When the time comes to start thinking about making your first connection to the Internet, the first question you must answer is, "Which Internet service provider should I work with?"
NOTE: In this section, I assume that you want a WinSock-based SLIP or PPP connection to the Internet, although much of this discussion probably applies to other sorts of Internet connections as well.
Arriving at the proper answer to that question can be either extremely simple or really quite difficult. Let me explain. If you live in a place where there is only one local Internet provider, the answer is quite easy -- work with a local provider whenever possible, because it's almost always cheaper to make a local phone call than to call long distance. However, if you're blessed, or cursed, with a multitude of Internet providers, the choice becomes more difficult. Although you then have more to choose from, you also have to spend more time figuring out the differences. Here are my opinions on two basic variables, cost and service.
The first and, for most people, most important variable is cost. Unless you have more money than sense, it's not fun to throw money away unnecessarily. However, it can sometimes be difficult to determine the actual cost of your connection, especially if the provider has numerous little charges here and there and if you have to factor in telephone charges.
The first thing to look for is a flat-rate account, under which you pay a set fee every month, no matter how much time you spend connected. If you can get a flat-rate account, do it. They simply can't be beat for most people, and the lack of stress over how large your next bill will be is well worth it, in my opinion.
NOTE: Some providers offer discounts if you pay for several months or even a year in advance -- it's worth asking them if they have any such discount plans when you sign up.
Some flat-rate plans are flat-rate, but come with some reasonable restrictions to prevent people from abusing the service. For instance, Northwest Nexus has a two-hour-on, two-hour-off policy that it can enforce if necessary. Without such a policy, it would be easy for someone to connect and leave the modem connected all day, preventing anyone else from using that modem at the host. Another restriction you may see is a policy of disconnecting connections that haven't had any traffic pass over them in a certain number of minutes. Sometimes this restriction can be a pain, since I can easily spend longer than ten minutes reading and then responding to a thoughtful message in Usenet news, all the time without sending any traffic. If you have problems with a too-short timeout value, try setting Eudora to check your email every few minutes to force some traffic to go over the connection.
A number of providers don't offer straight flat-rate plans, but instead offer flat rates up to a certain number of hours. So, you may pay $30 for 60 hours of use, or something similar. After that hourly limit, the provider usually charges a few dollars per hour. Again, this rate system is designed to make sure that some people don't abuse the system to the detriment of all the other users. If a provider you're considering uses such a system, you might want to ask if there's any way you can check how long you've been connected online, so you can see if you're close to the time limit. In addition, I recommend asking what the policy is on isolated incidents in which, say, some emergency happens and you have to leave the computer suddenly while it's still connected, and it's still connected 12 hours later when you can get back. Most good providers will simply credit you with the time if it's a one-time occurrence.
I seldom recommend accounts that charge you by the hour because I personally find it very stressful when I'm working to be continually worrying about the clock ticking off dollars in the background. However, per-hour accounts can make sense for people who don't use them often, because the overall cost is lower than a flat-rate account's monthly fee. For instance, CompuServe used to use a pricing scheme of $2.50 per month and high hourly fees, and that's the sort of account I still have. Since I don't use CompuServe much, that pricing scheme is actually a lot cheaper for me than its current standard pricing plan, which costs $9.95 per month, even if you don't use it. If you decide to go with a per-hour pricing plan, pay close attention to your bills so you can tell if it makes sense to switch to a different sort of account, assuming that's an option.
Although it's less common, some providers charge small amounts for file or email storage, such as $1 per megabyte per month. Since you wouldn't normally store files on the provider's host machine if you use a SLIP or PPP account, the main thing to watch out for is email, which is always stored on the provider's email server until you call in. The catch here is that it's possible to set some email programs to leave copies of the mail on the server, thus wasting space and potentially racking up charges. Only leave mail on the server if you know you need to retrieve it again from another machine.
Another reason you might be charged for storage space is if your provider allows you to create your own Web page or anonymous FTP directory. If that's true, then you're getting some service for your money, so it should be easy to determine if the service is worth the charge. More on this later, since not all providers offer such services.
Many people don't think about phone charges properly, which leads to some confusion about how they interact with any fees charged by an Internet provider.
