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Michael K. Johnson

Issue #6, October 1994

For Internauts, finding a port of call can be a trying experience. I recently ran the gauntlet of choosing a commercial Internet access provider (do I have enough mixed metaphors yet?) and would like to share my experiences, both good and bad.

The other day, I started shopping, both for a Unix shell account, and for a SLIP or PPP connection that allows my home Linux network to become a real part of the Internet. Because I almost always use the Internet after 5:00pm, I made my calls in the evening, in order to find out whether I could expect to find anyone available to fix problems that occur when I am logged on. I’ve gone through this exercise before, and found myself frustrated. This time, it ended up better.

Since I’m going to divulge conversations that I had with providers, and since I didn’t record the conversations to have as proof if I were to be sued, I’m not going to divulge the names of the providers I didn’t choose. But never fear; by calling major Internet service providers and asking the right questions, you can get the same answers I did (more or less) and play “match the provider”. And if they have come up with better answers in the meantime, then my comments no longer apply to them; it’s up to you to decide what you want.

When I called service provider “A”, I was given a low price for a standard Unix shell account with unlimited access time and a 5MB limit. Everything sounded quite good until I said the magic word “SLIP.” “A” said that it provides SLIP connections only with MS-Windows software. I explained that I use Linux, and that their Windows software was useless to me: I wanted to be a part of the Internet. They assured me in no uncertain terms that Linux support was coming someday, but declined to say when. I explained that Linux comes with SLIP and PPP support, and asked what they intended to do differently. The answer? “Oh, that’s a technical question! I can’t answer that! Call our technical support at 123-555-5555 and ask them.”

I was not interested in paying a toll call to hear someone explain why “A” couldn’t support my operating system of choice, so I did not call back. On the other hand, they probably weren’t interested in paying to explain to me why they wouldn’t support my operating system of choice right now, and why they have to write their own SLIP for Linux, so the feeling is most likely mutual. I was angry enough to choose never to buy any Internet services from them. Many customers couldn’t care less.

It was still late afternoon or early evening; before supper, anyway; when I called “B”, with high hopes. Inexpensive, unlimited SLIP and shell access in one package, for a rather low fee. The person who answered the phone was not able to answer any questions, and did not even have any local modem numbers. She was able to take a message for someone to call me back the next day. Well, she said someone would call back. I haven’t received a return call yet. Furthermore, the modem number advertised in “B”’s advertisement (one could, in theory, log in and try out their service before making a purchase) didn’t even ring. Still hoping, I called the help desk number that they advertised, thinking that they could help me make a connection. I let the phone ring for a minute or two, until the phone company cut off the connection, but they never answered the phone.

Another service provider, “C”, had very good service: they were available in the evening, have V.Fast class modems, the sales people are well-versed in technical issues, and they don’t mind users using Linux to connect. Unfortunately, unlimited SLIP would have cost me a $300 setup fee and $300/month. It was not clear that I could have Internet traffic for both of my home machines routed at that price; I might have had to buy a commercial connection to get that. Furthermore, my machine would have to be in their domain: mymachine.foobar.c.net instead of mymachine.mydomain.org.

And so it goes, and so it went, and went, and went, until I called (and here I break the anonymity rule; I doubt they will sue me for a pleased report of their service) Vnet. It was a little later now, but the person I spoke to on the phone was technically good. And the service was inexpensive: $25/month for a full shell account (up to 80 hours/month), and $50/month (with a one-time $15 setup fee) for unlimited SLIP or PPP access. I said that I would like to start with a shell account and move to a SLIP or PPP account soon, and that was fine with them.

Now it really got good. When I mentioned that I was currently connected through sunsite.unc.edu, he said, “Are you a Linux user?” I responded that I am; I have two machines running Linux. “Are you?” I asked. “Installed Slackware a few weeks ago. I love it. It’s the best way to connect to the net.” (As I said, I didn’t record this call; I may not be quoting him perfectly. Bear with me.) “Oh, and when you convert to SLIP, we will give you a dip script that you simply change a few words to configure for your machine, and it will dial in and connect you properly.” We went on to chat about Linux and Linux Journal and get the account details set up, and 15 minutes later my account was ready.

When I logged on that night, I sent e-mail to their on-line help desk, and got fairly quick responses, even after midnight. I don’t know that they always have someone on-line after midnight, but the replies I got were quick, helpful, and friendly.

There is hope. Just when you think that you have to hide the fact that your computer is running Linux in order to get a service provider to allow you to connect, your luck may turn. You can find a helpful provider. Spend the time asking potential service providers tough questions, and the good ones will shine through. I’m sure Vnet isn’t the only good service provider, and they might not even fit your circumstances, but you can’t know without asking: info@vnet.net or (voice numbers) (800)377-3282 or (704)334-3282. Check local computer papers for advertisements for local service providers that I can’t direct you to. Several books are available in most bookstores that carry computer-oriented books that have much more exhaustive lists of local, national, and international service providers. Assume that any pricing data in the books is out of date; prices drop unevenly all over, regularly.