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INTERNET PROVIDER POLL GIVES NOD TO UPSTARTS.

Byline: Dave McNary Staff Writer

MindSpring Inc., a fast-moving upstart in the world of the Internet, scored a body blow against industry powerhouse America Online in a survey released Wednesday.

Atlanta-based MindSpring, which invites potential customers to ``Escape AOL!'' ranked highest in overall customer satisfaction among the seven largest national Internet Service Providers, according to a J.D. Power and Associates survey.

Meanwhile, three long-established brands ranked below average: America Online; CompuServe, an AOL subsidiary; and Prodigy, one of the first ISPs.

MindSpring received above-average scores in all seven categories with the survey takers giving heaviest weight to price (37 percent) and speed (29 percent).

MindSpring, which has more than 1 million customers and recently launched a marketing blitz that features the tag line ``You'd be happier using MindSpring,'' blew away the competition with an overall score of 118, followed by Pasadena-based EarthLink Network with 110, AT&T WorldNet with 107 and Microsoft Network with 103. J.D. Power did not issue score totals for the trio that finished below average.

``MindSpring and EarthLink are both regarded in the Internet world as very cutting edge,'' said media analyst Kevin Skislock of Laguna Research Partners. ``Being an ISP is a very fluid situation that requires constant creativity, because everyone on the Net has to stay fresh and relevant. Right now, the Internet is the closest thing to perfect competition.''

MindSpring also generated strong responses in customer care/technical support, e-mail services and navigation/access to other portals. Survey takers assigned an overall importance of 7 percent to customer support and 6 percent each to e-mail and navigation.

The survey also found that 12 percent of users have a ``strong intention'' to switch ISPs in the next 12 months and an additional 22 percent might consider switching; the most critical factors that could cause them to switch are speed (81 percent) and price (68 percent).

``We were kind of surprised that people are so sensitive to the speed issue,'' said Joan Barten Kline, director of research and operations for the telecommunications services group at Agoura Hills-based J.D. Power. ``I had expected customer service and technical support would be more important.''

The results reflect potentially significant difficulties for AOL in maintaining loyalty among its more than 18 million customers, since AOL is among the most expensive commercial ISPs and it has been plagued with connection problems. As Internet customers become more familiar with using the World Wide Web, they could flock from AOL just as Madison Avenue brings the full force of its marketing savvy to the ISP world.

``If the ISP does something customers don't like, they'll desert you,'' Skislock noted. ``The AOL pop-up ads have become an issue and I think AOL may have to find a new way to connect with revenue streams. With the Internet, we're still in the days where it's like in the old TV shows where you crank the telephone receiver and ask the operator if she can connect you to Mildred.''

Many current and former AOL users complain that logging on is difficult - and sometimes impossible - because the AOL dial-ups are frequently busy. That's allowed smaller ISPs like MindSpring or even smaller regional ISPs to often offer more consistent access.

``I never seriously considered using AOL because the word of mouth on it was pretty negative,'' said Victoria Alexander, an Escondido advertising copywriter who uses MGC Communications, a local telecom operator, as her ISP. ``It's become real easy to switch ISPs and I've found you get much better results with the smaller ones.''

Representatives for America Online and MindSpring were unavailable for comment late Wednesday.

Choosing an ISP can be a daunting task. According to TheList at Internet.com, there are more than 7,600 ISPs to choose from, although most offer service only in selected regions of the country or to businesses.

Which one should customers choose? That depends upon the customers' needs. First-time Net surfers are usually best served by ISPs like AOL, that offer expanded service and easy-to-use navigation around their own Web site.

Most ISPs come at a price typically around $20 a month for unlimited access, but cheaper, hourly rates are available. For those who don't want to pay at all, Westlake Village-based NetZero offers free Internet access with one catch: ads. Once a NetZero customer has logged on, a small ad window appears on the customer's computer screen and although the ads change, they won't go away until the customer logs off.

Dana Snow, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, said he relies on Los Angeles Free-Net as an ISP because its annual fee is only $40. ``Free-Net is totally functional,'' he added. ``Even though I'm phenomenally busy, I'm not phenomenally rich.''

Kline said the top seven ISPs accounted for more than half of the residential ISP subscriptions in the United States.

``By targeting their offering toward the community - including sponsorship of nonprofit sites, local community news, sporting and cultural event calendars - these providers are treating their Internet product as a value-added service for their existing customer base,'' Kline added.

CAPTION(S):

2 Boxes

Box: (1) BEST & WORST

(2) GETTING CONNECTED
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 9, 1999
Words:851
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