So You Want a New Computer

Part Four: The Internet -- Connecting to It and Responsible Use

by Kevin Jay North, 26 Dec 99

How Your Computer Connects to the Internet

You took the plunge, you bought your computer and you brought it home. I'm not going to discuss setting it up because it's a little different for each computer. If you were wise when buying the new computer, hopefully you have clear instructions, or a good friend / teenage computer guru, or a good technical support telephone number to help you through any issues. But your instruction manual won't tell you how it connects to the Internet, so that's what I'll discuss next -- assuming, of course, that you want to be able to connect to the Internet so you can surf the web and/or check Email, which is what most people want to do.

You already have a fully functional, working computer that can be used for many things. For example, you can write a letter, make corrections, then print out the letter using a printer. To send an Email message to someone else, though, requires that the information you type on your computer be transmitted over some sort of electrical line to the recipient's computer. Your computer must connect to the Internet, the huge network of millions of computers. (I discussed the concept of a network in Part One.)

In a traditional network, the computers that are connected to each other stay physically connected all the time. In other words, there is a physical wire connecting each of the computers allowing information to be transferred from one computer to another. The only problem is that it would cost a fortune to put an electrical wire into every single home in the country. Probably this will happen someday; indeed, currently we have telephone lines to every home, and most homes have a television cable line available. So someday we'll also have an Internet access line, but this will take a while to develop.

In the mean time, people have figured out how to utilize the existing electrical lines into your home -- the television cable line and the telephone line -- to access the Internet. The television cable line was originally designed for a one-way transmission, so converting it to two-way is a problem and requires major equipment upgrades. It is available in some areas, but not very many (yet). So I assume you will connect to the Internet the cheapest, easiest and most common way: through the telephone line.

Earlier I talked about the purpose of a modem. This device translates the electrical signals from the computer into a more audio-like (analog) form that can be transmitted over a telephone line. It also does the reverse: For incoming information, it translates the audio-like information back into the "digital" form that your own computer can understand. Anyway, I assume you made sure your new computer has a modem.

The next step is to find an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP has computers that have a direct, fast, permanent connection to the Internet. This is expensive, but they share this connection with you and other subscribers for a monthly fee. Here's how it works. Let's use a pretend ISP called Alpha Internet Services.

Alpha purchases 16 computers. Each of these is given a direct, fast, permanent connection to the Internet. Each of the 16 computers also has a modem. Alpha then purchases 16 telephone lines and hooks up one line to each modem. Each line has its own telephone number, but the phone company sets them up in a chain, so that if you dial the first number and it's busy, the call automatically is transferred to the next number -- unless that's busy, in which case it's sent to the third number, and so on.

Alpha then announces to the world that their computers have direct access to the Internet, and they are willing to share that access with you for a mere $20/month. You are impressed, so you subscribe. In return they give you the telephone number for their 16 computers and some instructions about how to set up your computer for Internet access.

Once you are set up, here's how you get access to the Internet: Your computer's modem accesses your telephone line and dials Alpha's telephone number (yes, it actually uses tones, and you can hear it dialing). One of the 16 Alpha lines starts ringing. Alpha's computers are set up to automatically answer incoming calls, so the modem on one of the Alpha computers "picks up" the line and starts communicating with your modem. During this time you will hear a high-pitched squeal followed by static, or lots of other tones, or other strange sounds.

Technically, this is called "training," the process in which your modem and the Alpha modem decide how to communicate. When modems were first invented, they could typically transmit at 300 bps (baud), or about 33 characters per second. Then they figured out how to do 1200 bps, then 2400, then 9600, then 14400, etc. With each new change of speed, they didn't want to tell people they had to throw away their old modem -- instead, each modem was made "backward compatible" -- in other words, each new modem was also capable of working at the older, slower speeds. So during the "training" process, each modem finds out how capable the other modem is, and they choose the fastest speed that they can both work at. Actually, with modern 56K modems, there are a lot of other things they take into account, but we won't go into this.

Anyway, once the training process is complete, you are "connected", and information now has a clear path from your computer, through your modem, over the telephone line, through the Alpha's modem, through the Alpha's computer, and then on to the real Internet -- or back again. Neat, eh? The connection remains until you decide you no longer want to use the Internet and you disconnect, at which point the two modems stop talking to each other and the telephone call is terminated. The Alpha computer that handled your telephone call is now ready to accept a call from someone else who wants to access the Internet.

