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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Computer Basics

Need to Access-orize? A Few Internet Tips

April 06, 1998|Kim Komando | Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author

This month, America Online began charging most subscribers $2 more a month for service. This may not seem like a lot of money, but consider this: AOL has a membership of about 11 million people. So, AOL's price increase could bring in an extra $22 million in income per month--a steep jump for essentially the same service it has always provided.

AOL's easy-to-use interface has helped many technologically challenged people get online. But faced with increasing prices, consumers should consider the value they receive for their dollars.

AOL offers several pricing plans (Keyword: New Pricing). There's the unlimited usage plan for $21.95 per month. If you pay for a year in advance, you can lower the rate to $17.95 a month. If you already have an Internet connection at home, school or work, you can get the "bring-your-own-access" rate of $9.95 monthly, which still gives users access to AOL's special features.

These monthly charges, however, do not include access to Premium Services. For example, some AOL online games cost $1.99 per hour, in addition to your regular monthly charges.

Whether because of the price increase or the general learning curve, many subscribers are now asking: Do I really need AOL?

The answer is simple: If you find yourself connecting to AOL and immediately launching your Web browser, with just an occasional glance at AOL's proprietary content, it's time to go shopping for an Internet service provider. Frankly, I haven't found a lot on AOL that is not available somewhere on the Internet.

So where can you get Internet access? One place could be your long-distance carrier or local telephone company. There are also plenty of big national providers, including EarthLink, Mindspring and Netcom. Expect to pay from $14.95 a month to $24.95 a month for unlimited Internet access.

The Internet search engine, Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), recently teamed up with MCI Internet to offer online access. The introductory rate is $14.95 per month for the first three months. If you're not an MCI customer, the cost rises to $19.95 per month, beginning with the fourth month and every month thereafter. Macintosh or Windows 3.0x users don't need to bother checking out the service, which is available only for Windows 95 users.

Price is only one consideration when shopping for Internet service. If you travel on business, you may want a national provider instead of a local provider. Larger Internet providers have local access numbers in most major cities, so no matter where you are, you can get online with a local call.

Many Internet access companies offer a free month of service just to try out things. The thought may occur to you to take each company up on its offer, try each for a month, then pick the one you like best. Not a bad idea, but I have one warning.

To get the free month, you need to supply a credit card number. This allows the company to charge you if you go over the allotted time.

Some Internet providers accept checking account information. Every month, they automatically withdraw money from your account to cover that month's charges. This works fine, as long as you have enough money in your account on the due date.

I've talked to many people who have attempted to cancel their Internet account after the trial period, only to find they are still being billed months later. All the people I've spoken to eventually resolved the matter, but the experience was none too pleasant.

Smaller local Internet companies shouldn't be overlooked. They often offer lower prices--in some cases as low as $9 per month when paid annually.

Of course, there are trade-offs. First, a local provider usually won't offer nationwide access numbers. If you need to use your account when traveling, you may end up with a hefty long-distance bill. Some local providers do provide an 800 number for nationwide access. But while the call is free, the access itself usually carries a per-minute surcharge.

In addition, there's a greater risk that a local provider could go out of business faster than a big-name national provider. You should check to see how long the company has been in business. In addition, a quick call to the local Better Business Bureau to check the company's track record can provide you with some information.

I wouldn't pay for a year in advance for local Internet access because the company could close its doors or lower its regular prices.

Another option to consider is free-net access. A free-net is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing Internet access to the masses, which means it's cheap. For example, the Los Angeles Free-Net (http://www.lafn.org), one of the country's most established free-nets, offers text-based Internet access (no graphics) for $20 a year, and full PPP (graphics) access for $40 a year.

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Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at komando@komando.com.

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