You signed up with AOL because it was the first disk you received in the mail. Or maybe you're a veteran Internet user on the Well for more than a decade. But just because your ISP was your first love doesn't mean it's the right partner for your business needs today.
Is it time to split? Answer these questions about your current ISP to decide whether you should stay or switch:
1. Is it hip with the times? What's your current ISP's relationship with new technology? When does it plan to implement cable modems, DSL lines or ISDN capabilities (if it hasn't already)? If it maxes out at 56 Kbps and you've got the need for speed, shop around for an ISP that can keep up.
2. Is your ISP committed to fighting and blocking unsolicited e-mail? Would your current ISP sell your name and contact information to spammers? If your privacy and an uncluttered inbox are important to you, maybe it's time to say goodbye.
3. Is it there when you need it? Everyone needs help navigating the network sometimes. Does your ISP consistently offer educational tech support for free, 24/7? Many do. Does it respond promptly? Good service can be found elsewhere. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to dial in for the 20th time without results.
Hint: Test out a new ISP before you switch. Call its dial-up number during peak hours, and make sure you hear a modem screech. If you hear a busy signal after calling once or twice, move on to test another service.
4. How often are you on the road? If you travel a lot, you'll want to make sure your ISP has local dial-up numbers wherever you go. Many ISPs offer a toll-free dial-up, saving you long-distance charges, but you often pay a flat hourly rate for the convenience.
5. Can your ISP meet your business's needs? How important is the Web to your business? Some companies offer multiple e-mail addresses at no additional cost, while others charge $5 or more a pop. Estimate your needs before you compare monthly rates for Internet access.
Some ISPs support e-commerce options such as online credit card purchasing, shopping carts or encryption for your site; some don't. Make sure your site is hosted by someone who can help your business grow.
6. Are you paying the best price? If you're online just for e-mail, metered or hourly rates may be the best option. If you're online all day, though, a flat fee is better. Most ISPs charge about $20 a month for a modem connection. If you're getting special features (or need them), how does your ISP compare?
Web geek Karen Solomon (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about technology and e-business for a number of publications, including Wired and Business 2.0.