ISPs and other acronyms: Decoding your link to the internet
Would you purchase $100-worth of groceries without knowing exactly what
foodstuffs you were buying? Probably not. Would you spend $50 on CDs without
having any notion of what music they contained? Definitely not. So why would you
spend $25 each month on your internet connection without having a clue what that
connection entails or how it works?
Face it: the average citizen is happy to hand over a set, monthly fee to a
faceless corporation for the privilege of accessing the world wide web at any
hour of the day or night from the comfort of their own home computer. And why
not? It's a convenient arrangement. But it might be even better if said citizen
had some basic notion of how that convenient arrangement operated.
The internet is like a vast, international armada of computers, all of which
are connected around the globe, many of which are connected in smaller networks
(known as LANs). While the terms "internet" and "world wide web," or "web," are
used interchangeably, they are in fact distinct systems. The web is like the
surface layer of the internet which is user-friendly and "surfable." The web is
a set of protocols that allow you to access the internet.
If you want to gain access to the internet via the web, you'll need to go
through an ISP (otherwise known as an internet service provider). The ISP is a
company that lets your computer connect with its computers that are, in turn,
connected to the internet. There are oodles of ISP companies in business today;
and there are a number of ways that you can connect to any one of them.
The world's biggest ISP at this time is AOL -- America Online. It boasts 22
million users, which is said to represent 40% of the world's internet
subscribers. To give you a sense of AOL's enormity, the second-largest ISP,
EarthLink, services a mere 3 million members. Despite such astronomical numbers,
there are still scads of ISPs out there that deal with an intimate number of
users. Some ISPs draw no more than a few hundred subscribers; and their services
are therefore both more personal and less unlimited.
The most popular connection method today is dial-up networking (DUN). With
DUN, your computer's modem uses your regular phone line to communicate with the
ISP's computers. Dial-up networking is not as fast nor capacity-rich nor
convenient as other types of connections (because, for one thing, it ties up
your phone line while you're on the net), but it's widely available and it's
also the cheapest option going.