Second, look behind the name. Some two dozen companies provide nationwide networks or "backbones," Mr. Rickard notes. At this writing, AT&T Corp. was not one of them.
Sprint Corp. and MCI Communications Corp. are the dominant U.S. Internet carriers -- the latter offers lines as fast as 622 (Mbps). Typical backbone trunk lines, called "T-3s" in the trade, move data at 45 Mbps.
Most importantly, which ISP to use may not be your decision. If you trust another company to host your Web site its ISP connections will usually come with it. If you're working with a third-party design firm, it may have a Web hosting firm in mind, and that firm in turn may designate your ISP.
Still, there are some things you should know about ISPs, their problems and challenges, which can help you react as change occurs in this fast-changing market.
The nature of the Internet changed for all time in 1995 when the National Science Foundation turned off its backbone service, NSFnet, and left the job in the hands of private companies.
Today, the main bottleneck in building a national network is "peering," linking to backbone network operators through switches called network access points (NAPs). There are four official NAPs in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and near Philadelphia. In theory, any ISP can connect to them.
Service providers build backbones linking various cities by leasing long-distance lines and placing routers, which are devices to route data traffic, at each end of those lines. These connect to other backbone providers through the NAPs.
LINKS RUN HOT
An ISP's reach is extended by running slower lines from its backbone locations to points of presence (POPs) in smaller cities. Many of these links are "running hot," in the words of Ron Murtrie, executive director of integration services for internetMCI in Reston, Va., and use all their available capacity or bandwidth all the time.
When analyst Harry Fenik of Redwood City, Calif.-based Zona Research recommends you get a "reliable vendor close to the Internet backbone," he's suggesting you locate your Web server near the end points on the fastest lines, usually in major cities. And you'll want redundancy, access to multiple lines or ISPs, so if one goes down you stay up.
Here's why geography matters. Only one backbone provider, BBN Planet of Cambridge, Mass., terminates a 45 Mbps backbone link in Jackson, Miss. Only GoodNet of Phoenix has such a link to Birmingham, Ala.
By contrast, nearly every backbone provider terminates backbone links in Washington, San Francisco and Chicago.
Below the backbone operators on the ISP food chain are regional providers. Some are descended from academic networks, like CERFnet in California. Others are regional phone companies, like BellSouth Corp. or Ameritech Corp.
Next are ISPs, which offer neither their own backbone nor an especially strong regional presence. They may lease backbones from other providers, like AT&T and Atlanta-based MindSpring Enterprises, but they may also offer extensive support and Web site-hosting capabilities, says Mr. Rickard.
Some ISPs point out their advantages vs. traditional telephone companies:
"We have 21,000 corporate users," says Tony Kelly, director of corporate marketing for PSInet, Herndon, Va., "and they understand the difference between circuit-switched voice, with the Internet being 1% of their business, and a PSInet, with a network designed, dedicated and doing nothing else but carrying Internet traffic. We've done nothing but Internet for eight years."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Ask ISPs for advice and you'll get a series of sales pitches that offer opportunity and points for comparison.
"Pricing is just one component of selecting an ISP," says Mr. Murtrie of MCI. A carrier's reach, capacity, service, breadth of offerings and price all need to be considered.
Phone companies such as MCI can make up for higher prices by bundling 800-number call centers, voice services, Web hosting, even wireless services with their Internet access.
"The Internet is just one in a broad set of communication needs," notes Keith Foster, product manager for AT&T's WorldNet Managed Internet Service.
Another consideration is how an ISP sets your price.
"Tiered" pricing costs less per megabit, but it caps your bandwidth at a specific level, explains Mike Tobin, U.S. marketing communications manager at UUNet Technologies, Fairfax, Va. "Burstable" pricing offers the full 45 Mbps speed of the T-3 backbone to you.
Burstable pricing may be important if you can't predict how much traffic you'll get, notes AT&T's Mr. Rickard.
If a television network mentions your site, or a news event leads to an explosion in traffic, Internet users tend to "rush to the rail," as at the end of a horse race. Fail to serve them, and they "get a dim view of your Web site and company," he says.
A LOAD SOLUTION
Backbone provider AGIS Inc., Dearborn, Mich., whose customers include Pacific Bell, Bell Atlantic Corp. and MindSpring, offers a solution called CooLocation, which mirrors your site in different places among its backbone offices, spreading the load when more bandwidth is needed.
"Peering," the process by which Web traffic moves between networks, can also become complicated. "It's difficult to get a grip on who peers with who and why," says Mr. Rickard.
SAVVIS Communications Corp., St. Louis, is dealing with the problem by building its own private NAPs (P-NAPs), where it has bought the right to pass traffic to MCI, UUNet and Sprint.
"This means 300% faster throughput through the Internet," says SAVVIS VP-marketing Burton Roberts.
But Paul Baer, product manager at BBN Planet, says P-NAPs add to the number of links a packet must travel to reach its goal. Each link adds a slight delay to a packet's transit time.
The result is high "latency," which you can measure on your own Internet connection the same way a router does, with a program called Ping.
Type in a destination, hit enter, and you will see the time, in milliseconds, the packet took to travel from your PC to its destination and back.
BUILD YOUR OWN INTERNET
There's another solution, says Scott Eagle, VP-marketing for Concentric Network Corp., Cupertino, Calif.
You can build your own "virtual private Internet," as Concentric has done for such companies as Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit, offering your customers Internet access at a low price under your brand name.
And don't automatically buy that phone company jargon about a multiuse network being better, Mr. Eagle adds. "All our management has come from data. They're in voice and they're still learning. Their networks are also designed for voice. Our network has been designed for high-performance data."
BUYER KNOW THYSELF
Mr. Rickard agrees. "We're seeing some relatively small companies with 100 Mbps connections at the NAP and good peering, and some large companies who can't get the job done."
So what's a poor bit buyer to do?
First, know your needs:
Second, shop carefully. Don't restrict your search to names you know -- those you don't know may provide better service, better pricing, or both.
CHANGE IS CONSTANT
Finally, don't get locked in. Change is constant in the world of ISPs. What works today may fail tomorrow.
"Anyone's customers are up for grabs with the next technology announcement," says Mr. Rickard. Or the next merger, notes Mr. Fenik of Zona Research.
And if you're big and geographically dispersed, but find that no carrier meets your needs, you can always buy routers and lease lines, and make your own way.
"If you want a private network, build a private network," concludes Mr. Fenik. Peer with a NAP, and you could be the next hot ISP.