Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

2.1. What is an "Internet dial tone?"

Before you can explore the Internet, you need to have access to a computer that is part of the network. When you buy a telephone, it doesn't work right out of the box. Before you make that first call, you need to pay to have the line connected by the phone company, so you can hear a dial tone. Similarly, you can't dial the Internet's services until your modem can connect with a computer that is part of the Internet. Once you have an "Internet dial tone" you will be able to access the Internet's resources.

Getting connected isn't as easy as you might think. One day in our middle future, you may be able to plug your computer into your cable-TV box and have instant access to the information (oh, how I hate this term!) superhighway. Depending on who you ask, this will either be a worldwide free exchange of information available to every American citizen--or a global commercialized nightmare featuring 500 channels of "I Love Lucy" reruns. What will really happen? Your guess is as good as mine. In the meantime, I'll get off my soapbox, and you can think about finding Internet access in today's more mundane world.

The Internet dial tone can take many forms, serving you with any of a variety of tools, toys, and services, so you have many choices and features to consider. Because the Internet is a cooperative effort, there is no Internet, Inc. to sign up with and send a check to. Instead, you must find an online service that is plugged in to the Internet. Not every online service is part of the Internet, and as you will see, the tools available at various services differ considerably.

Note: The computer to which your computer connects to access the Internet is called your host. The company or institution that operates a host is called your service provider. Because of the vast array of computers and people that compose the Internet, service providers range from billion-dollar commercial online services to tiny bulletin board systems running out of someone's basement. No matter where you'll be connecting to, when you read about your service provider, understand that term to mean the person or company on the other side of your Internet link; when you see host, it means the computer you connect to.

Getting telephone service is simple and decision-free: you ask the local phone company for a line and you get it. Getting an Internet dial tone isn't so straightforward. You'll need to choose your access method, think about what services you'll use, compare prices and finally sign up with a service provider. At the risk of dragging this analogy too far (or is it too late?), imagine having to choose your phone company from a cast of hundreds before you could even make a phone call. It wouldn't be pretty, but you would have the benefit of choosing exactly what services you could use and the price you would pay. That's the way it is with Internet access.

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