Almost everyone who wants to use the software with this book along with a PC and modem to make an Internet connection has a telephone connection that can make local calls for free (although this is less true in countries other than the U.S.). Thus, a local telephone call won't add to your bill (assuming of course that it truly is free of time charges), which is the main reason I always recommend that people work with an Internet provider that offers a local number.
Recently, and this will continue to be even more true in the future, some national Internet providers have sprung up, offering Internet access via packet-switched networks such as the CompuServe Packet Network and SprintNet, both of which have many local numbers around the country. This means that even though you don't pay for the telephone call (a good thing), you usually pay an extra per-hour charge to the Internet provider. The provider then passes this charge on to the company, CompuServe or Sprint, that provided the network. As a result, national providers almost always have some kind of per-hour component to their rate systems, and you should make sure that it's a good deal for you before taking it, especially if the per-hour charge is higher than you would pay calling long distance to a provider with a cheaper rate system. So even though you can call a local number to access a national Internet provider, that provider's offices probably aren't anywhere near you. More on this limitation of national providers in a bit.
Many people live where they can't call an Internet provider locally, nor can they call one of the packet-switched networks locally. What to do? Well, there are two basic choices. First, break down and make that long-distance call to an Internet provider that otherwise has good rates and policies. Second, check out Internet providers that offer connections via 800 numbers. Let's look at these two options in detail.
Racking up huge long-distance bills goes against the grain for many of us, myself included, partly because when I was growing up it was long distance to call just about anyone we knew. However, now that there's plenty of competition in the long-distance market, you can choose a long-distance company that provides the best package for the way you call.
If you just have some basic deal with the long-distance company, it might cost as much as 25¢ per minute, depending on the time of day that you call. However, if you sign up for one of the special calling plans, you can significantly reduce that per-minute charge. For instance, MCI offers a Friends and Family plan that gives a 20 percent discount on calls you make after 5:00 p.m. and on weekends, or something like that. If the number you're calling is also an MCI customer (many providers set up specific numbers for this purpose), then you get a 40 percent discount. In addition, MCI reportedly has a Best Friends program that gives you a 40 percent discount on any one number. Sprint and AT&T undoubtedly have comparable plans, but since the details vary greatly and since the plans tend to change frequently, you should call to find out what would be best for you. In addition, small long-distance companies have sprung up that offer creative and inexpensive packages. Check your Yellow Pages for a list of the less well-known long-distance providers in your area and compare their prices along with those from the big guys.
COMPANY CUSTOMER SERVICE NUMBER ------- ----------------------- AT&T 800-222-0300 MCI 800-950-5555 Sprint 800-877-4000
In talking with the support people at my provider, Northwest Nexus, I gather that some Northwest Nexus customers have managed to get long-distance telephone rates as low as 7¢ per minute, or $4.20 per hour. It may not be possible for you to get exactly the same rates, so figure out what the best per-minute charge you can get is, and then multiply that by 60 to find the per-hour charge. Keep that charge in mind, since you'll want to compare it to the alternative, calling an 800 number.
NOTE: One advantage of calling long-distance is that since the phone charges may be more or less the same no matter which Internet provider you choose, you can pick any provider in the country. That enables you to base your decision on variables other than cost, such as support, reliability, and other services.
800 numbers deceive many people because, as we all know, calling an 800 number is free, right? Well, no. When you call an 800 number, any 800 number, the phone company bills the company on the other end just as they would bill you for a long-distance charge. In other words, an 800 number is merely a way of reversing the charges.
If you're calling a tech support number or ordering something from a mail-order company, you probably never see that charge, since the company in question merely absorbs it as a cost of doing business and adds it to the overall pricing structure. However, when you call an 800 number to connect to an Internet provider, the Internet provider passes the cost right back to you in the form of a per-hour charge.
There's nothing wrong with this mechanism, but you shouldn't pretend that there's anything different about it compared with a long-distance call. Either way, the telephone company makes money for each minute you stay online. The only difference is that with a long-distance call, you pay the phone company directly; with an 800 number, you pay the Internet provider, who then pays the phone company.
