Dirt-cheap dial-up

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - Why pay US$20 or more each month for Internet access? Dial-up deals abound--an increasing number of national firms offer Internet access for as little as $5 monthly.

Value-priced ISPs offer a competitive alternative, and some customers are switching. For example, America Online reports it lost 846,000 subscribers in the second quarter of this year. Many switched from dial-up to broadband, but others chose cheaper dial-up service, says Dominic Ainscough, a Yankee Group senior analyst. He says the only major ISP gaining dial-up subscribers is United Online Inc., which sells several budget services, including Juno and NetZero.

United Online is the value-ISP market leader, but it's not the only option--or the cheapest. Access4Less.net and 650DialUp are less than $7 a month, and 550Access promotional rates start at $4.75.

"Ask not why we are so cheap, ask why they are so expensive," points out Vivek Dave, president of VIP PowerNet, which owns 550Access. Anthony Minnessale, president of 650DialUp, agrees. "The last line of defense in ISP competition is offering the best price," he says.

Check It Out

But with the bargains come trade-offs: You'll find subpar customer support; caps on your monthly usage; and some disparity in technical support, newsgroup access, Web-hosting space, and even e-mail features

PC World informally tested five very inexpensive ISPs (550Access, 650DialUp, Access4Cheap, Access4Less.net, and AllVantage) for two weeks. We gauged their performance against that of NetZero, which is a budget ISP but not dirt-cheap; and EarthLink, which charges the standard $22-per-month fee. We tested the ISPs in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco for network availability and throughput.

The bandwidth and overall performance of all seven ISPs were consistent and comparable as gauged by PC Pitstop's Download Bandwidth Test. (PC World licenses PC Pitstop's technology.) All ISPs had occasional minor performance hiccups with our 56-kilobits-per-second modem (speeds fell to 12 kbps at times), but speeds averaged 28 to 33 kbps; highest was 40 kbps. The low-cost ISPs performed on a par with both EarthLink and NetZero. We got no busy signals and only three dropped connections (including once each from EarthLink and NetZero). All the companies have local access numbers nationwide.

All the ISPs offer free tech support by e-mail, but charge for phone contact. Each replied within 8 hours to a simple e-mail query.

What's the Deal?

Cheap ISPs have drawbacks: Access numbers may change with little or no notice (this happened with two of the ISPs), and the services are not intended for constant connection; many drop you if you idle for 10 minutes, and some limit your monthly hours. And there's the risk that the ISP won't survive on its superthin profit margins and will go out of business without warning.

So before you sign up, read the fine print. Some ISPs may require you to view ads in exchange for low rates. (None of the services we tested did; NetZero Platinum puts a thin toolbar on your screen with no ads but links to popular Web sites.) Contracts should spell out such terms.

Do your research. ISP directories are available at several sites, such as TheList.com and Freedomlist.com. Call the ISP to try to reach a person. And be wary of signing a long-term service contract: It might be cheaper, but you'll lose out if the ISP goes under--and you'll still have to pay if performance tanks. Even month-to-month, low-cost ISPs can save you plenty of money.

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More about America OnlineEarthLinkNetZeroPC PitstopPowernetUnited OnlineYankee Group

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