The Basics of Getting Connected to the Internet
If you have a mailing address, you probably know about Internet providers, because they're the people who keep cramming free signup CD-ROMs and disks in your mailbox (creasing your National Geographic!) and begging you to join. Heck, you don't even need an addressyou get free signup disks today in magazines, cereal boxes, and bundled along with any new computer.
The provider you pull out of your cereal box may be a perfectly good choice, but it's not the only choicenot by a long shot. In this hour, you'll discover the full range of different ways to get signed up for the Internet, so you can choose the provider that best matches your needs and bank account. You'll also learn the basics of making that connection, so we can get you on your way.
At the end of the hour, you'll be able to answer the following questions:
What's an Internet provider, and why do I need one?
What's an Internet account, and what types of accounts are there?
What are "broadband" Internet accounts, and how do I get one?
How are commercial online services, like America Online, sometimes different from other Internet service providers?
How can I find local and national providers from which to choose?
What types of pricing plans are there, and how do I know if I'm getting a good deal?
Is there a way I can get Internet access for free?
How does the process of getting connected work?
Types of Internet Accounts
When you sign up withsubscribe toan Internet service, you get what's called an Internet account.
With an Internet account, you get the right to use the provider's Internet service, your very own email address (so you can send and receive email), and all of the other information you need to set up your computer for accessing the Internet through the service. From most providers, you may also get any communications or client software you need, as we discussed last hour.
Most Internet accounts are called "dial-up" accounts because you use them by "dialing up" the Internet provider through your modem and telephone line. These are sometimes also described as "IP" accounts because they require your computer to communicate through TCP/IP (see Hour 1, "What Is the Internet and What Can You Do There?"). Dial-up IP accounts are the principal, general-purpose accounts offered by most Internet providers.
Dial-up accounts generally come as what's called a PPP account. With a PPP account, you have access to the full range of Internet activities, and can use any client programs you want to.
An account with an online service like America Online is also a "dial-up" account, but it's not the same thing as a regular Internet PPP or SLIP account. An online service account requires a different kind of communi-cations software (supplied by the service) for accessing the service and its non-Internet content.
When you access the Internet through an online service, the service may temporarily switch you over to a PPP account, or it may funnel you to the Internet using a different communications scenario.
This is why online services often limit you to one or two different Web browsers and other clients, instead of letting you choose the one you want. Any client software used through the service must be specially configured for the service's unique communications system.
Cable Internet and DSL (Broadband)?
In the last few years, a new category of personal Internet account has emerged, sometimes described as broadband because it sends and receives information so much faster than a regular dial-up accountas if the information were moving through a nice, fat, "broad" pipe instead of a slow, skinny pipe.
Depending on what's available to you, you have your choice between two different kinds of broadband Internet access, described in the next sections: Cable Internet and DSL. (There are other broadband options, used mostly in business environments. But these two are the popular options for personal users.)
The two options are different from each other, but have seven characteristics in common:
They are much, much faster than a 56K dial-up account.
Their speed enables them to carry Internet activities that are simply impractical over a dial-up connection, such as watching a movie online, high-quality videoconferencing, or using a computer somewhere out on the Net as a storage facility for your own files or backups.
They allow you to use your phone line for telephone calls, faxing, or anything else while you are online.
They can be set up so that you are always online. You don't have to do anything to get online each time you use the Net (as you must with a dial-up account); you just sit down and get to business.
They are more expensive, on a monthly basis.
They require more expensive communications hardware for your computer, rather than relying on the inexpensive modems included in nearly all computers today.
Once you're online, actually using a broadband accountopening Web pages, exchanging email, and so ontakes the same steps you use on a regular dial-up account, the steps described throughout this book.
Broadband services are not yet available everywhere. There are many neighborhoods today that cannot get any type of broadband service, even though they may have regular phone and cable service. The hardware in local phone and cable systems must be upgraded in order to support broadband Internet. Phone and cable companies are furiously making these upgrades in order to begin selling broadband service, but it will still take a few years to get broadband availability to everyone.
However, as more and more neighborhoods gain access to both broadband technologies, the monthly cost should drop as the phone and cable companies compete for those customers.
Supplied by your local cable TV company, cable Internet enters your house through the same cable that TV signals travel through. Cable Internet can support speeds up to 4,096Kmore than 70 times as fast as a 56K dial-up connection. Figure 3.1 shows a Web site describing Road Runner, a cable Internet service offered by Time Warner Cable in some (but not all) of the neighborhoods it serves.
Figure 3.1 The Web site of Road Runner, a cable Internet service offered by Time Warner Cable to some of its subscribers.
To use cable Internet, you must have
A cable Internet account, offered only by the cable TV company that serves your neighborhood.
A cable modem installed in, or connected to, your PC. A cable modem is not really a modem, but a specialized network adapter. You can usually rent your cable modem from the cable company, which also makes it easy for the cable company to set up your computer for you. You can also purchase cable modems, which run more than $100but, before buying, be sure to talk first to your cable company to determine the specific hardware required.
An Ethernet card installed in your computer (or other network adapter). This allows the modem to talk to your computer. Many computer manufacturers are now preinstalling Ethernet cards in their computers.
At this writing, a cable Internet account costs from about $40 to $50 per monthtwice the cost of a regular dial-up account. To learn whether cable Internet is available at your home, call your cable TV company.
There are two potential minuses to cable Internet that are worth considering before you take the plunge.
First, the "always-on" nature of a cable Internet connection has been found to make computers using cable connections somewhat more vulnerable to computer hackers than those on regular dial-up lines. You can protect yourself from hackers with a "personal firewall" program such as Black Ice or ZoneAlarm. And, as with any Internet connection, users of a cable Internet connection need to use a good anti-virus program.
Second, cable Internet connections have been shown to become dramatically slower when many people within a neighborhood are using cable Internet simultaneously. At such times, cable would still remain much faster than a dial-up connection. But you might be disappointed by the times when you felt you were not getting all the speed you paid for.
Used through your regular phone line, a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL; also known by various other abbreviations such as ADSL or xDSL) account is supplied by, or in cooperation with, your local telephone company. The fastest broadband option, DSL can support speeds up to 7,270K.
Oddly, DSL can be faster than cable Internet when you are receiving informationsuch as opening a Web site or video clip. But it is usually slower than cable when you are sending information, such as sending email.
For most folks, these speed distinctions are academic; either broadband option is fast enough to deliver the full broadband benefit.
Note that although DSL uses your regular phone line, it transforms that line into a carrier of multiple services; with DSL, you can use the Internet and talk on the phone at the same time.
Like cable Internet, DSL requires a special modem, typically called a DSL modem, which can cost substantially more than a cable modem. The monthly cost of a DSL account, however, is roughly the same as for a cable Internet account, around $40$50.
To find out whether you can get DSL where you live, contact your local phone company, or contact an Internet service provider that serves your neighborhood and offers DSL service. (See "Internet Service Providers (ISPs)," later in this chapter.)
If you already have access to the Internet through a library computer or other option, you can look up DSL suppliers online at http://www.dslmarketplace.com/.
With an email-only account, you get full access to Internet email, and nothing elseno Web, no newsgroups, no chat, no shoes, no shirt, no service. You will have access to mailing lists, however, which enable you to get through email much of the same discussion content you'd see in newsgroups. (Email, newsgroups, and mailing lists are covered in Part II, "Talking to the World.")
Email accounts can be run from the lowliest of computers, and cost next to nothing. In fact, a few companies now offer you an email account free of charge, in exchange for the right to send you targeted advertisements.