Now that you know the process, you've probably figured out a few implications: 1) You can't use your telephone to make other calls while your computer is using it (and people trying to call you will get a busy signal); 2) If you accidentally pick up your phone while you are connected to the Internet with your computer, your modem will get confused because of the "noise" and will disconnect; 3) If all 16 Alpha computers are in use, the 17th person who wants to access the Internet will have to wait until someone else gets done before they can connect (they will get a busy signal when calling Alpha's telephone number).

But the most important implication is this: If Alpha's telephone number is a long-distance call, you will get charged for it just as if it were a regular voice long-distance call. Since you might be connected to the Internet for a half hour a day, each day, this would quickly add up to a $150-or-so phone bill each month! No one wants to pay that much. But if it's a local phone call, you can (usually) call all you want for free. So when you choose an Internet Service Provider to subscribe to, it is essential that you choose one that has a local telephone number that you can call.

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP)

There are four main kinds of Internet Service Providers. The first kind is the local shop, like Alpha in my example. Let's say (hypothetically) that Alpha is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The 16 telephone numbers that it bought are local to Oskhosh, so the people who subscribe are local residents. If Alpha makes money and grows bigger, they might add extra computers and telephone lines to handle more people. They might even obtain telephone numbers in a different city, like nearby Fond du Lac. Their office might still be in Oshkosh, but they will make a special deal with the phone company to let them have telephone numbers that are local for Fond du Lac residents.

The second kind of ISP is a national ISP. With all of the demand for Internet access, you can just imagine that some national company would come along and buy up telephone numbers in cities across the United States. Since there are so many cities, it would be extremely expensive to get local telephone numbers in all of them, so usually they just focus on major metropolitan areas which cover the majority of the population.

The third kind of ISP is one with special, extra features, like America Online and Compuserve. These actually didn't start out as ISPs. Compuserve is very old, dating back to the early 80s. The Internet as we know it wasn't around then, so Compuserve had its own mini-Internet and mini services. The main difference between it and the Internet today is that you could only send Email to other people on Compuserve, not to anyone on any other system.

Compuserve was (originally) text-based, meaning that there were no colors, pictures or graphics -- everything was just text (characters). So it was harder to use and not as flexible. Later, competitors like America Online and Prodigy came along offering graphics-based interfaces. But there was no standard, so each company had its own customized software that you had to install on your computer in order to use the service. So, for example, the Prodigy software let you access Prodigy and see the graphics, but it wouldn't work for America Online.

Now days, the Internet connects everyone, not just people subscribed to one company or ISP, and the software is standard. Standard web browsers like Netscape or Internet Explorer are used, and these software packages can be used with any ISP. But why did I tell you this long story? Because the third kind of ISP is actually a hybrid of the new and old. Compuserve and America Online started offering Internet access, because they had to in order to compete, but they also kept their old special software. They did this because: 1) They didn't want to abandon old customers who were used to the old system, and 2) They wanted to offer something special in addition to plain Internet access, otherwise they would be just like any other ISP and would not be able to compete. So, for example, America Online has its own private clubs, magazines and other information services that can be accessed only with America Online custom software and only if you are a subscriber to America Online.

The fourth kind is the "free" ISP. Yep, they let you access the Internet for free in exchange for forcing you to view advertising. But nothing is truly free, so I'll discuss the implications shortly in a separate section.

What should you choose? First and most important, see if the ISP offers local telephone numbers. If it doesn't, find another. Since there is such a demand for Internet access, you can find local ISPs in your telephone book. National ISPs you might hear about via TV or other advertising, and you can give them a telephone call, tell them where you live and ask them if they have a local number. If they don't, don't even let them try to talk you into subscribing anyway -- you don't want a $150/month phone bill!

Next, see what the price is. The national standard is $20/month for unlimited access -- i.e., call anytime for as long as you need it. But if there's lots of competition in your area, you might see rates as low as $15/month. Shop around and find the best rates.

