One of the questions I am frequently asked is, "What Internet provider should I sign up with?" I've treated that topic in this column in the past, and given the rapidly changing face of the Internet business, it would certainly be appropriate to revisit it soon, but first let's talk about Internet Service Providers (ISP's) in general.
There is some confusion among many aspiring Internet users concerning the difference between ISP's and the online services such as America Online, Prodigy and others. As the online services have evolved, the distinction has become somewhat blurred, but in my view of the Internet world, an ISP is a company or organization that provides its subscribers or users with a connection to the Internet that brings the Internet to the desktop. This means that by installing some basic Internet connectivity software (a "stack") and running certain Internet applications, such as Telnet, FTP, Web browsers and the like, the user's machine is essentially connected directly to the Internet, with its own numeric Internet address, or IP number.
In most cases, an ISP provides user accounts on larger computers that are connected to the Internet, allowing users to have electronic mail addresses, Web pages, and, perhaps, other kinds of services and capabilities.
The large online services (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc.) operate large computers that are connected to the Internet, and provide subscribers with the ability to send and receive files to and from the Internet, or to send and receive electronic mail to and from the Internet, but without the user actually having a connection to the Internet. These software packages often provide a user-friendly, graphical "front-end" that simplifies access to services and databases that are maintained by the online service company, and which are often only available by subscription to that service, and not to Internet users in general.
Which type of service you should buy depends on what you want to do and what kinds of services you require. The disks you receive in the mail from the likes of AOL and CompuServe can be useful in helping you decide whether those services provide the kinds of resources you are looking for.
Another important consideration is whether you can connect to a given ISP or online service with a local phone call. If you spend a lot of time online, and if one type of service provides a local access number and the other doesn't, the decision may be a no-brainer.
If both types of services can be accessed with local calls, the relative costs for the service may be the deciding factor. A typical major online service may charge $10 per month for 10 or 15 hours of access per month, and perhaps $3 or $4 per hour beyond that. On the other hand, the typical ISP charges around $20 per month for essentially unlimited access.
If you still can't make up your mind which way to go, ask around -- chances are good that you know someone who uses one type of service or the other, and they will probably be willing to tell you about their experiences, good or bad. You'll probably find that customer service and ease of use are the major issues.
Speaking of ISP's, there are nearly 2,500 of them in the United States alone, and according to the July issue of BoardWatch magazine there may be as many as 6 million people using those services across the country. It is estimated that dial-up Internet users pay more than $1.5 billion per year to get access to the 'Net. It is also estimated that while less than 4 percent of all Americans are actually using the Internet right now, some 30 percent would like to be.
-- Doug Heacock is director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock