There are six general technologies you can use to connect your Mac to the Internet. These technologies are summarized in Table 10.1 and explained in more detail in the following subsections.
Dial-up modem via standard phone line
Available anywhere; inexpensive; simple configuration; accessible from any location; dial-up modem included in all modern Macs
Very slow; connection must be established each time services are needed; not as reliable as other connection methods; can be difficult to achieve maximum performance; makes phone line unavailable
DSL modem via standard phone line
Broadband connection speeds (both directions); always-on connection; reliable connection; consistent communication speed
Limited availability; more expensive than a dial-up account
Cable modem via fiber-optic cable
Broadband connection speeds (both directions); always-on connection; reliable connection
Limited availability; more expensive than a dial-up account; connection speed can fluctuate depending on activity of local cable trunk
ISDN modem via one or more standard phone lines
Slow to fairly fast connection speed depending on number of lines used
Expensive; not as fast as other broadband connections; limited availability
Satellite receiver via satellite dish
Fast download connection; widely available; always-on connection
Expensive; upload connection speed can be limited; some configurations require a dedicated upload account (such as over a dial-up connection); requires more complex installation and setup than other methods
Direct cabling from ISP
Fastest connection; always-on connection; most reliable connection
Very expensive; requires complex and expensive installation and configuration.
Some broadband ISPs, such as cable providers, offer dial-up accounts as part of their services (some include the cost in the basic account, whereas others charge an additional fee for the dial-up access). Typically, these dial-up services are intended for those times when you are traveling and need to access your account from locations other than those at which the service was initially installed. If you are able to use a broadband connection and will need to access it from multiple locations, check with your ISP to see whether it offers dial-up access to your account.
Generally, you will want to choose the fastest connection method that is available in your area and that you can afford. A broadband Internet connection makes the Internet even more useful when compared to a slower connection (such as a 56K dial-up connection). For example, with a broadband connection, you can download files as large as 10MB or more in just a few moments. A broadband connection makes downloading even very large files, as much as 100MB or more, practical. Just to give you a reference point about how large the files you download can be, using a cable modem, I have routinely downloaded 400MB and larger files in less than 20 minutes. Try that with a dial-up account!
In addition to making downloading files faster, a broadband connection enables you to experience online video and audio in a fashion quite similar to watching cable TV or listening to a radio. Finally, a broadband connection enables you to avoid the delays and hassles of waiting for a dial-up account to connect to the Internet each time you want to use it because it is always on. With a broadband connection, the Internet actually becomes an extension of your desktop.
When calculating the cost of an Internet connection, don't forget to include the cost of a phone line that might be dedicated to Internet access. For example, many people who are serious about Net access add a second phone line to dedicate to that purpose. When considering the cost of a broadband connection, such as a cable modem account, don't forget to include the cost of a dedicated phone line as part of the cost of the dial-up account. The cost of a dial-up account and dedicated phone line is usually similar to the cost of a broadband account.
Even with the rapid rise of broadband connections, the dial-up Internet account is still the most widely used. Because you can access a dial-up connection over standard phone lines, dial-up accounts are available just about everywhere. And because all modern Macs include a dial-up modem by default, you don't need any additional hardware to install and configure a dial-up account. Dial-up accounts are also relatively inexpensive and easy to configure.
The primary problem with dial-up connections is that they are slow. Even in the ideal case, a true 56K connection, a dial-up connection is just not fast enough to enable some of the more interesting applications on the Internet, such as video, audio, and moving large files (such as those 3MB or larger). And most of the time, you won't be connecting at your account's maximum speed?phone-line noise and other factors often limit the speed you can achieve. Another problem is that you have to establish a connection each time you want to use an Internet service. The connection process can take anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or more depending on the particular situation. When you frequently need to access Net services throughout the day, the time you have to wait for a connection to be established can be quite annoying, not to mention a waste of your time.
Another problem with dial-up accounts is that they can be unreliable. You can experience busy signals, and your connection is dependent on the quality of the phone lines between you and your provider. Internet sessions are occassionally disconnected in the middle of doing something, such as downloading a file. This can be a huge waste of time, as well as frustrating.
If you use the Internet as much as most Mac users do, you should use a dial-up account only if one of the broadband connection technologies is not available to you or you can't afford one of the faster connection technologies.
If the Internet is vital to your business or other important activities, you might consider obtaining and maintaining a dial-up account as a relatively inexpensive backup. If your primary connection, such as cable service, goes down for some reason, you can switch to the dial-up account to access the Net. Some ISPs offer low-cost, low-usage accounts that are suitable for this purpose.
Digital subscriber line (DSL) accounts communicate over standard phone lines through a DSL modem. DSL accounts offer broadband communication speeds and always-on access.
The primary downside to DSL is that the technology requires that you be within a maximum distance from a central office or hub for the telephone company that provides service to your location. This maximum distance is fairly short (usually about 3 miles), and this single factor makes DSL unavailable for many locations. As telephone infrastructures improve, DSL service should become more widely available.
