One of the most common topics of conversation in cyberspace is finding a decent Internet service provider. Thus I'm happy to report this week not just on one, but on three that offer unlimited access for under $20 a month. All are large, established companies with a nationwide presence and the resources and experience to keep things running smoothly. And all offer excellent value.
The three are AT&T, which is offering Internet access via its new WorldNet service; MCI, which is offering a similar service, and CompuServe, whose new family-oriented Wow service includes unlimited Internet access for the lowest price of all.
If you follow these matters, you've no doubt heard that these three had entered the field, and perhaps you've been tempted to try them. I went ahead and did so, and here's what I found.
Wow, to begin with CompuServe's offering, is more than a mere Internet service provider, aiming instead to give America Online a run for its money as the premier family-oriented online service. It offers unlimited time online for $17.95 a month, including full-blown Internet access and six different "accounts," or online identities. In that sense, Wow is an unbeatable deal for heavy users.
Wow also offers a bevy of parental controls, a completely different look for adults and kids and, most of all, a level of on-screen organization, tutorials and ease of use that make the Internet more accessible to novices than has been possible before.
It's hard to imagine an easier service than Wow, which guides users with a series of large buttons and images so that everything is just a click or two away and one never feels lost. Wow is so simple, in fact, that some online veterans may find its approach simplistic if not downright constraining, but true geeks are free to run their own ftp and other clients on top of Wow.
To deliver all this ease of use, Wow requires some real horsepower on the desktop: at least a 486 PC running Windows95, a CD-ROM drive and a recommended 16 megabytes of RAM. Moreover, the full installation requires a gigantic 49 megabytes of space on your hard drive. A Macintosh version will be available in the fall, CompuServe says.
Wow is an especially good service for novices. Besides its great ease of use, Wow offers genuine 24-hour customer support and, unlike some in this field, actually trumpets its tech support number. It took me less than 20 seconds to reach a technical support person.
One of Wow's great strengths for families that plan to make real use of the service is price. Although America Online is only $9.95 a month for five hours, additional hours at $2.95 can really add up. Entire families can spend huge amounts of time on Wow at no additional cost. On the other hand, although Wow has announced partnerships with a number of content providers, it has a long way to go before it even comes close to America Online's uniquely compelling array of offerings for singles, hobbyists and chat fiends. The question now is whether America Online will lower its price.
I can't say I relish an Internet address as smarmy as email@example.com, but I suppose I'm being picky. You can get a free Wow CD-ROM disc, including a month of free service, by calling (800) 9GETWOW.
AT&T's WorldNet is also a good deal, especially for AT&T customers, who can get five free hours a month (and pay $2.50 an hour after that) for their first 12 months on the system. Those who plan to spend more than 13 hours a month online should consider WorldNet's flat-rate service for $19.95 a month. Those who aren't AT&T long-distance customers can have the same for $24.95 a month.
AT&T has been so inundated with customers calling to sign up that there is a wait of several weeks for those seeking disks (the company provides software, including a customized version of Netscape Navigator). Almost overnight, WorldNet has acquired more than a quarter of a million users. Although the existing software works under Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, a full-blown Windows 95 version is planned for release in about a month, as is a Macintosh version.
In limited testing, I found the AT&T service quite good. Installation was simple, and AT&T's servers were a speedy change of pace from the sluggishness I've come to expect from many Internet providers. Netscape comes preinstalled with bookmarks for some useful sites, and AT&T also carries just about every newsgroup you could want--including, to my surprise, the raunchier ones.
For now, it's basic Internet access, but a spokesman said that by summer users will be able to establish their own pages on the World Wide Web with free software AT&T will distribute. AT&T will also offer high-speed ISDN access, although the price hasn't been set.
You can sign up by calling (800) WORLDNET. Their home page is at http://www.att.com/worldnet/wis/.