The problem comes in the rates. It's pretty easy to get discount rates around 10¢ per minute ($6.00 per hour) and as I noted previously, some people have gotten as low as 7¢ per minute ($4.20 per hour). The lowest I've seen an Internet provider go on an 800 number is $5.00 per hour, and frankly, I don't know how that provider, DataBank, Inc. (email@example.com) does it, since everyone else charges between $8 and $12 per hour.
All I'm saying here is that you should assemble as much comparative information as you can before you decide what is or is not the best deal for you. I cannot tell you what's cheapest because I don't know what all the variables are for you -- which long-distance company and calling plan you use, whether it's cheaper or more expensive to call long-distance within the state, and so on.
In some ways, making the decision of which provider to use based on cost alone is simple. You figure out the salient numbers, add them all up, and try to determine what your monthly bill will look like. End of story, assuming that one provider stands out over others. But what if cost isn't the deciding factor? What if you discover that there are three providers in your area and they all charge about the same amount (which wouldn't be surprising, given the demands of local competition in our capitalistic society). That's when you have to choose based on services. As I said above, I'm assuming here that all the providers you've narrowed your choice to support SLIP or PPP so you can use WinSock-based applications. So what differentiates providers? Reliability (and its cohorts, accessibility and support) and special services such as personal Web pages and custom domain names.
These three topics all fit together quite closely and are inherently related to how important a given Internet provider thinks its customers are. If a provider wants to concentrate on doing the best possible job for the customer, none of these three should ever be a problem. But in the real world, tradeoffs are made, and in my experience you sometimes get what you pay for in terms of reliability, accessibility, and support.
Just the other day I corresponded with someone who was having all sorts of problems with his account. I couldn't see anything wrong in what he was doing, so I recommended he try another provider that might do things differently. He got an account with the other provider, and everything worked on the first try. I pass on this anecdote because I want to you to realize that you don't have to put up with a lousy provider, for whatever reason. You can always switch to a different one (although of course, then you must go through the decision process of which one to pick again, but hey, you can't have everything!).
Reliability is a simple issue, but it's hard to determine before signing up. Do the provider's machines crash often, and if they do crash, does the provider lose email? Can you almost always connect to the outside Internet (sometimes such connection problems aren't your provider's fault, but lie further downstream)? Can you post a message to Usenet news and be sure that it will make it out to the rest of the world?
These are just a few of the questions that you should periodically ask yourself when you're working with a provider. You can't know this information beforehand, except perhaps from talking to an existing customer, and the provider certainly won't tell you if its setup is unreliable. But problems happen, and if they aren't fixed promptly and properly, it's tremendously frustrating. The last thing you want to do is start using a provider in your home-based business, say, and then find out that because of a technical glitch all the email to your account bounced for a week while you were on vacation.
Although it may seem as though I covered accessibility previously, I'm thinking of a more specific issue. This is a simple question. Can you almost always get through to your provider's modems whenever you want to? There's nothing worse than getting a busy signal for hours on end, even with automatic redial. And it's even worse when your provider has bad modems that just ring and ring and ring and....
Busy signals are a fact of life with any provider. The reason is simple. No provider could possibly afford to have one modem and one phone per customer without charging exorbitant rates. Every provider tries to maintain a balance, then, between the number of customers and the number of modems and phone lines. This balance requires that you get busy signals occasionally when you call at the busiest times of night (after dinner), because otherwise the provider would be paying for phone lines and modems that would sit unused for the rest of the day -- an obvious waste of money.
As providers grow, they must continually add modems and phone lines, and sometimes it can take the phone company a week longer than expected to fill the order for more phone lines. Thus, it's acceptable for a provider to have even bad busy signal problems as long as it's only for a short period of time and those phone lines are on order. If busy signals are a chronic problem, especially at odd times of the day, get a different provider. You can't learn to live on the Internet if you have to spend 30 minutes waiting for a free modem.
Finally, let's face it. The world is not a perfect place, and problems occur. Heck, they occur all the time. But what's important is that the provider go out of its way to fix the problems promptly, help you when you send email or call, and generally be responsive and responsible.
Technical support is a tremendously hard and stressful job, so not all providers have equally good support staffs, but a provider that wants happy customers will make sure to hire quality support folks who know what they're doing and can help in almost every situation.
