Don't let your ISP cut you off
How to fight back when your ISP keeps kicking you off.
December 8, 1998
by Carla Thorton
(IDG) -- PROBLEM: Your Internet service provider kicks you offline when you're in the middle of important work.
SOLUTION: Install an anti-timer utility, reconfigure your e-mail package, or choose a regional ISP.
Users hate them. Internet service providers don't like to discuss them. And no one sees them disappearing soon. They're Internet service timers, those pesky dialog boxes that pop up when you're "idle" and ask if you want to stay online -- usually, it seems, when you're composing a long e-mail, downloading a huge file, or trying to finish researching a vital project. If you're lucky, you notice in time to respond and keep your online connection. But if not, all bets are off. With some timers nagging you as often as every 5 minutes, it's easy to get knocked offline -- over and over again.
Staying online long enough to get crucial business done became a problem for Jeff Berger, owner of JMB Communications, a marketing and PR firm in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "I use America Online on the road because it has so many points of presence to dial into," he says. But AOL's 10- and 46-minute prompts pushed his patience to the limit -- such as the time he had to connect to a database while attending his daughter's wedding in California. "I had AOL minimized, so I never saw any warning," he remembers. "After I got knocked off, I had to reestablish the tunnel into my client's intranet, reestablish the connection to Lotus Notes, and get back into the document I was working in. It was unbearable having to deal with this repeatedly."
Desperate for an Internet connection that would last longer than several minutes, Berger eventually found relief through an anti-timer utility. Also known as disconnect stoppers, anti-timers answer timer dialog boxes or perform busy-work tasks over your modem to convince the timer that you're really hard at work.
Berger's anti-timer of choice is Terminator from TPA Software. This $5 shareware program, which automatically responds to AOL's nag dialogs, is simple to understand and very reliable, he says. The Terminator works only with AOL, but numerous anti-timers that will work with other ISPs sell for $30 or less, including RascalPro and Stay Connected 2.0 (see "Pump Up Your Browser," link below).
Don't want to install a utility? Internet e-mail packages such as Outlook Express and Eudora Pro can check periodically for new messages, thereby keeping your connection active. In Outlook Express, choose Tools, Options and then select "Check for new messages every 30 minute(s)." Depending on your ISP, you may need to tell the package to look for mail as often as every 5 minutes. Though this trick works with many ISPs, some service timers reportedly can detect that your PC is performing one action repeatedly in automated fashion, and disconnect you anyway. (Utilities such as Stay Connected perform a range of tasks at differing intervals.)
One last option to consider: switching to a regional ISP. Smaller services tend to offer unlimited access plans that live up to the name. For instance, Red Shift, an ISP based in Monterey, California, waits 8 hours to drop connections that appear to be idle. Regional ISPs don't have the huge access networks of bigger services, but if you just need local service, they're the simplest way to stay connected.
Is thwarting a service timer playing by the rules? Most ISPs don't think so. AOL's user agreement prohibits "the use of tools that defeat AOL's automatic log-off feature." However, AOL spokesperson Trish Primrose says that this rule has not been enforced, as far as she knows.
Primrose contends that timers aren't a big source of complaints among users; but all you need to do is browse the right newsgroups to know people are miffed. Many customers who pay an ISP for "unlimited access" believe they should get what's advertised -- or at least be allotted more generous chunks of connect time.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple, says Joe Bartlett of the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm. "If you look at the fine print, it says unlimited access, not unlimited use," he says. "ISPs can't make a go of it by satisfying [flat-rate] customers... So they don't care if timers cause them to lose the 3 to 5 percent of users who act like they have a dedicated line."
Still, timers frustrate ordinary ISP users, too. Just ask Jeff Berger, who typically wants to stay online for only a few minutes to a couple of hours. "What I'm doing online is serious work," he says. "ISPs and online services have to develop technology that understands when people are using the connection for important work -- and not just playing in chat rooms."
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