Still using an ordinary phone line to get online? If so, you may feel like a kid with his nose pressed against a toy-store window. Inside are the lucky kids with those always-on DSL or cable modems, happily downloading a dozen times as fast as you can and not having to go off-line every time Mom wants to call. But times are tight, and you don't have a lot of extra cash to shell out every month. How can you afford to join their party?
Take heart. There are still more of us outside the window than in. (About 54 million households in the U.S. dial into the Internet, 11 million use cable modems, and 5.4 million get DSL.) Cable companies and especially telcos are getting desperate to lure you into the toy store, and prices for that access are plummeting. Just watch out for the attached strings.
Bell South is trying to tempt customers with a service called DSL Lite--a sixth of the speed of regular DSL (but still five times as fast as 56K dial-up) for $34.95 a month, a $10 discount on the telco's regular DSL. But that's highly expensive compared with offers in the North and West. Verizon and SBC have both dropped their full-speed DSL service to $29.95 a month. The catches: Bell South and Verizon make you buy a bundle of services on your phone line or pay $5 a month extra, while SBC's offer is guaranteed only until September.
Because they already have the lion's share of broadband, cable companies have been slower to slash prices. The exception is New York's RCN, which recently rolled out Value Modem, its version of DSL Lite, for $29.95 a month. Yes, you have to buy a cable-service bundle to get that price--but you also get a $5-a-month discount if you supply your own modem.
If none of these offers are tempting enough, you could try boosting your dial-up speed. Earthlink and NetZero already offer free accelerators as part of their service; America Online (which, like this magazine, is part of AOL Time Warner) will add one when it launches AOL 9 later this summer. Basically, accelerators add a software layer on top of your browser that compresses data and saves Web pages in a format that lets you surf at up to three times the speed of regular dial-up. That's not a huge improvement, but at least it gets you a little way into the toy store. --By Chris Taylor