Another thing to check for is a provider that will inform its customers of known downtime through a mailing list, newsgroup, or login message. It's not nearly as big a deal to not use your account if you know in advance that you can't do so between 12:00 and 1:00 in the afternoon on a specific day.
Finally, if you're using a national provider, you should check on the hours it offers tech support, just in case you happen to be on the opposite coast and can't get support when you might want it. In my experience, local providers generally offer more accessible and better support, perhaps in part because they're not attempting to serve so many people from so many places.
It's hard for me to anticipate what sort of special services an Internet provider might offer, but here are a few I've seen in the past. In my experience, a smaller, local provider is more likely to be flexible enough to offer these sorts of special services than a large national provider (although exceptions certainly exist in both directions).
Many people prefer to have a custom domain name instead of the name of the provider's domain, and some providers can help you get such a name. You can't just pick any name, such as ibm.com, since most of the obvious ones have already been taken, but some providers can search for free names from a list you give them and apply for the name for you. Then, unless you get a dedicated connection or move to another provider, that domain name points to your provider's computers.
It's often easier for providers to give out domain names under their domain. So for instance, Northwest Nexus controls the wa.com domain, and can provide domain names under that domain (which is merely an alias to another machine) quite easily. My friend Bill got his domain name, beer.wa.com, that way. These subdomain names are easier to get, since the provider doesn't have to ask the InterNIC for them, but they also aren't portable to another provider.
In this day and age of the World Wide Web, it seems that everyone wants to have his or her own Web page. It's not that hard to create one in HTML, but finding a server that will carry it can be a bit difficult, and this is another area in which good Internet providers can distinguish themselves. Some may charge a small monthly fee for such a service, but it may be well worth the cost, depending on how badly you want your own Web page.
As with personal Web pages, it can be handy to have a directory on an anonymous FTP server if you want to put files there for anyone in the world to retrieve. Some providers offer this, and as with the Web pages, some charge extra.
Although most providers would ask you to get two accounts if you want to let your spouse or children use the Internet on their own, some providers can set up email aliases if you just want to have another email address that comes into the same mailbox as your standard address. So, for instance, you might have your personal account and have a company name email address that is an alias to your personal account.
ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network -- a digital phone line) may not be as widespread as everyone would like, and in some areas it can be both hard to find and expensive when you do find it. But, if you can get an ISDN connection to your house for a reasonable rate, it would be good if your Internet provider supported it. The same goes for new modem standards, cable modems, and the like -- is your provider going to keep up with new technology so you can connect to the Internet at the fastest possible speed?
Similarly, although this isn't that important right away, if you decide to move up to a dedicated connection via a frame relay 56K line, for instance, can your provider help you? If so, that makes the move much easier than if you have to find a new provider for your dedicated connection.
Most Internet providers concentrate on providing access to the Internet rather than providing information on the Internet, but many of them also put together Web pages about events or issues of local interest. I don't consider this a major reason to go with one provider over another, since you can generally get to any such public site, but it may be worth supporting if you find the information truly useful.
What if you want to set up a small mailing list or run a Gopher server or something like that, but you don't want to get your own dedicated connection? Some providers offer this sort of service, although always with additional charges. If you're considering using the Internet as a business tool but aren't interested in running your own machine to do so, you might ask around about what sorts of services your provider can give you.
I hope this discussion has given you the information you need to make an informed choice between the many different Internet service providers out there. After the instructions on how to install the software that comes on the book's disks, check out appendix B, "Internet Starter Kit Providers," for a list of providers that you can easily use with the configuration files included, and appendix C, "Providers of Commercial Internet Access," for a much larger list of providers and their contact information.
The providers listed in appendix B, "Internet Starter Kit Providers," will be easier to work with than the ones listed in appendix C, "Providers of Commercial Internet Access," if only because we've included configuration files on the disk for those listed in appendix B.
