Internet Tutorials | John Faughnan | Robert Elson

Getting Connected



How can you connect to the Internet? This is changing all the time. In the old days (last year), you typically used a modem and a phone line to dial into an "Internet Service Provider" (ISP). Most people still connect this way, but now better, faster, alternatives are emerging, including "cable modem" or "DSL modem"[1] connections.

Depending on how you connect (phone, cable, DSL), you may not get a choice about who your ISP is.  For example, most DSL users in the Twin Cities pay a local telephone company, US West, for their DSL service and Internet services. Cable users may have MediaOne as both a cable service provder and an Internet service provider.

This is all changing very rapidly, and many national ISPs (like AOL) are scrambling to play in the high-speed access market (DSL and cable modem).

As of June 1999, this document remains useful for dial-up users and for some high-speed access users. (See also: Small ISPs and Rural Internet Access and MindSpring - A Typical ISP)


Dial-Up (Plain Old Telephone) Service

With dial-up access you have to select a company or organization that will provide your connection (Internet Service Provider, or ISP), just as you choose a telephone company for long distance service.

For some physicians, a local educational facility may provide a cheaper alternative. In some cases even non-alumni may join the alumni association, and qualify for quite cheap rates.

Be sure to read the Rules of Thumb section before you sign up!

High-Speed Access

As of mid-1999 there are two forms of high-speed access competing across the United States -- DSL (digital signal line) and Cable. Both are 4-10 times faster than dial-up access, but another key advantage is that your machine is always connected, there's no time spent waiting for a connection to be established. This 'instant-on' feature changes the way people use the Internet.

DSL and Cable each have advantages and disadvantages, but most markets don't have both available. The costs are typically $30-55/month, which is comparable to a second voice line and a dial-up ISP fee. Most persons won't start with high-speed access; this is still pioneering stuff! If you go this direction, you will want to consult with local users before choosing.

Recommended ISPs

These are national Internet Service Providers that we recommend. Prices are all pretty comparable, and all offer software packages, usually built around Internet Explorer. Only MacConnect clearly supports Macintosh users, though MindSpring has some support. These companies are likely to stay in business for a while. See also:

  1. MindSpring 800-719-4660
    A very strong ISP with staying power. Well known for their privacy advocacy and fight against junk email. Excellent for Windows 95 users, but I was unimpressed with their Macintosh support. Excellent customer service. MindSpring- A Typical ISP reviews their fees.
  2. Concentric Network 800-939-4262
    This ISP gets ranked because of their toll-free rates and excellent reputation. At $5.00/hr (minimum $10/month) this may be the best choice for many rural users.
  3. MacConnect 800-804-6094
    This is a new ISP, and I don't know it's track record. However Mac support is weak at many ISPs, and Macintosh users may want to look here.


These are some national ISPs you may hear of. In past years this has been a list of ISPs to avoid! However, it is impossible to deny that AOL (for example) is the the dominant player in the ISP marketplace. They have a disreputable history, but there are far fewer customer complaints now than there were in 1997. They have special appeal for families.

  1. America Online (AOL) 800-827-6364.
    The most popular and the most despised of Internet Service Providers. In the past I've recommended AOL for novices because of the ease of use of their service. They have, however, augmented their reputation for poor service by selling subscriber profiles to marketing services. They've even tried to sell phone numbers to telemarketers.
  2. AT&T WorldNet: 800-WORLDNET
    Another ISP with a bad history but a better present. They do well in service ratings, but I think business users are over-represented in those.
  3. Microsoft Network 800-386-5550
    Every Windows 95/98 machine is set up so that it's very easy to join MSN. They have a middling reputation for service and Microsoft never seems to know what do with MSN.

Local ISPs: Using The List

Local ISPs may provide more responsive and personal service than national ISPs. They can also go out of business!

The List ( is a reasonably comprehensive listing of every company that provides Internet access. It is a good way to locate a local or regional ISP.

Local universities can also be a source of inexpensive access, particularly for alumni. Sometimes you can join the alumni association, and get service, even if you never attended the school.

See also Small ISPs and Rural Internet Access.

Recommended Connection Strategy

Macintosh user Consider MacConnect or MindSpring.
Average User
AOL or MindSpring for novices or families. MindSpring or Concentric for more expert users, or consider a local ISP. Some persons spend a month or two with AOL then move on to MindSpring.
Rural User
Concentric Network may have the best rates, and it's service is also highly regarded.
Average User + Local Expert If you've got a local expert, who will set you up with a local ISP they know and like, then you can go with that choice.

Rules of Thumb for Selecting Your ISP

  1. Confirm that your ISP will support the modem you own at its maximum speed. If you don't own a modem yet some ISPs will recommend a type of modem or even a specific model.

  2. To test your providers service, ask them for their technical support and modem dial-up numbers. Try both numbers at peak usage times and see how long it takes to connect. You don't need a modem for this, you just want to see if the phone rings and is "picked up". If you can connect within 3 tries on 4 different days then you're pretty much ok.
  3. "The first one is free".
    Vendors will offer "free" product , knowing that once you've used it a while it will be hard to switch. In general, it's better to choose and ISP and stick with it.
  4. The ISP market is consolidating. In most cities the smaller ISPs are going into other services, and leaving the market to the medium to large providers.


[1] The DSL device is typically a "router" or "bridge" and not a "modem" at all. However the meaning of the word modem is changing, it's being increasingly used as though it meant "connection device".

Last Revised: 01 Feb 2002. Author: John G. Faughnan M.D. and Robert Elson M.D. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this and related pages are strictly those of the page authors. Anyone may link to or print out any of these pages.