This column is devoted to issues related to technology at the University of St. Thomas. It is a joint effort of Computing and Communication Services, Instructional Support Services and the university libraries. Please send your comments to tech_column@stthomas.edu.

Selecting an Internet service provider

In order to access the World Wide Web or UST e-mail from your home computer, you will need to find an Internet Service Provider (ISP). St. Thomas no longer recommends a specific provider; students, faculty and staff may choose any ISP that meets their needs. There are many ISPs out there; keep reading for guidance on making your decision.

Pricing

Most ISPs offer two sorts of plans — unlimited monthly access for a flat fee, or a metered plan where you might get a certain number of hours each month, and be charged extra for time spent online after that. In most cases, unlimited dial-up access to the Internet costs about $20-$25 per month. If you don’t spend a lot of time online, consider a metered plan; if you think that survey on net addiction was about you, you’ll probably want unlimited access.

Regardless of what plan you buy, you can spend more for various extras, such as more Web space and extra e-mail addresses. Bear in mind that UST provides you with 5 MB of Web space for your personal use. But if you have your heart set on your very own domain name, your ISP should be able to help you get one.Access to the library databases

Many of the big, proprietary online services (such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe) offer very easy signup and access — almost all of us have probably received at least a half-dozen CD-ROMs from AOL. However, UST users should be aware that if you use one of these proprietary services, you will most likely not be able to use the St. Thomas libraries’ subscription databases from home. (This is because these proprietary services use a proxy server to connect to the Internet — and in order to provide the security required for off-campus connections to the subscription databases, we also use a proxy server.)

Local ISPs typically do not use proxy servers; if you have a local provider, you should not have problems using the library databases. Many of the national providers also will work — but ask whether you’ll be able to use the St. Thomas library proxy server before you sign up.Finding an ISP

You can find listings of ISPs from a variety of sources. You can view a listing of ISPs by telephone area code at http://thelist.internet.com/areacode.html. You can read evaluations of ISPs available in your area at http://Webisplist.InternetList.com/. You can also find a list in your local Yellow Pages under Internet Products and Service.High-speed Internet access

Do you find even the fastest modem connections to be unbearably slow? You might want to consider getting DSL or cable access. Both DSL and cable access are much faster than standard dial-up access, but they aren’t available everywhere yet. Here’s some basic information on how they work and the advantages and drawbacks of each:

Cable modems

Cable modem access is available in some areas from MediaOne. (This service is not available in Minneapolis at all; if you don’t live in Minneapolis, call MediaOne to find out if it’s available to you.) MediaOne leases you the modem, and provides both the line and the ISP service. Currently, this costs $39.95 per month if you also have cable service from them, and $49.95 per month if you don’t. There are some additional setup and installation fees (which go up if your house doesn’t already have cable installed).

In the past, cable modem service provided very fast download speeds but uploaded data via a conventional modem — so you couldn’t talk on the phone while using the Internet, unless you got a separate line. Now, however, MediaOne sells a service that provides high speeds for both uploads and downloads, and works completely separately from your phone line.

One drawback to cable modem service: you share bandwidth with your neighbors. So as more of your neighbors get this service, and their usage goes up, the speed of your access will go down. But also, if one of your neighbors is nosy and has some technical expertise, they may be able to intercept your e-mail or other transmissions and read them. For more information on cable modem service, see the MediaOne Website at http://www.mediaonerr.com/.

DSL

DSL is actually the phone line; in addition to the line, you still have to get ISP service as well. (US West is happy to sell both the line and the ISP as a package, or will provide you with a list of ISPs that can accommodate DSL.) The basic DSL line costs $19.95/month, and US West will provide you the modem free when you sign up. ISP services that can accommodate DLS start at around $16.95/month. There may be some additional set-up and installation fees (and Mac users have to buy the premium DSL service, which costs more per month but has some additional benefits). DSL is not available in all areas; call US West to find out if it’s available to you.

You also may see DSL called ADSL; ADSL stands for Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line. This line allows you to connect to the Internet and talk on the phone at the same time, and provides very high speed connections. DSL does not pose the security risks that cable modem service does.

For more information on DSL, see the US West Website at http://www.uswest.com/home/offers/megabit/.

So which one is faster?

In theory, cable modems are faster than basic DSL lines. In practice, however, this depends a great deal on precisely where your house is relative to certain pieces of US West equipment. Also, both services are so much faster than standard dial-up modem service that you may not actually notice the difference. Finally, depending on where you live, you may have access to only one option — or neither.

What about ISDN?

One of the earlier types of high-speed access was ISDN. ISDN is still available, but is both slower and more expensive than either DSL or cable modem service. It has been largely supplanted by
these other options.

What next?

If you decide you want to pursue DSL or cable modem service, start by checking with US West and MediaOne to find out whether service is available to your house. (Even if the Web site tells you that service is available to you, you may want to call up and talk to a representative to be sure — DSL availability can literally vary by block.)

Once you’ve confirmed availability, check the prices to see which would be a better deal for you. Consider the privacy issues of cable modems — do you know how to encrypt your own data, or is this not a concern for you? Finally, talk to your neighbors to find out if any of them have signed up for these services. Are they satisfied?Questions to ask an ISP

  • How often can I expect a busy signal when I try to connect? How many subscribers are there for each modem at the ISP? (The higher the ratio, the greater the chance of busy signals).
  • Will I be able to use UST’s proxy server to access databases?
  • Is telnet capability available with my Internet access? (Some applications, especially library catalogs, require telnet access. It needs to be configured into the Internet browser software).
  • Do you offer 24-hour support?
  • Do you have a toll-free line if I want to dial in while I am travelling?

If you’re considering signing up for an ISP, you also might try calling up their technical support number during the hours that you think you’ll be likely to be using the service. Do you get through quickly, or do you end up on hold for a half hour?