Let's jump forward briefly and assume you're ready to configure Chameleon WebSurfer Sampler. In chapter 11, "WinSock, SLIP, and PPP," I mentioned over and over that you have to get a bunch of information from your system administrator. For the examples that follow, I'll be using my own access provider, Northwest Nexus, but there are many configurations for the service providers listed in appendix B included on the distribution disks. Check table A.1 to see if your access provider is listed, and use that configuration file if you can. I'm not going to explain the process in great detail here -- that information is in chapter 11 -- but I will tell you what information goes where and provide screen shots of the Custom application of Chameleon WebSurfer Sampler, so you can see exactly how it should be set up.
FILENAME PROVIDER NAME STATIC IP ADDRESS -------- ------------- ----------------- NWNEXUS.CFG Northwest Nexus N OLYMPUS.CFG OlympusNet N MONTANA.CFG Montana Online Y NBN.CFG North Bay Network N ZNET.CFG zNET N EARTHLNK.CFG EarthLink Network Y LEONARDO.CFG Leonardo Internet N GBASIN.CFG Great Basin Internet Services Y IO.CFG Illuminati Online N RRNET.CFG Red River Net N INTERACC.CFG InterAccess N MCSNET.CFG MCSNet Y WWA.CFG WorldWide Access N IQUEST.CFG IQuest Network Services N EXCHANGE.CFG Exchange Network Services Y DIGEXTST.CFG Digital Express Group N I-2000.CFG I-2000 N TIAC.CFG The Internet Access Company N MNDSPRIN.CFG MindSpring Enterprises N F-ONLINE.CFG Florida Online N LAVANET.CFG LavaNet N ALOHA.CFG Hawaii OnLine N JVNCNET.CFG Global Enterprise Services N IEXPRESS.CFG Internet Express N PORTAL.CFG The Portal Information Network N EUNET.CFG EUnet GB Limited N SPACE.CFG SpaceNet GmbH N DEMON.CFG Demon Net Y
The first thing to do is install the NetManage Chameleon WebSurfer Sampler software. You do this by inserting Internet Starter Kit Disk One into your drive and choosing Run from the File menu of the Program Manager. Type a:\setup (or b:\setup, depending on the location of your 3 1/2" floppy drive). Click OK and you're on your way. Installation is typical of other Windows applications, so you should have no problems.
NOTE: Chameleon loads its WinSock Dynamic Link Library (winsock.dll) in its own directory, which defaults to c:\netmanag. If you plan on using other WinSock-compliant software (and believe me you will), then you should copy or move this file from c:\netmanag to your Windows System directory, which is typically c:\windows\system.
CAUTION: Chameleon may alter your autoexec.bat file by placing its default directory into the path. Some people are pretty picky about the search path and the things that go in it. It won't cause any problems, but I thought you'd like to know.
When setup is complete, you'll have a new Program Group called Chameleon WebSurfer Sampler (see figure A.1). It should be the foremost window under the Program Manager, and you'll notice both the Custom and WebSurfer applications there for you to start exploring the Internet.
Figure A.1: Program Manager, WebSurfer Sampler group.
You now need to invoke NetManage's WinSock, called NEWT. You do this by launching the Custom application. Keep this in mind: Each time you want to connect to the Internet you must launch Custom (by double-clicking on the Custom-Connect Here icon), connect to the net, and keep the connection open (and thus NEWT running) until you are completely finished with the Internet.
I've included on disk nearly all the information required to attach to all the national and regional access providers listed in appendix B. To use one of these configurations, look up the configuration file name for your access provider in table A.1, choose Open from the File menu of Custom, select the file from the list of files (see figure A.2), and click OK.
Figure A.2: Custom Open Configuration.
In my case, the file name is nwnexus.cfg. This file contains nearly all the technical Internet information necessary to connect. In a few cases, a static IP address is assigned to you by your Internet access provider, and in those cases you must enter this IP address into Custom, as described later.
Now let's set up those portions of the configuration that I couldn't anticipate in the configuration files. We'll start with the serial port of your computer. Bring up the Port Settings dialog box by choosing Port from the Setup menu.
Click on your modem's maximum baud rate. If your modem is a 14.4 Kbps or V.32bis (or faster), then enter 19200. Don't worry that the numbers don't match. You're only configuring the speed at which your PC is talking to the modem, not the speed at which the modem will actually connect.
Then select your modem's port. It is probably COM1 or COM2.