Because it is an always-on connection and you have the same IP address for long periods of time, security is a very important consideration when you use a DSL modem to access the Net. You must also install some type of protection to keep your machine from being hacked or used in an Internet attack on other sites. Fortunately, Mac OS X includes a firewall that does this for you, and most Internet sharing hubs protect your machines as well.
If DSL is available in your location and cable isn't an option, you should consider obtaining a DSL account.
You might notice that I am not being specific when I mention connection speeds. This is because most of the connection speeds quoted in advertisements or even in technical information are theoretical maximums. The actual speed you experience will depend on your specific situation and how your account is configured (for example, DSL accounts can offer various speeds). Generally, you need to consider whether you are dealing with a broadband connection (such as cable or DSL) or not (dial-up).
Cable modem access is provided through a cable modem using the same cable over which cable TV service is provided. Cable Internet accounts offer broadband speeds (in fact, the speed of cable accounts is faster than most other technologies) and always-on access.
As with DSL, cable modem service is not available in every location. However, if your area is covered by a cable TV service, there is a good chance that cable modem service is currently offered in your area or soon will be. Because the cable infrastructure is already in place, companies can offer Internet access without making major infrastructure changes.
One downside to cable Internet access is that you share the data pipeline with other users of the service and the cable TV viewers who are on the same cable trunk you are on (such as a neighborhood). This means that the speed you experience is dependent on the load on the system at any point in time (whereas DSL uses a dedicated line to provide service to you so that you always experience the same speed?bear in mind that even at peak times, cable access is still usually somewhat faster than DSL). Another downside to cable is that it tends to be relatively expensive (typically about $50 per month). And you have to deal with the local cable company; these companies are not noted for having the best service practices.
Because it is an always-on connection and you have the same IP address for long periods of time, security is a very important consideration when you use a cable modem to access the Net. You must also install some type of protection to keep your machine from being hacked or used in an Internet attack on other sites. Fortunately, Mac OS X includes a firewall that does this for you, and most Internet sharing hubs protect your machines as well.
Even with these downsides (which are relatively minor compared to the benefits), a cable modem account can offer excellent performance and is worth exploring if the service is available in your area.
For a time, integrated service digital network (ISDN) was going to be the thing to make Internet access faster because its access is significantly faster than standard dial-up connections. Because ISDN also uses standard phone lines, it is also widely available.
However, with the rise of cable and DSL technologies, ISDN has largely gone by the wayside. This is primarily because it is a slower connection technology than cable or DSL. To obtain high speeds with ISDN, you must use more than one phone line, which makes it quite expensive just to obtain speeds that can't match those that DSL or cable provide.
Nonetheless, ISDN can be a reasonable option if you want to have faster connection speeds than are provided over a dial-up account but can't access DSL or cable service.
Satellite Internet access works much like satellite TV. The data is downloaded through a small satellite dish and fed to your Mac. The speed of communication is quite fast.
However, satellite Internet access has several disadvantages. The biggest is that some satellite accounts support only downloads, so you still maintain a separate account for uploading information. Second, you have to install the satellite dish. Third, and perhaps most importantly, not all satellite providers support Macs?the majority don't.
You should consider a satellite Internet account only in those cases in which you can't obtain broadband in any other way and you really need the additional download speed the satellite account provides. Because of its limited applicability, additional information on satellite access is beyond the scope of this chapter.
Satellite Internet access can be more appealing if you also use a satellite for TV. Some satellite services combine TV and Internet access.
A T-1 line is a dedicated broadband connection delivered over a line consisting of 24 channels, with each channel delivering up to 64Kb per second. T-1 connections are the fastest possible for workstations but are also expensive and are usually limited to businesses to provide access for many people through a single account. Most providers also offer fractional T-1 service, in which only a portion of the 24 channels is dedicated to the subscriber.
Finding a T-1 provider is much like finding other providers; you should typically start with local ISPs who offer this service. After you have purchased a T-1 account, the ISP handles the installation and initial configuration of the line for you. Because T-1 and fractional T-1 connections are fairly complex and their costs limit them to business use, additional information about T-1 lines is beyond the scope of this chapter.
After you have an understanding of all the possibilities, you need to determine which technology is appropriate for you. Most Mac users will be better off with a broadband connection of some type; dial-up accounts just don't cut it for the most interesting Internet resources. However, if no broadband services are available in your area or you can't afford a broadband connection, dial-up certainly beats no Internet connection.
To determine which technologies are available to you, you need to obtain information from various ISPs that offer services in your area. Following are some tips to help you find an ISP:
One of the best sources of information about local ISPs is the people you know? Many people in your immediate circle probably have Internet access through a local provider. You should ask these folks if they are happy with their providers. You can also find out which services are available, whether the provider has good technical support, how much the services cost, and so on. Using your personal network is an excellent way to find ISPs to contact.
