Connecting to the Internet

It used to be that most people bought personal computers to do work—word processing, spreadsheets, databases, the sort of programs that still make up the core of Microsoft Works and Microsoft Office. But today, the majority of people also buy PCs to access the Internet—to send and receive email, surf the Web, and chat with other users.

Different Types of Connections

The first step in going online is establishing a connection between your computer and the Internet. To do this, you have to sign up with an Internet service provider (ISP), which, as the name implies, provides your home with a connection to the Internet.

Depending on what’s available in your area, you can choose from two primary types of connections—dial-up or broadband. Dial-up is slower than broadband, but it’s also lower priced.

That said, dial-up connections are going the way of the dodo bird; if you do a lot of web surfing, it’s probably worth a few extra dollars a month to get the faster broadband connection.

Whichever type of connection you choose, you’ll connect your PC to a modem, which will then connect to the phone or cable line coming into your house. Most PCs have a built-in dial-up modem; if you choose broadband service, you’ll get an external broadband modem from your ISP. Read on to learn more.

  • Traditional Dial-Up - A dial-up connection provides Internet service over normal phone lines. The fastest dial-up connections transmit data at 56.6Kbps (kilobits per second), which is okay for normal web surfing but isn’t fast enough for downloading music or videos. Most ISPs charge $20 or so per month for normal dial-up service.
  • Broadband DSL - DSL is a phone line-based technology that operates at broadband speeds. DSL service piggybacks onto your existing phone line, turning it into a high-speed digital connection.

Not only is DSL faster than dial-up (384Kbps to 3Mbps, depending on your ISP), you also don’t have to surrender your normal phone line when you want to surf; DSL connections are “always on.”

Most providers offer DSL service for $30–$50 per month. Look for package deals that offer a discount when you subscribe to both Internet and phone services.

  • Broadband Cable - Another popular type of broadband connection is available from your local cable company. Broadband cable Internet piggybacks on your normal cable television line, providing speeds in the 500Kbps to 30Mbps range, depending on the provider.

Most cable companies offer broadband cable Internet for $30–$50 per month. As with DSL, look for package deals for your cable company, offering some sort of discount on a combination of Internet, cable, and (sometimes) digital phone service.

  • Broadband Satellite - If you can’t get DSL or cable Internet in your area, you have another option—connecting to the Internet via satellite. Any household or business with a clear line of sight to the southern sky can receive digital data signals from a geosynchronous satellite at 700Kbps.

The largest provider of satellite Internet access is HughesNet. (Hughes also developed and markets the popular DIRECTV digital satellite system.) The HughesNet system enables you to receive Internet signals via a small dish that you mount outside your house or on your roof. Fees range from $60 to $100 per month, depending on the plan.

When you sign up with an ISP, both you and the ISP have to provide certain information to each other. You provide your name, address, and credit card number; your ISP provides a variety of semitechnical information, including:

  • Your username and password.
  • Your email address.
  • Your email account name and password.
  • The names of the ISP’s incoming and outgoing mail servers.
  • The phone number to dial into (if you’re using a dial-up connection)

You’ll need this information when you configure Windows for your new Internet connection—which we’ll discuss next.

Setting Up a New Connection in Windows

Naturally, you need to configure your computer to work with your ISP. How you do this depends on which operating system you’re using. In Windows Vista, how you set up a new Internet connection depends on the type of connection you have.

If you’re connecting to a broadband connection via your home network, you don’t have to do anything more than connect your computer to the network; Vista does the rest. On the other hand, if you’re connecting to a dial-up connection or a broadband connection that requires a username and password, you have a little work to do.

Follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button; then select Control Panel.
  2. From the Control Panel, select Network and Internet, and then select Connect to a Network.
  3. When the next window appears, select Set Up a Connection or Network.
  4. Select Connect to the Internet, and click Next.
  5. You’re now asked how you want to connect. Select either Broadband or Dial-Up.
  6. If you selected Broadband, enter the username and password supplied by your ISP.
  7. If you selected Dial-Up, follow the onscreen instructions to select which modem you’re using and enter your ISP’s dial-up phone number, your username, and your password.

That’s it. Vista does a good job of configuring your Internet connection automatically, without a lot of input on your part. The configuration process isn’t as simple in Windows XP. After you connect your computer to the broadband modem (or connect your PC’s dialup modem to your telephone line), you follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button; then select Connect To, Show All Connections.
  2. When the Network Connections window opens, select Create a New Connection from the Network Tasks panel.
  3. When the New Connection Wizard dialog box appears, click the Next button.
  4. When the Network Connection Type screen appears, check the Connect to the Internet option and then click the Next button.
  5. When the Getting Ready screen appears, check the Set Up My Connection Manually option and then click Next.
  6. When the Internet Connection screen appears, select which type of connection you have—dial-up broadband with username and password, or always-on broadband— then click Next.
  7. If prompted, enter the name of your Internet service provider and then click Next.
  8. If you have a dial-up ISP, enter the provider’s dial-up phone number and then click Next.
  9. If prompted, enter your username and password (as provided by your ISP); then click Next.
  10. Click the Finish button to complete the process.

Whew—that’s a lot of work! Still, after you get it set up, you’re good to go and ready to start exploring the Internet.

Sharing an Internet Connection

If you have more than one PC in your home, you can connect them to share a single Internet connection. This is particularly useful if you have a high-speed broadband connection. You share an Internet connection by connecting your broadband modem to your home network.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a wired or a wireless network; the connection is similar in both instances. All you have to do is run an Ethernet cable from your broadband modem to your network hub or router and then Windows will do the rest, connecting your modem to the network so that all your computers can access the connection.

Connecting to a Public WiFi Hotspot

If you have a notebook PC, you also have the option to connect to the Internet when you’re out and about. Many coffeehouses, restaurants, libraries, and hotels offer wireless WiFi Internet service, either free or for an hourly or daily fee.

Assuming that your notebook has a built-in WiFi adapter (and it probably does), connecting to a public WiFi hotspot is a snap. When you’re near a WiFi hotspot, your PC should automatically pick up the WiFi signal.

Make sure that your WiFi adapter is turned on (some notebooks have a switch for this, either on the front or on the side of the unit), and then look for a wireless connection icon in Windows’ system tray or notification area. Click this icon (or select Start, Connect To), and Windows displays a list of available wireless networks near you.

Select the network you want to connect to; then click the Connect button. After Windows connects to the selected hotspot, you can log on to the wireless network. This is typically done by opening Internet Explorer or a similar web browser. If the hotspot has free public access, you’ll be able to surf normally.

If the hotspot requires a password, payment, or other logon procedure, it will intercept the request for your normal home page and instead display its own login page. Enter the appropriate information, and you’ll be surfing in no time!