Now you must let Custom know what type of modem you are using. Bring up the Modem Settings dialog box by choosing Modem from the Setup menu (see figure A.3).
Figure A.3: Custom Modem Settings.
For most modems, a Modem Default of Hayes will suffice.
Next, bring up the Dial Settings window by choosing Dial from the Setup menu (see figure A.4).
Figure A.4: Custom Dial Settings.
Enter the number given to you by your Internet access provider for its modem pool; don't forget to add special codes you need to dial out such as 9 or the code to turn off call waiting (usually *70). Also, check the Signal When Connected checkbox. It will let you know when you've successfully connected to your service provider by beeping once. I also recommend increasing the Timeout If Not Connected In setting to 60 seconds or more since some modems don't connect quickly enough for the 30 second default.
You can probably leave the rest of the values alone.
Now you need to tell Custom your userid and password. Bring up the Login Settings dialog box by choosing Login from the Setup menu (see figure A.5).
Figure A.5: Custom Login Settings.
Userid and passwords are case sensitive, so be careful when you type in the settings given to you by your provider. You can leave the Startup Command box blank.
If your service provider assigns you your own personal IP address, you must type it in exactly as it has been provided (see figure A.6). (To get to this dialog box, choose IP Address from the Setup menu.) This is fairly uncommon, but not unheard of, and even some of the configurations in table A.1 require static IP addresses, where noted.
Figure A.6: Custom IP Address Dialog.
Finally, save your configuration by selecting Save from the File menu. It will overwrite the configuration file for the provider you selected, in my case nwnexus.cfg, with your new information, so you never have to type it here again. Whew!
NOTE: If you're switching from SLIP to PPP (or back, which is uncommon), make sure your provider has switched your account. Consult with them about any changed settings you may need to make (you must make sure you're using the right interface type from the Interface menu). Also, if there is a choice of interfaces, make sure you select the one that corresponds with your account before connecting. A SLIP configuration will not work with a PPP account!
Now you're ready to connect to the Internet. You might notice that the Connect menu is dimmed. Now that you've given Custom enough information, you must reinitialize Custom. Do this by exiting Custom, clicking on the Yes button when asked to save changes, and then relaunching it. Voilˆ! The Connect menu is now available and you'll be connected to your Internet access provider in a matter of minutes.
NOTE: Before connecting, bring up the Log window in the Settings menu (or select the Open Log When Connecting option in the Dial Settings dialog box). This enables you to watch your computer communicate with your modem and thus with your Internet access provider. If either your computer or modem runs into trouble, you'll be able to see what's really going on.
Click on the Connect menu. There are no menu items in that menu, so it will simply start the connection process. First, though, NetManage presents an page regarding support and upgrade information. Feel free to read up on your upgrade and support options, but to continue just click on the OK button. In a matter of seconds, you'll be connected to the Internet and then the world will be your oyster.
The second disk has a setup program that is fully independent from the first. That is, you must run setup.exe from the second disk after you've run setup from the first disk.
NOTE: Actually, this is not strictly true. If you already have a WinSock stack such as Spry or NetManage Chameleon Sampler (from the first edition of this book), then you can run setup.exe from the second disk without having run setup.exe from the first disk. The important thing to note is that you must have WinSock installed on your machine (and it comes on the first disk) before you install the software on the second disk. Depending on the location of your winsock.dll file and the way your path statement is set up, you may need to move the winsock.dll file into the c:\windows\system directory.
The second disk contains three very useful applications that we've discussed in the book: Eudora, News Xpress, and WS_FTP. The setup program creates a separate Internet Starter Kit Program Group in the Program Manager, and then creates clickable icons to launch the specific applications.
Simply put the second disk into your floppy drive; from the Windows Program Manager, choose Run from the File menu. Type a:\setup (or b:\setup, depending on the location of your 3 1/2" floppy drive). The setup program asks you for a directory in which to place the files (we recommend c:\iskw). That's it! You have now copied the software from the floppy to your hard drive. You still must configure each application per your Internet service provider; check out chapter 14, "Step-by-Step Internet," for more specific instructions.
NOTE: Be sure and read the ISKW Readme that comes with the second disk. It contains last-minute vital information concerning the installation.