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Money Tech | Personal Tech Make-Over

Frustrated User Seeks an ISP She Can Connect With

November 02, 2000|DAVID COLKER | david.colker@latimes.com

Even though Connie Kaplan goes online just a couple of hours each month, she's thinking about switching Internet service providers because of service glitches.

"When I call the line to get onto the service, it's busy unreasonably often," says Kaplan, who lives in San Diego and has been using CompuServe since she first ventured onto the Internet three years ago.

Kaplan, a nurse at the Grossmont Hospital Cancer Center, says her dial-up has also crashed several times while she was online, and worst of all, her access number has gone kaput for long stretches without getting attention.

"Twice in the last six months, the phone number I use was out for two days," she says. "I called them to find out what the trouble was, and they didn't know there was a problem. I think they should have known after all that time, but I had to tell them.

"It was very frustrating."

Even though Kaplan is interested in switching, she admits to being a bit of a technophobe and does not want to have to learn a whole new way to use the Internet. She is comfortable using Internet Explorer for her Web surfing, but she uses CompuServe's proprietary program for e-mail. Her daughter has promised to teach her how to use a different e-mail program if she switches.

Kaplan is willing to pay a few dollars extra each month for the prospect of better service, but what has also kept her on CompuServe is a cheap deal--$9.95 a month if she is online for less than three hours.

"That's helped me put up with some of the frustration," Kaplan says. Indeed, she reads and composes all her e-mail offline to keep from going over her limit, and she has never incurred extra charges.

When her three children--located in Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Seattle--persuaded her to go online, it was almost exclusively for e-mail. "Rarely a day goes by that someone hasn't e-mailed something to all of us as a group.

That's what we do, although I'm sure they send e-mail to each other individually if they want to say something about me they don't want me to read." She also keeps in touch via e-mail with her sister and several friends.

More recently, Kaplan began to use the Web to do research and keep track of stocks for her investment club. For that, she mostly uses Yahoo Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com) and Hoover's Online (http://www.hoovers.com).

Her current choices in Internet service providers are limited by the fact that her computer is a 1998 Macintosh Performa. Although Kaplan says she doesn't mind getting the steady stream of advertisements that come with the leading free providers--NetZero and Excite--neither of them is set up for Mac users. Likewise, MSN, owned by Microsoft, cannot be used by Macs.

America Online does allow for Macintoshes and is known for its ease of use, but Kaplan isn't sure she wants to deal with that company's unique interface. Besides, her main criterion is service, and in a J.D. Power survey earlier this year of customer satisfaction with Internet providers, AOL (as well as CompuServe) scored below the national average.

That leaves two main options: AT&T WorldNet and EarthLink, both of which scored well in the J.D. Power survey.

AT&T essentially offers three basic monthly price plans: $21.95 for unlimited use; $19.95 for up to 150 hours with 99 cents for each additional minute; and $9.95 a month for up to 10 hours with 99 cents per additional minute. But because AT&T automates both its Web site (http://www.att.net) and its information line, it was impossible to ask about any other discounts.

EarthLink's site (http://www.earthlink.com) gave information on basic plans but also listed a telephone number--(800) 327-8454)--for a live person. He described the two basic dial-up plans: $21.95 for unlimited access and up to six individual e-mail addresses or $19.95 for unlimited use and only one e-mail address.

There is a $25 activation fee, but it's waived if you sign up on EarthLink's home page. The representative also confirmed that Kaplan would have several access numbers available, all free from her home phone.

With a person to talk to, we could ask about discounts. As it turns out, Kaplan uses Sprint as her long-distance provider, which knocked $2 a month off the price. Even better, she has USAA insurance--available to members of the military and family members--and that took off an additional $4. Discounts are also available to Auto Club members.

With the discounts, the price for the basic, unlimited-use service came to $13.95.

Another plus for EarthLink was that it scored highest in customer care among all the providers in the J.D. Power survey. "It's something they've always been known for," said Kirk Parsons, who oversaw the survey.

But AT&T did do better on price for Kaplan's limited-use needs with its $9.95 plan.

As for making a final choice, Kaplan said she would have to confer with her daughter. "She has EarthLink and said it would be good for me," she said. "But I want to look at the AT&T too and see how it works. I want to make sure it's easy for me."

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