Help Desk for Internet

An Internet consumer guide is necessary for the continued vitality of the Internet and even for the sake of its providers

s an old jazz crooner once mused, "to make life worth livin,' all you need is a good travel agent, seafood, and an Internet access provider with a 24/7 help desk."

Indeed. While the first two are fairly readily available, sometimes the other one ain't. It's like the joke about the guy who goes down to the 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee at 3 a.m., only to find the hired help locking the door. "Your sign says 'Open 24 Hours,' " he says indignantly, to which the attendant shrugs, "Yeah, but not in a row."

In today's marketplace, you're pretty much guaranteed good seafood, and travel agents learned to play the airlines like horse races. But with Internet access, no consumer group or regulating force has emerged to tell anyone what they should expect for their money.

Should your modem be repeat-dialing 35 times to poke through a constant busy signal? Are you dialing direct to a network link, or is your access provider at the mercy of Sprint, Bell Atlantic or the NSFNet? If so, you may be getting ready to do some business one day when the phone company decides to realign its power grid. If your provider goes through the NSFNet's backbone, your connection is history come April. Is someone trying to sell your business on the idea of hooking up to a T3, even though you have a 56K leased line in place? Does your agreement contain a lot of words such as capable?

This is not an argument for government regulation of the Internet access market, no, no, no. We saw what that did to airlines and trucking. But a consumer guide for the rapidly growing commercial Internet community - that is, neophyte businesses and casual individual users - is necessary, for the continued vitality of the Internet and even for the sake of its providers. The latter is especially true as the competition for your Internet business grows more fierce.

For instance, some providers might give you a help-line number to their network command center. Fuzzy, warm feeling of security, right? When you call them, you might get the center, and a cheerful attendant who can actually look right up at the high-tech nerve center board and tell you that, yes, indeed, your part of the network is down. A 24/7 help desk could mean that someone is, indeed, on hand to answer the phone 24 hours a day.

Rick Adams of UUNet, based in Falls Church, Va., already has gotten a start on informing the consumer. A year ago he assembled a guide to selecting an Internet provider as part of the company's AlterNet service (alternet-info@alter.net). Despite UUNet's obvious self-interest, there's plenty of read-between-the-lines grist in there for a modern-day Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair. Good caveats, too - not to mention a great quote that would look great on the opening page of an Internet consumer's guide: "There will be a shakeout in the Internet service business, and only the strong will survive."


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