Generic ISP Services

Generic ISP Services

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This is an updated version of a portion of an article written on types of Internet service available for the Discovery Bay Clipper back in '95 titled "Telecommunications For The Rest Of Us 1995 by A.Lizard.

Who needs to read this?

  • If you've got a friend who wants to go online and needs a clue, print out a copy of this.

    Basic Internet Services

    Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide Internet access via a "live" Internet connection, they are continuously connected to the Internet, messages to/from users or conferences go through the network to destinations virtually instantaneously. Either Internet-connected computer bulletin boards or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will provide users with electronic mail. ISPs provide other services BBS systems not continuously connected to the Internet can't, such as:

    Shell Accounts

    All the listed services can be accessed by a "shell account", "unix shell account", or "user account". The user interface is usually a command line interface, hopefully with menus... but usually without. The programs used to access the Internet run on the ISP, not on your computer. The most common ones in use are:

    • e-mail: pine
    • ftp: ftp
    • telnet: telnet
    • newsgroups: tin or trn
    • web browser: lynx, which a text based Web browser. . . you will not see pictures or video or hear sound as part of the Web site.

    These are also the commands you type from the unix command prompt (it looks like the DOS prompt on your PC... type the command after the bracket.
    Then type 'Enter'.

    This is considered a primitive level of Internet service, to learn about modern Net service, click here.

    ISP user accounts are either hourly rate accounts where you pay a monthly service charge plus paying by the hour for use over however many "free" hours are covered in that service charge or "flat rate" accounts, where you pay a fixed monthly charge... period. Hourly rate accounts are becoming a unmourned dead thing of the past.

    For SLIP or PPP, you will require some detailed configuration information if you already have the SLIP or PPP programs on your computer. If you have their preconfigured package, dial them up and see you online.

    Most ISPs can bill to:

    • 1) Visa or Mastercard
    • 2) monthly automatic bank account deduction
    • 3) via mail via check or money order.

    The most common kind of individual Internet service service is a SLIP/PPP (Serial Line Internet Protocol) (Point-to-Point protocol - a variation of SLIP) account. This literally turns your computer into a personal "live" Internet site while your computer is connected to your ISP via ordinary phone line, ISDN, or Frame Relay.

    There are other kinds of service that make more sense for businesses with large numbers of users, perhaps if reader interest justifies it, they can be discussed another time.

    For normal users, the main use for SLIP/PPP is drastically improved World Wide Web access. This means that instead of screens full of text, you see graphics displays and fancy screen fonts or hear sounds or see movies, etc. when you log onto a Web site. This requires special software that will have to be installed on your computer:

  • Web browser Netscape is adequate as a Web browser. I'm not fond of the e-mail or ftp setup on versions 3 and earlier, haven't tried 4.0 beta.
  • E-mail program (Eudora) is adequate.
  • ftp - a good tool is ws_ftp for Windows or Win95 or _______ for MacIntosh.
  • telnet Netterm for Windows, ______ for MacIntosh.
  • TCP/IP stack: For Mac, MacTCP or for Windows 3.x, Winsock Trumpet to start with. This connects your computer and the rest of the software listed here to the Internet. Otherwise, when you log in, nothing will happen. Note that for Win95, TCP/IP is built in, you merely have to configure he network setups for dial-up networking if appropriate for you. You can find out how here.

    If only one program / site is listed, there are versions available somewhere at that site for both Windows and Mac users.

    Note that alternatives to all of these programs are available and will generally provide comparable performance, what's listed reflects my personal preferences. While you can actually simply use Netscape and a TCP/IP stack to get SLIP/PPP Net access, I don't like Netscape as anything but a Web browser, I regard the functionality of its e-mail, etc. programs as pretty mediocre.

    In general, Windows users should go to the Tucows site for Internet-related software, including packages not listed here or in versions more current than my site currently points at. Mac users should go to this site for now, until I find a better one. Check the read-me file, this will tell you what's on the site and hopefully, what it does.

    There are also ways to provide both live voice and even live video conferencing over the Internet. If even one person you call regularly via telephone toll call is on the Internet, these can provide real savings on telephone company long distance charges.

    SLIP/PPP accounts are a more complex setup than shell accounts, unless you get a preconfigured software package from an ISP that only calls that ISP or an "Internet in a box" package from a computer store which only allows you to use the ISP service bundled with that package or requires to make a number of control setting changes. These preconfigured packages are usually free with signup on a service.

    For SLIP or PPP, you will require some detailed configuration information if you already have the SLIP/PPP software listed above on your computer to set up your TCP/IP stack. If you have their preconfigured package, dial them up and see you online.

