Oh what a tangled Web

You want to get on to the Internet. You don't know where to start. David Bowen offers a complete beginner's guide
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Earlier this year I started having nightmares. These were filled with strange creatures called Trumpet Winsock, TCP/IP Stack, Newswin and SLIP-PPP. Worse, these creatures continued to haunt me during the day: I was trying to get connected to the Internet, and it was hell.

Or more accurately, it was Demon, the longest established provider of individual Internet access in the UK. Eventually I got connected, more or less, but the three weeks of sweat and swearing will be remembered for a long while in my house.

This is not particularly to criticise Demon. Rather, it shows how important it is for anyone who wants to use the Net to choose the right service provider. It can make the difference between heaven and hell. In heaven, you will be up and running within minutes, sending e-mail, discovering the wonders of the World Wide Web and reading the strange things people write in Newsgroups. In hell, you will not.

The world is divided between people who treat the Internet and all its intricacies with easy contempt, and those who are terrified of it. Broadly, the first group is under 25 and probably at college; the second consists of the older mob. It includes me.

The first companies providing a gateway through which individuals could get onto the Internet - the service providers - were established in 1992. Their customers were all technically literate, which meant they did not have to bother too much about being user friendly. Demon kept its prices low, but expected its subscribers to be happy downloading files (transferring them down the phone line), configuring dialling programs (telling your computer how to dial into Demon) and doing other things that would baffle the average Windows user.

Last year the Internet escaped from the universities and settled in the columns of the newspapers. People who had not heard of it in January were fascinated by June and by autumn were looking for ways to get on to it. Demon, they were told, was the cheapest way in, so they rang up and signed on - and that was when the trouble started. My experience was typical. Unable to contact the permanently busy help desk, I had to rely on pages of abstruse documentation, and try to assemble several different programs on my computer. It was a matter of trial and error, error, error. But I also became obsessive, spending hours fiddling with lines of computer instructions - and in the end, to my amazement, it worked. Then I ran into the same problem every Demon user was facing: it could link a finite number of people to the Internet at one time, and that number was regularly exceeded. Result: almost permanently busy phone lines.Demon had the worst problems, but other service providers also got jammed up. Fortunately, they have all been running hard to catch up - adding new connections and extra help staff. That said, there are times when it is difficult to log on: early evening is especially bad.

So how do you decide which Internet provider to use? The first filter is a geographical one: try to choose a provider you can contact with a local telephone call. Whenever you are connected to the Net, you are running up phone bills. The bigger companies have "points of presence" (PoPs) all over the country, while others have arrangements with BT or Mercury to provide "virtual points of presence". That means you dial a local number and pay a local rate.

In some areas, a local provider makes best sense. If you are in the Shetlands, Zetnet is your only sensible choice; if you are in Falkirk, try Almac; in Douglas, Manx is your man. For a list, look at the back of Internet magazine.

The best solution of all is if both you and a service provider are connected to the same cable company as you are - you may find you can connect to the Internet free off peak. You should then decide what level of service you need. Most people want full Internet access because the graphical World Wide Web is so alluring. But you may find you are "disabling" the graphics after a while, because they take so long to appear. That is why a service such as CIX may be adequate: you cannot look at the graphics while you are on-line, but you can download them for later viewing. Other companies offer an e-mail link only: perhaps this is all you need. Once again, Internet magazine is the best reference point.

After this, it is a matter of balancing cost and convenience. If you are a "newbie", pay more for a service that gives you all the software you need on a disc, and provides you with straightforward documentation. It is also worth considering an "on-line service provider", such as CompuServe or Delphi, which provide a host of proprietary services such reference books and train timetables as well as Internet access. These are expensive if you want to spend a lot of time on the Net but, being American, they are extremely user-friendly.

If CompuServe had introduced its World Wide Web service a few months before, my family would have been spared three weeks of my tantrums. I might never have learned what a Trumpet Winsock is (it's a dialling program, actually). But I think I could have lived with that.