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Accessing the Internet
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Just as utility companies provide access to services such as telephone networks or electricity, there are companies and organizations who provide access to the Internet. Unlike basic utilities, however, there is a vibrant, competitive market offering users many options for Internet access. The kind of company you choose will depend upon what you hope to achieve and your budget.

  • Do you want access to the full range of Internet capabilities, or just a subset of them?
  • How frequently will you use the Internet and how long will your sessions be?
  • Do you want access to the World Wide Web, but not necessarily to create your own Web presence?
  • Are you seeking to create a Web presence and if so, how complex will it be?

There are three types of access providers, sometimes called Internet service providers:

  1. Individual Access Providers

  2. IAPs offer a range of services from e-mail only to a full set of Internet and Web access and services. A dial-up shell account, for example, is a simple and inexpensive means for downloading files, but, because it only connects you to the Internet indirectly (through another computer), it does not readily support graphical Web browsers. If you use Lynx or some other text-only browser, this account may be sufficient.

    A PPP or SLIP account is usually a better solution for full Internet use. IAPs may charge a flat fee for unlimited access to the Internet or a standard rate for a given set of services and amount of connect time, with additional charges for anything over the standard. IAPs will provide you with software to access your account and they may also recommend or provide e-mail client software and other Internet software tools. There are hundreds of national and regional Internet Access Providers. The List can help you find local providers by telephone area code. It includes recent information about services and prices that each provider offers as well as comments and evaluations from customers.

  3. Commercial Online Services

  4. Commercial online services are companies such as America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and the Microsoft Network. They provide their subscribers with access to the Internet as well as unique, proprietary information or entertainment content, such as online magazines, and special services such as stock quotes, airline schedules or chat groups. Generally, these services charge a set monthly fee for a standard amount of connect time and add an additional charge per hour when you exceed the standard amount. The interface for the commercial online services tends to be very user friendly and they offer good customer service due to the vigorous competition for members. Prices are usually higher than IAPs and heavy Internet users may find the costs burdensome. All of these services provide basic Internet functions so you can get e-mail, access newsgroups and the World Wide Web, etc., but they do not necessarily provide the full range of more advanced functions that are needed by businesses or organizations who want to create a sophisticated network presence.

    A list of commercial online services is provided. It is difficult to stay current, but "Online Streamlined," an article in the May 1995 Home Office Computing Magazine provides a good overview for comparing commercial services, as does "Best Online Services", a review in the June 1995 PC World Magazine. Some of the newer services are missing from these articles, and some of the particulars about services are out of date, but they are good guides for identifying the issues in selecting a commercial service.

  5. Public Access Networks

  6. Public Access Networks are local, state or regional networks that provide special services to the citizens of their communities. The breadth of these services is vast, from delivery of government services, to economic development programs, to community health information, to local movie listings. Some networks, such as Maryland's Sailor program, also provide Internet access for their citizens that is often discounted and sometimes even free. Non-profit groups especially can find assistance from public access networks. Some networks have made computers with Internet access available to the general public in places like local libraries, youth centers, and schools. A list of local public access networks in the Potomac KnowledgeWay is provided. For more information on free to very low cost community access initiatives, see the article "Neighborhood Computers: Beating the Cost Odds" by Neal Pierce in the August 18, 1995 issue of Nations City Weekly (Volume 18, Number 35).

Any of these kinds of providers may be the solution for individuals or organizations seeking access to the Internet or the World Wide Web. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The pace of change is so swift that the lines between different types of providers is blurring. Make sure that any provider you consider explains fully the specific services they offer and prices. Some will have a number of different plans available. Be particularly aware of any long distance costs or surcharges associated with using a particular provider. Check with your local phone company to be sure that the phone number your modem will be calling is a local call.

The choice of an access provider may be more complicated if one of your goals is creating a World Wide Web presence. To do so, you not only need access to the Internet and the Web, but you must also:

  • design, update, and maintain the files which make up your Web site
  • have access to a computer, called a server, which stores these files and is properly configured to make them available to users of the Web.

Some service providers can address many of these issues for you. Unfortunately, there is little consistency between the offerings of service providers. Companies called Internet Presence Providers (IPP) offer design, server management, and consulting services to organizations creating a Web presence. A list of Internet Presence Providers in the Potomac KnowledgeWay is available. The lines that differentiate access providers and IPPs are fuzzy since many access providers offer Web server and design services and many presence providers offer full Internet access. If you are creating a Web presence, you should understand the process for doing so. Assess your inhouse skills, and then decide which vendor or combination of vendors can supply the assistance you need.

There are other Web presence options as well. For an additional fee, most commercial online services offer, or intend to offer, publishing of Web pages for subscribers based upon templates. This may be a good solution for individuals or small scale projects. You can also get Internet access through academic, research, or other organizations that already have Internet access. Some local colleges or universities may offer reasonably priced Internet access that supports publication of Web pages as part of their contribution to the local region.

For more information about connecting to the Internet, see the following sources of information:

  • Connecting to the Internet: An O'Reilly Buyer's Guide
    By Susan Estrada, O'Reilly.
  • Internet Direct: Connecting Through SLIP & PPP
    By Robert Miller, Henry Holt & Company.
  • "Get Connected: New Paths to the Net" - This is an article in the Oct. 10, 1995 issue of PC Magazine.
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