Posted: June 3, 2011
The first step is knowing what you will use the Internet for. This will help you to decide which Internet Service Provider (ISP) and package is best for you.
Questions to ask yourself include:
Next you should ensure you have a basic understanding of the way Internet use is measured and charged. Finally, you can focus on the differences between what ISPs offer: speeds, data limits, costs and customer service.
If you are based in Accra, Ghana, use the data in this report on Ghanaian ISPs as a starting point for comparing ISP packages.
Make sure you know the difference between measurement of data and speed (see the graphics right and below) - these can easily be confused.
Every time you download or upload something, you are moving data around. Some of your Internet usage will involve larger files than others (see Size graphic, right).
This data movement is what you are paying an ISP to provide, and the more you want to download and upload, the more you can expect to pay.
Download speed is highly variable, and usually much slower than advertised. It is affected by weather (if wireless), time of day (if shared) and location. If you choose a non-wireless connection, the quality of the phone line will affect the maximum download speed. Some companies also offer different speeds depending on the time of day, e.g. faster speeds late at night and on weekends.
Upload speeds are normally slower than download speeds, which is something to consider if you plan on sending or uploading large quantities of large files (e.g. videos, photos).
The best way to determine actual speeds is to find someone using the ISP in your area and get their feedback, or even better try it out yourself.
There are two main ways ISPs will charge you:
These options require you to pay for the data directly. You usually buy credit in advance, which allows you to download and upload a certain amount of data.
One advantage of data download packages is that the ISP makes money only when it serves you with data. That means that if the connection goes down, it is strongly in their interests to get it working again. Similarly by providing high speeds, ISPs can encourage you to download more data, increasing their sales. This is one danger when using data packages: high speeds can prove to be expensive: you may end up downloading more than you expected, which means that you can quickly run through your data credit.
The key price consideration for data packages is the cost per MB. Usually you will pay less the more data you buy. However, most data packages expire after a certain amount of time whether you have used the data or not. Often this is 30 days from activation.
Fixed rate packages offer you the certainty of a fixed Internet budget. You pay a certain amount for a certain period (e.g. day, week, month) and you are able to use the Internet.
These packages often feature an "unlimited data" limit. However, in reality you are always limited by the maximum download speed. For example, a slow download speed will only allow you to download a small amount of data within a given period. ISPs providing “unlimited” packages have less direct incentive to fix broken connections or keep speeds fast. Only customer complaints and loss of reputation exert pressure on them to optimize connections.
Some options will require technicians to install equipment on your premises. There may be a time delay and cost involved. Other packages may include an activation fee, a daily charge or an equipment rental fee.
ISPs may offer free data packages or equipment on a time-limited basis, or when you sign up. Some ISPs offer additional services, such as free email accounts or web hosting.
Customer service should be easy-to-reach, courteous and knowledgeable. If something goes wrong with your connection, you need to be able to get help to restore it quickly. The quality of staff you interact with when looking for an ISP can provide you with some indication of the importance a company gives to service.
You may encounter staff without a firm understanding of the packages they offer, meaning they may provide factually incorrect information. Beware of salespeople trying to confuse you with jargon, and persist until they provide a clear explanation. If they cannot explain things simply, chances are they do not understand themselves, so ask to speak to someone else. Try and get any facts down in writing as well as the name of the person you are speaking to.