    To support a SLIP or PPP account, your minimum system configuration for either Mac or Windows is a 486 (or 68LC040) with 16 megs DRAM. You might get by with less, but you'll have enough problems starting out without your machine giving you more.

    You'll want either a 28.8 or 33.6 modem (14.4 is absolute minimum). Don't buy a 56K modem until 9/97 or later, there are 4 different and incompatible 56K standards and if you buy the wrong one, unless it can be easily updated, you've bought yourself a white elephant. (3/97)The new standard is out, it's called v____, modems based on it will be out soon. There may be fire sale prices on the older 56K modems. Do not buy them unless you know how they can be (cheaply) upgraded. This means downloadable software drivers for flash ROMS, this means replacement PROMs... but if there isn't something, don't buy it.

    (the following numbers are obsolete and will be revised shortly)
    You can get a 14.4K modem (internal-DOS) for under $50, external should cost under $65. For 28.8K, add $20 to the 14.4K prices, for 33.6K, add $40 to the 14.4 prices. Macs can use standard external (DOS) modems with the right miniDIN-8 to cable adaptor. Reputable modem manufactures include US Robotics and Practical Peripherals. While their modems may cost a few dollars more than the cheaper generics, they will bring up Web pages a lot faster than many competing models which have the same nominal speed. The difference is how they implement the V42.bis compression algorithm in hardware, compression can speed a modem up to 4 times it's nominal rate.

    Note that 14.4 K = 14,400 bits per second, or roughly 1440 cps. (characters per second) So a 4:1 compression ratio can make a good 14.4 run at not 1440, but 5600 cps, I've actually seen this done on some name-brand modems. As for 33.6K, while the line conditions needed to make it run at full speed rarely obtain in practice, the good ones will make solid connects which will fill your screen with data faster than nominally slower modems.

    A faster modem doesn't necessarily mean that you'll connect any faster once you're on the Net. There are a lot of factors which determine how fast a page will load onto your Web browser, your modem speed may be the least important factor in this.

    If your system doesn't meet the minimum standards for SLIP/PPP, either get an upgrade now before the price of memory goes up (16 megs non-parity non-EDO 72 pin package - <$95 as of 4/8/97> or get a shell account. (3/4/98) Looks like the price isn't going up anytime soon, look for under $30 price for 16 megs in 72 pin, and the premium if your motherboard handles the new DIMM 168 pin packages just isn't that much. There are several types, make sure you've got the right DIMM, take the motherboard manual along to the store if you have to. But if your motherboard handles DIMM, it will probably have a fast Pentium or PowerMac processor and it'll have at least 16 megs and probably more as of when you bought it. And you'll want at least 32 or 64 megs.

    For SLIP or PPP, you will require some detailed configuration information if you already have a SLIP or PPP program on your computer. You can get that from your new ISP. If you already have their preconfigured package, install it, dial them up and see you online.

    On-line services, and why you should avoid them.

    The best way to summarize the reputation of CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL on the Internet is to note that these major online services are generally called CompuSlime and Fraudigy and less printable things by most online users who express an opinion in public, the word AOL is usually followed by the word "SUCKS!!!" For further information, read the Usenet newsgroup or check out AOL SUCKS or the AOL sucks siteand aolwatch. There are quite a few sites that discuss AOL put up by angry ex-AOL users. These are random choices. I'm not quite sure what it is that makes AOL users so angry that they not only quit, but organize to do maximum damage to the reputation of their former ISP access. There's also a single pro-AOL site that should be here for the sake of comic relief. I'll post it when I remember the URL.

    Compuslime might be better called spammers' paradise. I've got over 150 e-mails in my special compuserve spam mailboxes, the spams myself and my unsuccessful attempts to have anything done about them. If you're a compuslime user and you hate spam, find another ISP, one which unplugs spammers rather than protecting them. That's pretty much everyone except Compuserve. Even AOL has gotten rabid about nailing spammers once they figured out how much spam is costing them. While I would not attempt to hack down compuslime's servers, I would certainly contribute a few bucks to the legal defense of anyone caught successfully taking down one or more compuslime servers and would encourage others to contribute as well. Now that AOL owns them, perhaps I should contact AOL about cleaning up the compuslime mess. Note that compuserve does have an address. I've seen no evidence that it is anything but an autoresponder, followed by the trashing of your message.

