The Net has many plugs

It's quite simple - they want your money. Meg Carter on going online
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The Independent Online
"Why do we wait for letters and faxes?" asks the little girl in BT's advertising campaign. "Why do we spend so many hours travelling to meetings?" "Why are there never enough hours in the day?" She has a point. And BT has the answer, it claims: turn on your computer, plug in your modem and go online. Ask how, however, and the answer is not so simple.

"Lack of truly independent advice on what set-up is best for your needs is a problem," says Alan Denbigh, executive director of TCA, an association representing people who work from home by telephone and computer. All too often, those offering advice have vested interests.

Take BT. It appears to be offering the answer with BT Business connections, the service advertised by the "Why?" campaign. Dial the 0800 number advertised and you can access a range of PC, modem and Internet advice (including details of how to sign up to BT Internet, BT's own online service provided in partnership with News International) - but only if you are a business customer.

Now, you don't have to be a business to be a business customer. All it takes is to apply for a business line. Depending on how heavily you intend to use the Internet this might make sense, as although quarterly rental is higher (pounds 35.84+VAT compared with pounds 22.65 for residential) you can enjoy discounts of up to 31 per cent the more calls you make.

If you are a residential customer, however, you will be referred to BT residential services on 150. Information here is sketchy. "Most customers" have separate lines for Internet use, the 150 operator helpfully suggests. "BT Internet can offer additional advice - you need to call our Internet Helpline - but bear in mind they will probably sell you BT Internet," she adds. And don't expect BT to point out that you might get a better deal from a cable company.

Retailers can be unhelpful. "You must invest in the future," a salesman at PC World says. "We advise everyone invests in full multimedia capability. If you don't spend money you risk your computer becoming obsolete in three years."

Unless you have bottomless pockets, it is worthwhile understanding what you want before giving your local computer shop a call, Denbigh says.

First consider the computer. You may think you are home and dry if you have one already, but take note. Older models with older operating systems may not have enough power to handle the latest communications software you will need to go online.

The cheapest way of setting up is by buying a second-hand computer. But take care it has sufficient memory. The recommended minimum memory for second-hand machines is 8 megabytes of random access memory (RAM) for basic use.

Next, you will need a modem. Most now also include a fax function. The latest software runs most effectively on faster modems - look for one capable of transferring data at least at 28.8Kb/second or, even better, 33.6Kb/sec. Treat modems promising 56Kb/sec with caution as there are two rival standards at this level, and internet service providers are waiting to see which to adopt.

If you do not yet have a computer, take comfort from the fact that most nowadays are sold with Internet capability - with modem and relevant software bundled in. A standard computer offering a basic range of functions plus Net access will cost between pounds 1,200 and pounds 1,500.

So, you have got the hardware. But how do you use it to go online? You need a password and a map - which come in the form of communications software needed which allow you to surf, send and receive e-mail. This is typically provided by online service providers - the gatekeepers to the Web who allow you access in exchange for a registration charge and a monthly fee.

There are two types of service provider: access providers, like Demon, which provide a slip road onto the Net and service providers, like CompuServe and VirginNet, which provide specially packaged and premium services as well as Web-access. Monthly fees start from around pounds 7.

Trial and error is the only real way for the home-based online novice to work out how to use online functions like e-mail and surfing the Net. A spokesman for the computer company Dan Technology, however, has a useful tip: "Before you decide which service provider is best, visit your local cyber cafe and invest in a half-hour session to get a clearer idea of how it works and what you might need."

TCA's new teleworking handbook, costing pounds 15.95 plus postage, is published late this month. Call for 0800 414008 for further details. Computer Shopper magazine can be contacted on 0171 631 1433.

Personal Computer World can be reached on 0171 316 9186. BT Businessconnections can be contacted on 0800 800 800.

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