Online by lunchtime? I should be so lucky

Getting on to the Internet can take weeks - even with the help of an elaborate starter-pack - as Russell Hotten, an eager newbie, found out
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The publicity printed on the box was enticing: "All you need to start cruising the superhighway in minutes. Just plug and play." This Internet To Go starter-pack was just what I needed - a modem, free software, a thick manual and a video giving an idiot's guide to connecting to cyberspace. I'll be online before lunchtime, I thought. How wrong I was: I have never undertaken a more frustrating exercise.

This tale does have a happy ending, however: after three weeks I managed to get online. I certainly believe my efforts were worth it, and would encourage anyone to get wired. And I am more than willing to accept that my ignorance of computers contributed greatly to my difficulties. Internet beginners' packs, however, are supposed to be designed for people like me, computer illiterates baffled by the jargon and irritated by the industry's inability to explain things in layman's terms. Simplicity and more of a helping hand would be greatly appreciated.

To use Internet To Go (or any other pack, I expect) you need at least a 386DX computer with a minimum 4Mb (8Mb recommended) of memory, running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. Some of the software in the pack requires a CD-Rom drive, but you can get online if you do not have one. My Viglen Dossier 486DX laptop, the talk of the computer press when I bought it four years ago but now fast going out of date, had the necessary 4Mb. I was ready to open the box.

My first hurdle was hooking up to the fax/modem. I did not understand the instruction leaflet about Com ports 1 & 2 and serial ports, and just connected the modem's plug to the only socket in the back of my computer that would fit. Unfortunately, that was also the socket needed for my external mouse. Out came the Viglen manuals to find out how I switched on my computer's internal mouse, which I had not used in years. I tentatively went through the process of selecting the settings to enable my computer to "talk" to the modem. I soon discovered that the Viglen would only run the modem at a speed of 14.400bps (whatever that means) and not the faster 28.800bps.

I then had to install software from one of the Internet service providers included in the pack, among them CompuServe, Pipex and UK Online. I chose CompuServe, not just because it was the only one I had heard of, but because the disks came with the most informative instructions. The software would not load. I re-read the set-up instructions and tried again. Nothing. I studied my Viglen manuals, and made a further attempt. Nothing. I went to brood in front of the television.

Cybertronics, supplier of lnternet To Go, provides a technical support line. The trouble is, it only operates on weekdays between 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday. You also have to dial an expensive 0891 number that eats up money from a call box, and which many employers have blocked staff from using. I decided to wait until my day off at the end of the week, especially as I had not posted the necessary form to register for help from the support line.

Meanwhile, I studied the video and book that come with Internet To Go. The former is a basic, but fascinating introduction to the Internet. The book, Teach Yourself the Internet in a Week, is a weighty 622 pages. You might just get through it if you take a week off work.

When I rang Cybertronics, I was told all the technical staff were busy and should telephone again in 20 minutes. I asked if someone could phone me and gave my number. The weekend went by without a call.

Then, a miracle. My neighbour in the flat above popped down on the off- chance that I had a spare computer disk. He told me his friend Richard, a computer whizz, was upstairs fiddling with a machine. Within 60 seconds Richard had identified that the CompuServe disks were corrupted. I was not sure what this meant, other than that it was not my fault. Such expertise could not go to waste, and Richard loaded UK Online and configured the modem/computer settings correctly.

The next day I un-installed the software just to see if I could re-load without help. The procedure was pretty simple, basically consisting of pressing OK when prompted. At almost every step my computer screen flashed up a helpline number to use if I got into difficulty. All very user-friendly, though I never needed to telephone so I don't know how helpful they really are. Unlike CompuServe, which was providing a free introduction to its full Internet service, UK Online was offering a limited trial service. It was an excellent initiation to the Internet, enabling me to explore and experiment, but once I had found my way around, the limited service was not enough.

I installed the software from Pipex but was baffled by the Registration process. The disk came with limited instructions, I guess, because the computer industry regards paper as passe. It is not: having a list of instructions by your side can be extremely helpful. Another minor irritation was that the telephone number for the Pipex helpline, printed on the packaging and on-screen, had been changed. A recorded message gave me the new number, but there was no answer. On subsequent occasions I was always held in a queue. I never did get to talk to anyone.

Meanwhile, my new CompuServe disks had arrived. The disks took far longer to load than the others, and I aborted the process at one stage because I mistakenly thought there was a problem. The on-screen registration procedure was easy, and within 30 minutes I was downloading pages from American newspapers. Two days later I received a helpful pack of information through the post. I sent a couple of e-mail messages to CompuServe's help desk, but they took two and five days to reply. No matter, I was so pleased to have finally got wired to a full service that all my previous difficulties faded away as I surfed around the world.

Until, that is, one evening when my computer "could not initialize modem". I tried logging on to CompuServe time after time, but the same message just kept flashing up. The next morning I telephoned Cybertronics - before the help desk's 10am starting time - and told the receptionist that I needed help immediately. She said someone would be available if I rang back in 10 minutes. I did, and there wasn't - I left my home and work number, but received no call. Miraculously, the problem disappeared and I connected successfully, happy that I had saved face by not having to ask the technical experts more dumb questions. But a few days later, the modem itself would not work. Cybertronics said it was probably a blown fuse and I should take it back to the shop (the fax/modem is guaranteed for five years). When I said I needed it for the purposes of "road testing" their Internet To Go, they dispatched one in the post.

I'm back online now, though I sometimes feel it is due more to luck than judgement. Internet starter packs are a good idea, and Internet To Go does contain all you need to get wired. But, even if the helplines had been better, bold claims about beginners connecting in minutes seem to me to be stretching credibility.

Contact Cybertronics on 01626 202020.