After you have decided on the technology, contact the provider to obtain an account. You usually have to call to set up your account, but some ISPs enable you to request service over the Net; others provide self-install kits that enable you to obtain and configure an account without any human intervention (one example is EarthLink).
If you use a broadband account of some sort, the provider sometimes installs any needed hardware for you, such as a cable modem, and configures your machine to use it (although self-install kits are becoming more common). If you use a dial-up account, you usually receive instructions about how to configure that account; some providers, such as EarthLink, provide software that does the installation and configuration for you.
Be wary about any dedicated "front-end" software a provider might want to install on your machine. Most of the time, this software consists of an application that gives you a specialized interface for using the service. This software is almost never necessary and can cause problems for you. It is better to just use the configuration information the provider gives you and then use Mac OS X software to access the Net.
Even if the provider handles the initial installation and configuration for your account, you still need to understand how to configure your account yourself. You should try to understand the configuration information related to your account. You at least should ensure that you have all the information you need to configure your account for the inevitable situation in which you must reconfigure it on your machine.
If your provider offers more than one way to connect, such as via a cable modem and a backup dial-up account, be sure you get the information you need for both connection methods.
The following data is required to configure your Mac for Internet access:
Type of configuration? This information tells your computer which protocol to use to connect to the Net. If you are using a dial-up account, this is the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP). If you are using a broadband connection, several possibilities exist, which include a static IP address, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), PPP over Ethernet (PPPoE), DHCP with a fixed IP address, or the Bootstrap Protocol (BootP). A static IP address means that your Mac always has the same IP address. When you use DHCP, your provider assigns your Mac an IP address along with most of the other information you need to connect. PPPoE is most often used for DSL accounts and works similarly to PPP over a dial-up account. DHCP with a fixed IP address means that your IP address is fixed, but the DHCP server provides the other information for you. BootP access is used for "diskless" machines that use a server to provide the operating system.
IP address, subnet mask, and router? These addresses locate your machine on the Internet and provide it with its address. Most dial-up accounts and many broadband accounts use dynamic IP addressing, which simply means that your Mac has an IP address assigned each time it connects rather than having a static address. If you have a manual or static IP address, it never changes and is permanently assigned to your machine. When you have a static IP address, you also need the subnet mask and router; with dynamic addressing, this information is provided by the server.
DHCP Client ID? If you use DHCP access, you sometimes have a client ID name for your computer. In some situations, this is optional; however, if your provider includes a DHCP Client ID with your account, you need to use it. If you are configuring an account using a local DHCP server, you probably don't have to use a client ID.
Domain Name Server? A domain name server (DNS) translates the addresses the computers use into English that we humans can usually understand. The DNS enables you to use an address such as www.companyname.com rather than having to deal with a series of numbers such as 233.453.22.345. The DNS number you need from your provider will be something such as 188.8.131.523. Ideally, your provider will include several DNS addresses so you have a backup in case the primary DNS fails. (If your DNS fails, you won't be able to access Web sites unless you know their numeric IP addresses.)
Search domain? This information is related to the particular part of the provider's network on which you are located. It is usually optional. You might be provided with more than one search domain.
Usernames and passwords? These are the two pieces of information that uniquely identify you and enable you to access your account. You probably chose your own username when you established your account. Your password might or might not have been assigned by the ISP.
You might have more than one username or password. Sometimes, your ISP gives you one username and password that enable you to connect to the Net and another set (or maybe just a different password or username) to let you use your email account. Make sure that you know which is which and use the right ones in the right setting fields. If you use a PPPoE account, your username is your account name.
In some cases, you might not need a username and password to access the Net. For example, if you have a static IP address, you don't need a username and password to connect to the Net. However, you will need a username and password to access your email accounts.
Phone number? If you use a dial-up account, you need to have the phone number that you need to dial to reach your ISP. Some ISPs offer different numbers for different modem speeds, so be sure you get the phone number for your modem's speed.
Email account information? You will be given your email address (probably something such as firstname.lastname@example.org). You will also need an address for the server that receives your mail (this often has a "pop" in it, such as pop.isp.net). The third piece of information you need is the address of the server that sends your mail (this often has "smtp" in it, such as smtp.isp.net). Some broadband accounts have simpler server configuration for both sides, such as "mail."
News server? You might also be provided with a newsgroup server (this enables you to read newsgroups), although dedicated news servers are not so common these days. It might look something like news.isp.net.
Web customer support address? If your account offers additional services, such as multiple email accounts, obtain the information you need to access that site so you can manage your account.
Make sure that you collect and organize the information you need to access your account. You will need to reconfigure your Mac at some point and, if you don't have the information handy, this will be harder than it needs to be. One way to do this is to configure your account and after you are sure it works properly, you can take screenshots (Shift--3) of the various configuration screens. This enables you to quickly re-create your specific configuration. Of course, you should also keep copies of any information your provider gives you.
Most broadband providers include the modem hardware (such as a cable modem) you use to connect with your account. In some cases, they also install the hardware for you. However, you can usually supply your own hardware if you prefer (this is usually less expensive over the long haul). And, many providers offer "self-install" kits at local retailers. These kits include the hardware, software, and instructions you need to install the service yourself. (One benefit to these kits is that you don't have to wait all day for the cable guy to show up!)
If you need to install the modem you will be using, do so. In the case of an Ethernet-based connection, this requires you to connect the modem to your Mac's Ethernet or USB port or the WAN port on the hub on your network and then connect the modem to the source (such as the cable modem). If you have a modern Mac and will be using a dial-up account, the modem is already installed and you just need to connect it to a phone jack using a standard phone cable.
For information about various connection devices, such as Ethernet hubs, see Chapter 25, "Installing and Configuring Connecting Devices," p. 807.
In many situations, you will be able to share a single Internet account among many machines; see Chapter 27, "Sharing an Internet Connection," p. 855.
When you use a broadband connection, it is vital that you protect your Macs from Internet attacks; see "Defending Your Mac from Net Attacks," p. 908.
My bias has probably already shown through, but in my experience cable Internet access is the way to go if it is available to you. The access speed is fast and the connections tend to be reliable. (It is delivered over the same infrastructure as cable TV service, and we know that people can't be without TV!) Because cable TV reaches a significant proportion of homes (in the United States at least), cable Net access is more likely to be available to you than even DSL. Typically, cable service is provided via DHCP, which makes configuration simple.