    If you are accessing this from AOL or Compuserve, you have my sympathy. By the way, AOL users can download a program from AOL which will autodial your local number up to NINE times in a row. Isn't this miraculous? Note that local ISPs whose systems were operating normally that you can't get into by the second try are rare, if you've got one, consider finding another... If you're with a major online service, you can skip ahead to links to lists of Internet Service Providers here. I strongly recommend that you switch to a local ISP. They're by and large good people, and when they run out of modem space, all they have to do is to go out and buy a bundle of lines from their phone company and a rack of modems. A major on-line service has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over several months. . . just in time for the new system to get saturated by new users.

    Online services: These are basically VERY large BBS systems with telephone connections all over the USA, examples include America On-Line and Compuserve. They also provide the usual services of an ISP, including Web access. The points in their favor are:

    1. Extreme ease of use. They use special telecommunications terminal programs which are designed to work ONLY with their services, i.e., a America On-Line disk will NOT call CompuServe or an Internet Service Provider or a BBS. They are designed to make as many dillusionsions for the user both about setup and content as the state of the art allows, they are designed for the total novice. You won't learn much about computer telecommunications from using them, though. Their Internet programs, e.g. Web browsers are generally inferior to what ISPs provide their customers.
    2. A number of computer companies provide conferences and files relating to technical support of their products at on-line service providers. However, some companies also provide their own BBS systems, ftp sites, and Web sites, and there are also Internet newsgroups which discuss many computer products.
    3. They provide a secure and convenient way to order goods and services provided by vendors online. However, secure Netscape "shttp" and encryption modes work equally well via a regular SLIP or PPP account.
    4. You can generally dial them up from any major metropolitan area in the US and from many metropolitan areas in foreign countries. However, the same is true of major national ISPs like AT&T and Netcom, and of any local ISP with "roaming" services.

    When I originally wrote this article, these were hourly rate services. Now, they charge what everyone else does, and suddenly, you can't dial past the busy signals unless you're willing to tie up a phone line for hours waiting for an available modem.

    For me, these services are a waste of money and I avoid them. The consensus on the Internet is that on-line services are used by those who know no better and the increasingly rare unfortunates who have no other local way to dial to the Internet. There are also some odd things about the way they handle the Internet, in fact, America On-Line is starting its own separate ISP business (Global Network Navigator) to allow them to provide professional-level Internet access as is CompuServe. From my observation, the AOL browser and other SLIP/PPP tools (see suck, if you MUST use AOL, replace your browser with Netscape, the configurations instructions for use with AOL are on the Netscape site, technical support page, I think.

    Worse, their censorship has gotten so out of hand that I don't see how their current users can tolerate them. The story about America OnLine forbidding breast cancer sufferers to use the word "breast" online is true. Adults should not have to use phrases like "hooter" cancer in order to get around mechanized censorship. The story about CompuServe forcing American users to stop using adult conferences due to objections from the GERMAN government until they could selectively restrict the German portion of their userbase regardless of age to "kiddie-safe" newsgroups is common knowledge.

    Posting complaints about service or policies on an on-line service is a good way to have your complaints or your account deleted. This censorship is one of the reasons why on-line service users don't get a lot of respect on the Internet. There are other reasons why many Internet users and even Internet Service Providers have set their computer systems so they will not receive posts or e-mail from aol and other on-line services. Public opinion on the Internet says that on-line services are used by people who simply don't know any better.

    However, if you simply need a convenient, extremely easy to use e-mail address and occasional place to download files and don't plan to interact much with other users, and you don't care who is reading your e-mail, you might give them a try, at least for the first few hours of free service provided with the disks that virtually every computer user has been inundated with. Personally, I reformat these disks so I can put them to a useful purpose. The free CDROMS make good coasters, decorations, or targets if you're into shooting.

    The good news is that now, WebTV is at the bottom of the food chain, now, aol and other online services have someone to laugh at. While AOL is seen as a place whose users aren't bright enough to use real telecomm software, WebTV is seen as a place where people aren't bright enough to use real computers.

    Or, check out the new free Web based - advertising supported e-mail sites like Hotmail. You can use any Web browser to access them, this even includes the public Internet access terminals found at an increasing number of public libraries. However, if you have experience with using the Internet from a network at work or your own machine, you won't like them. They are slow and frequently crash browsers.

    Finding an ISP

    This should be of special interest to you if you use AOL or are accessing this from a library public Internet access terminal. In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can find a listing for local ISPs at the Computer Currents ISP listing page.

    The rest of the planet should go to The List. This free service is searchable in a number of ways, one should hook you up with an ISP you can use. Since The List also has AC510,415,408 listings, you can also use it in the SF Bay Area. Or, check your newspaper or local / regional computer magazines. The omission of national magazines is not an accident, local ISPs don't place ads there. Another list can be found at Boardwatch Magazine.

    Personally, I use ecis since I live in Contra Costa County in California in the Northeastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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