If you have cable TV service, check with your cable company to see whether it offers Internet access? Most cable companies advertise their Internet service to death, but some don't?especially when they first introduce it and want to test it on a limited number of users.
If you have access to the Internet, use the Web to locate a provider? Go to http://thelist.internet.com/, which enables you to find local access providers for just about every location in the world (see Figure 10.1).
Check out the local news broadcasts in your area? Almost all local TV stations have Web sites that are maintained by a local ISP. At the end of the broadcast, you will see a credits screen saying that Internet services are provided by XYZ Company. XYZ Company might be a good choice for you to check out.
Check with your company's ISP? If the company you work for has a Web site that is administered by an outside ISP or if an outside ISP provides Net access for your company, check with that ISP to see which services it offers and whether it offers a discount for employees of your company. Often, an ISP will provide inexpensive Internet access to the employees of a company to which it provides business services.
Watch and listen for advertisements? Most service providers advertise in local newspapers and on the radio and TV.
You should also check with national Internet access providers such as America Online (www.aol.com) or EarthLink (www.earthlink.net) to see which services are offered in your location.
Many ISPs provide more than one connection technology for their accounts. When you contact an ISP, make sure that you ask about all the possible ways you might connect. Sometimes, especially when introducing a new access method, an ISP might not promote all its options.
The process of determining which connection technology is available to you should be fairly simple. If you have access to cable TV service, check with the cable provider to see whether it also offers Internet access. If so, obtain cost information. Most cable TV companies have a monopoly on the areas to which they provide service, so you usually have only one source to check for cable modem access.
If you obtain a new Internet account via the Setup Assistant that runs when you install Mac OS X, you will use EarthLink, which has been the Mac's default ISP for some time. EarthLink is an excellent company and should be on your list of possible ISPs.
Earthlink offers numerous ways to connect, including cable, DSL, and dial-up. You should check out www.earthlink.net to see which of its Internet services are available at your location.
Next, try to determine whether DSL service is available in your location. The best way to do this is to search the Web for DSL providers in your state (see Figure 10.2). You can use a general search site to search for information about DSL providers in your state. Also, check the national DSL providers to see whether a company in their networks provides local DSL access. Typically, you can go to the provider's site and check availability of DSL service at your location. If the service is available, obtain information about the cost and whether the Mac is supported. You can also check with your telephone service provider because they typically offer DSL if your location supports it. If DSL service from one provider is not available at your location, it is likely that it is not available from any provider because they all use the same telephone infrastructure.
Beware that DSL service is one of the most over-advertised and over-hyped services around. Just because you hear or see advertisements for local DSL service does not mean that it is actually available. Some of this advertisement is for "future" service, even though your location might not be close enough to a central phone node to be capable of accessing DSL from any provider. Even worse, sometimes the checks these organizations do on your phone line to see whether you can access this service are not reliable. I have heard more than one case in which the initial contact, even up to the point of signing a contract, indicated DSL service was available, but when the installation was attempted, it failed because the service was not really available.
Check with your local phone company and local ISPs to see whether ISDN service is available. Again, get cost information and see whether the Mac is supported.
Be careful about eliminating companies that claim not to provide Mac support. Most of the time, this just means they won't be able to provide tech support if you use a Mac. The service probably will work just fine. If you are comfortable that you will be able to solve any problems you encounter, not having tech support available might not be a problem for you. I prefer not to do business with companies that don't support the Mac, but you might have to choose otherwise to get the Internet access you want.
Finally, locate ISPs in your area that provide dial-up Internet access. This should be the most commonly available option, even if it isn't the most productive.
Making the Connection Work for You
You should ensure that any dial-up account you consider has a phone number you can dial without paying any time-based fees if possible. If you have to pay a usage charge while you connect to the Internet, you are likely to connect less frequently than you would like, or you will end up spending a lot of money for telephone charges. Usually, you should look for a provider that offers a number you can dial without any toll charges (long distance or otherwise).
One of the other important things to look for in a dial-up connection is an account that offers you unlimited access (or at least a very large number of hours per month). This means that you pay the same amount whether you are on the Net for 1 hour or 100. If you pay on some sort of time basis (such as so many dollars per hour), you will spend all your time worrying about how much time you have spent online instead of enjoying the Net. Fortunately, it isn't hard to find an unlimited account these days, although this wasn't always the case.
After you have obtained all the available connection information, you should be able to decide which technology is appropriate for you. If possible, try to locate a cable or DSL provider because you will get the most out of a broadband account. If all else fails, locate a good provider of dial-up access.
In some cases, such as a DSL or dial-up account, you will have several ISP options. One of the most fundamental considerations is whether you use a national provider or a local one. National providers offer several advantages. In many cases, a national provider offers more extensive resources for you, such as better access to technical support, a self-install kit, and so on. National providers can enable you to access your account in different ways (such as DSL or dial-up) from many locations; if you travel often, this should be an important consideration for you. Local providers, on the other hand, often offer more personalized service and local resources.