But also see what kind of support is offered. If you know next to nothing about computers and will totally be lost if a problem occurs, then why suffer with a $15/month ISP that has very limited support when another ISP might have it for $18/month but have a local office you can walk into and friendly people to walk you through any issues? In fact, for this reason I'm strongly biased towards the first kind of ISP, the local shop. There's nothing like being able to walk into a local office, getting to know the people there, and having them help you through all the issues. You could even take your computer in to their office and they could test things out right there. A national ISP is likely to put you on hold to the next available operator because they are swamped with inquiries -- whereas the local shop will probably have spare time to give you personal attention. A national ISP might be cheaper, but it's only better if you know a lot about computers and have a teenage computer guru to help you when something goes wrong.

Free Internet Service Providers

Totally free ISPs include NetZero and AltaVista Free Access. There are others; in fact, there probably are a growing number of them. A free ISP is very attractive because you could save $240/year! On the other hand, remember the old saying that you get what you pay for. A local ISP usually will go out of their way to help you because they want to keep your business. A free ISP isn't taking any of your money, so they have nothing to lose if they decide not to help you.

They might not go out of their way to ensure trouble-free access to their equipment, either. I've used both NetZero and AltaVista Free Access before, and some days, I couldn't get through at all for no apparent reason -- the modem on the other end would answer, but after that nothing happened. Also, busy signals were more common. A local ISP might go out of their way to buy more phone lines to minimize busy signals to customers, but it's probably a lower priority for free ISPs. Also, think again of support -- since you're not paying money to use the ISP, and since they won't lose money if you switch to a different ISP, there's less motivation to give you priority support. So probably a free ISP is better for more advanced computer users or those with the teenage guru. And they are better for people who are very patient and don't mind glitches that may cause them to wait a day or two before they can check their Email again. But if glitches will frustrate your Internet experience and make your life miserable, it's not worth it!

Finally, in exchange for the free access, you have to look at advertisements. You need to install special software on your computer; you won't be able to connect without it. In fact, that's a challenge in itself. America Online will gladly mail you one of their CDs in order to get you started, but a free ISP can't afford it. You'll have to borrow a friend's computer to connect to the Internet to obtain the software for the free ISP -- or you have to use your existing pay ISP to download the software so you can later switch to the free ISP. Anyway, the software displays advertisements in a rectangular banner on the screen while you're connected. This might be slightly annoying; it also may slow down your connection a little bit because new advertisements are periodically being transmitted to you over the telephone line and you have to wait for the advertisements to appear before the information that you want gets transferred.

A couple of last points. First, don't forget the first rule of ISPs. If the free ISP doesn't have a local telephone number, forget it! A $20/month ISP with local telephone numbers is easily cheaper than a free ISP without local numbers. Second, just for your information, there exists a hybrid national ISP called Juno. It's very similar to America Online. Their full Internet access is still $20/month (or maybe cheaper depending on the promotion), but they offer free Email to those who only want Email. There are some interesting things I could say about Juno, but for the beginning computer user, it's too much to think about -- just stick with the normal ISPs that offer normal Internet access.

Internet Responsibility

As with setting up the computer, I'm also going to omit the process of setting up your computer for Internet access. If you subscribe to a good, local ISP, they can probably walk you through all of the issues. They may even give you an Email program and show you how to use it. So again, I'll talk about an issue they won't cover: Internet responsiblity. This is an issue that is easily overlooked, but which I feel is very important. Since the Internet is huge and connects everything, it's a big jungle out there, and it's easy to get into trouble if you're not careful. I don't want to scare you from using the Internet, I just want you to think and to learn before you start taking signficant actions, such as ordering online, forwarding Email, sending your name and address to a company, etc.

