to change ISPs if you're not satisfied.

* What type of software do you provide and how? This isn't a concern if you're switching providers, but if you're connecting for the first time, you'll want the process to be as streamlined as possible. The most helpful ISPs will mail you

Reid Goldsborough  |  Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.