How to Kick the Tires Before Taking a Spin On the Internet

Choosing the least expensive connection to the Internet is a lot like buying a car. Picking the right model depends on your habits.

Will you roar down the information superhighway five days a week or use it only occasionally? Is time so valuable that only the speediest connection will do, or can you afford a slower, second-hand connection? Here are some guidelines for conducting your own cost/benefit analysis of Internet service:

Probably the best way to get on-line is to join a university. There's loads of customer support, the connections are usually speedy, and the service is free (except for that small matter of tuition).

The Internet isn't for everybody. Newcomers to the on-line world will probably want to dip their toe in the water before plunging head first into the on-line world. For them, the Microsoft Network, which debuts next week, is a pretty good deal. The service will allow first-time users to sample the Internet for three hours a month for $4.95. That monthly fee is about 20 percent cheaper than the $9.95 for five hours of use that CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy all charge. Of course, the comparison isn't entirely fair because these services differ quite a bit. In addition to Internet access, they all boast their own on-line offerings. CompuServe is best for users looking for on-line help to their computer problems. America Online has by far the best news sources. Microsoft's service is still an unknown commodity.

Some newcomers don't want all those extras, just Internet access. Find out if your community or state offers inexpensive access to the network. This may be the way to go if the service is relatively speedy and you can make a local call. (Remember: You also have to pay the phone company for connecting to the Internet service, so make sure your access number is local.)

Another option is companies that specialize in Internet access. One of the better deals among these access providers comes from Performance Systems International (PSI). Its Pipeline USA plan lets users test the Internet for $5 a month for five hours. For many of you, three or five hours a month is all the Internet you'll ever need. That's plenty of time to shoot off electronic mail to friends and check your mailbox for their replies. Electronic mail is the single best thing about the Internet.

Other users, however, want the whole Internet smorgasbord. They like to browse the graphical World Wide Web, download computer games, and check Usenet groups that are organized around specific topics. Once these users exhaust their three to five hours a month - which is very easy to do - per-hour fees of $2 to $3 add up quickly. For them, CompuServe, Prodigy, and Microsoft have frequent-user plans, which average around $1 an hour for 20 to 30 hours of use. America Online plans one soon. But Internet access providers may save you more.

For example, I've been using Netcom for the past two months, which offers 40 hours of access for $19.95 a month. In addition, users have unlimited access on weekends and from midnight to 9 a.m. weekdays.

Find out about your provider's customer service. And pay close attention to speed. Since the Internet can be as slow as molasses, it usually pays to get the fastest local connection you can - at least 14.4 kilobits-per-second (kbps). Heavy Internet users should seriously consider getting a 28.8 kbps modem and a service provider with equally speedy connections. For you, the Internet is the fast lane, after all.

*Send comments or questions via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or write me care of: The Christian Science Monitor; One Norway St.; Boston, MA 02115.

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