My biggest concern is that new people using the Internet are not careful to seek the truth. I don't think people realize just how much power the Internet gives you. Let's say you want to get something published. In the old days, you'd sent your manuscript to a publisher, and only if it's really good does it get published. Now days you can make your own web page and instantly publish something that anyone in the world can read. This is both good and bad. The obvious plus is that if you have a contraversial idea, you can let your idea be known even if it won't be published in printed form just because it isn't politically correct. On the other hand, this allows absolutely anything to get published, even things that are obviously bad (like the Ku Klux Klan) or very untrue. Today's generation is not trained to critically examine something to see if it's true -- we're in so much of a hurry that we believe whatever we're told. As a result, we can be deceived extremely easily.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Neiman Marcus cookie story. I think originally this was a chain letter, but when Email came along, people started spreading it via Email. And since Email is much faster to send than regular mail, it spread very quickly. The story goes like this: A woman at the Neiman Marcus restaurant had cookies for dessert and was so impressed that she wanted the recipe. She offered to buy it from the manager and asked how much she'd sell it for. Two fifty was the reply. So she handed the manager her credit card. Later, when she got the bill, she saw that she was not charged $2.50 but instead $250! So she typed up the cookie recipe and sent it to all of her friends, and she instructed them to send it to all of their friends, and so on... telling the whole world of the recipe as sort of a revenge.

What a story! There's just one problem. It is totally false! This fact can be easily verified by visiting the Neiman Marcus website or by writing to them. But most people don't bother to check out the web site. Maybe they just trust their friend who sent it to them, thinking that they had checked it out. People's emotions are touched, and they forward the electronic message right away. If it was a normal chain letter, you might feel differently in the morning when you wake up, and you might be even more cautious if you have to put a 33-cent stamp on the envelope of the person you mail to -- you don't want to invest that much time and money unless it's something important. But with free and quick Email, the letter spreads like wildfire. And since there are so many new people joining the Internet, this story is still very much alive and well, even though it's been around over 10 years! People are still falling for it.

You may be thinking... what is the big deal? This isn't hurting anyone, is it? Well, Neiman Marcus' reputation is damaged a little. Probably not that much, since people who patronize the restaurant would get the full story. But there is an even bigger problem. Have you thought about what would happen if millions of people got the Email message? Like I said, most of them would not check it out. But some people would. This translates into tens of thousands of telephone calls to Neiman Marcus. I have been told (though I'm not totally sure that this is true) that Neiman Marcus has had to hire someone full time just to handle all of the telephone, mail and Email inquiries about the cookies. Imagine that! An innocent joke... but it must cost Neiman Marcus a lot of money to handle the barrage of inquiries.

I'm not saying that you can't or shouldn't forward Emails. But I would suggest that you don't until you've been using the Internet for a while and are sure you know what you are doing... that you are helping people and not unintentionally causing harm. There are a lot of other stories. Another famous example is the President of Procter and Gamble appearing on the Donahue show announcing that he is affiliated with the Church of Satan. The message is targeted to Christians who are asked to boycott Procter and Gamble products. This is also totally false. There are legitimate reasons Christians may want to boycott companies (such as the Disney boycott some are supporting), but to boycott Procter and Gamble because of false information is very sad... and it makes Christians look very bad. Again, people should be responsible and check references. If you write Procter and Gamble, you'll get a packet of materials containing some letters, even one from Billy Graham stating that the Procter and Gamble story is false. I wonder how many thosands of dollars are lost by Procter and Gamble each year because of lost revenue from people believing the story or from having to send out all those information packets.

What's even more amazing about these stories is that they were probably created by just one person out there. One average Joe. One average person and one small message having such a devastating international impact. This sense of power that people get is probably why people keep inventing new rumors. The Internet has great power for good... or for evil. The good is obvious, and people keep boasting about it. But let's not forget the evil, too. Be careful out there! Handle the Internet with care!

In time, you'll learn how to discern truth from fiction. Here's a quick tip for those forwarded Emails: Look to see who the Email came from. Often it's completely anonymous. Next, look for contact information, like an address, telephone number, web page address, etc. The best would be the address of an authoritative source that can authenticate the information... but in these bogus Emails there's usually nothing. Finally, look for this: If the message instructs you to forward it to as many people as possible, that is a big clue that it's bogus. There's almost always no reason to do this. I'm sure national emergencies will be announced on TV and will not need to be haphazardly announced in anonymous Email messages. And there's no such thing as counting the number of Emails sent and having a certain amount of money donated to a charity for each message sent since there's no way to count Email messages. Be skeptical. Don't believe it!

Click here for part 5

Document last modified 08 Jan 00. (C) 2000 by Kevin Jay North; see also full copyright notice & disclaimers..

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