THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : GUIDE TO INTERNET ACCESS : Assess Your Electronic Needs Before Blazing an Internet Trail

So much is written about using the Internet. Yet often one of the most vexing problems for prospective net surfers is how to get on the Internet in the first place.

There are so many different Internet access providers, so many different types of service and so many new options every day that even veteran netizens can easily get confused.

In surveying the field and compiling the chart on the facing page, we're not seeking to make your choice for you, but simply trying to supply some of the information you'll need to make an informed choice for yourself.

Think of this information as a set of tools; deciding which tools to use depends on what you're trying to accomplish. As we'll see, choosing a path to the Internet is a more personal decision than you might think.

The first thing to do in looking for an Internet service provider is to ask yourself what your needs are. Do you simply want electronic mail? Will you be happy with merely functional access to the World Wide Web? Do you need Internet access for some critical purpose, or can you wait awhile if you find that you can't dial in when you want to?

Do you travel a great deal and expect to access your account when you're far from home? How much can you afford to spend on this every month? How much time do you think you'll be spending on-line?

These questions are important because there's no point buying more Internet access than you want or need. If all you want is e-mail, for example, you can sometimes find a free local computer bulletin board system that offers this.

Then ask yourself about your own capabilities, and those of your computer. Are you a veteran technogeek who maintains a series of networked workstations throughout the rooms of your house? Or are you pretty much a type-and-backspace person who can't imagine how to do anything else with the computer? How much hand-holding do you anticipate needing? Support is expensive, and hard-core Internet access providers often expect a certain amount of self-sufficiency from their users.

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What kind of computer are you using? If your machine is a vintage 286 and you can't really run Windows, your choices are narrowed considerably. Ditto if you're limping along at slow modem speeds. On the other hand, it would be a shame for someone with a powerful multimedia system and 28.8-kilobytes-per-second modem not to have full-blown access to the sights and sounds of the Internet.

If you're on a budget, want mainly e-mail, would like as much Internet access as even an old Kaypro can withstand and don't plan on buying a new machine, the clear-cut choice is the Los Angeles Free-Net. The nonprofit L.A. Free-Net, one of many such community-oriented access providers around the country, provides unlimited e-mail, text-based access to the World Wide Web, some Internet newsgroups and a good deal of local information, all for $15 a year. It's a deal that simply can't be beat.

For those who want more, and who have a computer that's up to the task, perhaps the first step is determining whether to sign up with one of the Big Three on-line services or choose an Internet firm.

Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online all offer varying amounts of Internet access. To my knowledge, CompuServe is the most complete in this department. In fact, for many users, an account on CompuServe or America Online will be sufficient. You get the software you'll need on a silver platter, and you'll get a reasonable level of support. But you'll still miss some features--AOL doesn't allow telnet yet, for instance--and you may find the big services expensive compared to some of the bargain-basement prices offered locally.

If you decide to go with an Internet service provider other than the Big Three, here are some of the things to investigate in choosing one.

First, you'll want a type of Internet connection called a SLIP or PPP account, which will make your computer seem as if it's connected directly to the Internet, rather than merely being connected by a phone line. (SLIP stands for Serial Line Internet Protocol. PPP is Point-to-Point Protocol.) SLIP and PPP permit you to experience the World Wide Web with graphically oriented browsers such as Netscape.

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But sophisticated users may also want what's known as a "shell account," permitting fast command-line access. Make sure you're getting a SLIP or PPP, but if you also want a shell, ask whether it's available. My provider, for instance, offers this feature for free by telnet, which works fine.

Another thing to ask about is whether you can set up your own World Wide Web page, and how much you'll be charged for this. It may not seem something you'll want now, but sooner or later you may want to put up a Web page, especially if you're in business or self-employed.

What kind of technical support is offered? Most Internet providers really do very little in this department.

Competitive pressures force them to keep prices down, and that means you're mostly on your own. But some offer a lot more than others, so if this is important to you, check in advance. Is telephone support offered? How long does it take to get through?

Another important question is whether the service you're considering is in your local calling area. You'll want it to be; why pay phone charges on top of connect-time fees?

Also, if you travel a lot, you may want a firm with a national presence, so you can dial in from other cities without long-distance charges. Netcom, for instance, has local numbers all over the United States, and CompuServe has an unparalleled global network.

On the other hand, many smaller Internet service providers with numbers in just one or two area codes charge less, and have a cozier, friendlier quality about them, since you are likely to interact now and then directly with the owners.

It's sort of like living in Montrose or even West Hollywood instead of Los Angeles; the government is not some faceless, far-off bureaucracy, but possibly even your next-door-neighbor.

If you like to participate in bulletin board discussions, ask how many "Usenet newsgroups" the service carries, and whether the provider would add any oddball groups you might happen to request.

There are now about 18,000 newsgroups, some of them regional in nature, others in languages you don't speak. Many providers carry only a fraction of the total, but for many people that's enough.

Consider the addressing system that is used. Most providers use the standard user@provider.com, but the LA Free-Net, for instance, gives you a rather cryptic address that doesn't include your name. If you're a fiend for e-mail and want a truly memorable address, you may decide to get your own Internet domain, like mine at akst.com. You'll need your Internet provider to handle this for you, and there is usually a fee in addition to the recently levied Internet registration charges. Ask how much you'll have to pay.

You might also want to look at the provider's rules and regulations, especially if you plan on doing anything with your account that is likely to prove controversial or generate complaints from other users.

When push comes to shove, will your provider stand by your First Amendment rights?

Similarly, can your provider be counted upon to respect your privacy?

Last but very far from least, of course, is price.

In general, I think, the less hand-holding you need and the less you require dial-in access from all over the map, the lower the price you can get.

Estimate how much time you're likely to spend on line, and figure out whether it might be worth it to pay more for flat-rate pricing instead of the usual hourly plan.

As you might expect in life, price isn't everything, and to an extent you will get what you pay for.

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