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The Internet, part 1 (of 3): Getting Connected

From the questions I've been getting, some of you are still confused about all the new language associated with the internet. This the first of three articles discussing the internet.

The internet is a network of connected computers. You pay a fee (either by paying money or by looking at ads) to the company whose computer you connect into, called a "server", and they pay to connect to the next level and so forth. The company you pay is called your "ISP" (Internet Service Provider). This is called a "dial-up account". This is different from "web hosting" (the always on-line computer on which you rent space to show your web site to anyone typing; we will discuss this further in another article). Sometimes your dial-up account includes hosting space for personal web pages. Look for this in comparing ISPs if you might want to post information for others sharing your interest in genealogy, knitting etc.

You need to decide whether you want a local or national ISP. Local generally (but not always) gives better service. National is better if you travel a lot since they have dial-up connection phone numbers all over the country and you won't have to make a long distance call to get connected. Be aware that some national ISPs charge extra for connecting to a server in another area (called "roaming"). Many ISPs are now setting up "web based e-mail" (e-mail you can reach from any dial-up account) or you can use a web e-mail service like, and several others. This allows you to reach your mail using someone else's dial-up account: useful when visiting your computer-savvy parents or kids for example. You may find an "internet cafe" which rents you connect time or if you are visiting a university, you can often use a guest connection there to read your web based e-mail.

Local ISPs I have heard are good include: Northwest Link and SeaNet .The national ones to consider include AOL, Earthlink (just merged with Mindspring, another good one) and ATT Worldnet. For international travel, web based e-mail may be your best bet.

If you want free access and don't need technical support or extreme reliability (was and provide free e-mail and web access. All require you use their software and only Worldspy did it without in-your-face ads (now out of business). If you want faster access (see below), you will need to sign up with an ISP who supports your chosen type of service in your area.

The hardware needed depends on how fast or how cheaply you wish to connect your computer to the network:

  1. Regular modem along the phone lines. A modem turns computer signals into signals which can be sent a long distance. "56k v90" is the speed and version most people use. The modem usually is included in the price of a machine or about $70 to $200 to replace one (never buy the cheapest modem). The monthly fee is $0 to about $20 per month. The 56k speed is only hypothetical as many other factors influence the real speed of both "download" (information coming to you) and "upload" (you sending information).

  2. Transmitted: generally slower than a regular modem connection. This is for real estate agents and others who need mobile computing in a local area. The ISP Ricochet has transmitters all over town and their installation includes a cellphone-like modem. You can connect via a cellphone to other ISPs. Cellphone service is better if the ISP has a special type of receiving modem. For those in areas without phone lines, call the local ISPs serving the area as well as the national ISPs. Some ISPs, including Earthlink (Sprint), will help you optimize your system to work with a cellphone even if they don't have the special modem.

    The following 2 choices are not available in all areas. They are faster and always on-line so you don't have to wait to connect (you can even host your own web site, if you want to go to the effort; we'll discuss this in the third article). The connection can be shared by several computers -- you are essentially setting up an "ethernet network". Ethernet is a specific kind of computer-to-computer wiring and connection, usually between computers in the same building. The installation procedure and fee usually includes putting an ethernet card in your computer if you don't already have one. If you think you might ever want to hook up two computers, be sure the company puts in an external modem instead of putting an internal modem into the one computer. The former is more costly but leaves you the option. If you choose either of the following and you will access your account from a regular modem when you travel with your laptop, be sure your ISP has regular 56K dial-up at no additional charge or you will need to use web based e-mail.

  3. Cable modem on your TV cable: in theory 28 times faster than regular modem but more likely maximum of about 5 times faster to you, four times as fast as regular away from you, depending on how many neighbors share it. @home and Roadrunner are the two major players in this: you get whatever the cable company for your area provides. Call your cable company for availability. Prices vary but expect an installation charge plus a monthly fee of at least double the cost of regular modem service. They are your ISP so you don't have 2 parties involved as you do with DSL (below). Hint: be sure your computer is in a different room from your cable so they have to give you an external rather than internal cable modem. With the modem in place you can then move your computer to wherever you want.

  4. DSL (Digital subscriber line) modem: uses the phone wires but does not interfere with your phone use the way a regular modem does. You can pay for more speed but the cheapest is 128K -- about twice the fastest regular modem speed. Qwest, GTE (Verizon), Covad and others provide the line: call them about availability. They work with several ISPs to provide the "server" (the computer you connect to). Pricing can be similar to cable modem but may be much higher. Remember you pay both the line charge and the ISP. Yes, there is a free DSL,, but it is so oversubscribed that this service is not recommended.

Others you might hear of: ISDN, an older phone based technology which is more expensive for what you get. Direct satellite requires a phone line too and increases only download speed. T1 and T3 are faster and far more expensive.

The three pieces of software you need are generally free or included in what you are buying.

  1. The modem connection software built into your operating system: Dial-up Networking under My Computer in Windows, Remote Access and Internet assistant in system 8.x or higher Macs.

  2. The software to surf the net called a "browser": usually Netscape Communicator (the part called Navigator) or Microsoft Internet Explorer, both of which are free (I have a marked preference for Netscape). You may need a customized version of one of the above supplied by the ISP, especially for the free services or for AOL (custom Internet Explorer). Don't EVER install AOL's free CD if you aren't sure you want to subscribe to AOL -- it is time consuming to get it off your system if you change your mind. While it is possible to set up a computer to use both AOL and another ISP at the same time (if you need work and personal), it is a challenge. It is much easier to set up a computer for two ISPs using standard browsers.

  3. E-mail software: comes as part of Netscape Communicator (called Messenger), part of Microsoft Internet Explorer (called Outlook Express) or you can use e-mail software like Eudora or the full version of Outlook (comes with Microsoft Office).

E-mail and searching are covered in the second article. Some of you may want to put up your own web sites so you'll need composing software: I address that in the third article.

Please call if you have any further questions.

Give us a call at 206-523-0872 if you have further questions.

copyright 2000 Karen Seymour

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