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For Seniors: Select the Best Internet Connection for You

Before you can connect to the Internet for the first time, you have to have certain hardware in place and choose your Internet service provider (also referred to as ISP or simply a provider). An ISP is a company that owns dedicated computers (called servers) that you use to access the Internet. ISPs charge a monthly fee for this service.

In the past, you could sign up with an ISP such as Microsoft’s MSN to get dial-up access (that is, access via your regular phone line) to the Internet. Today, many people pay to access the Internet through their telephone or cable-television provider, whose connections are much faster than a dial-up connection.

You can choose the type of connection you want to use to go online. Depending on the type of connection you want, you’ll go to a different company for the service. For example, a DSL connection might come through your phone company, whereas a cable connection is available through your cable-TV company.

Wireless connections provide a convenient and sometimes free way to go online when you travel with your laptop. You can use them for free at Wi-Fi hotspots such as an Internet cafe, or you can subscribe to a wireless network so that you can pick up Wi-Fi signals as you roam.

Some laptops and tablet devices can pick up a connection from a 3G or 4G-enabled cellphone if they are out of range of a network, although this usually involves paying an additional fee to your cellphone company for a personal hotspot.

Not every type of connection is necessarily available in every area, so check with phone, cable, and small Internet providers in your town to find out your options and costs.

Here are the most common types of connections:

  • Dial-up connections: With a dial-up connection, you plug your laptop into a phone line at home or at a hotel room or friend’s house to connect to the Internet, entering a phone number that’s provided by your ISP. This is the slowest connection method, but it’s relatively inexpensive.

    Your dial-up Internet provider will give you local access numbers, which you use to go online. Using these local access numbers, you won’t incur long distance charges for your connection. However, with this type of connection, you can’t use a phone line for phone calls while you’re connected to the Internet, so it’s no longer a very popular way to connect.

  • Digital Subscriber Line: DSL also uses a phone line, but your phone is available to you to make calls even when you’re connected to the Internet. DSL is a form of broadband communication, which may use phone lines and fiber-optic cables for transmission. You have to subscribe to a broadband service (check with your phone company) and pay a monthly fee for access.

  • Cable: You can go through your local cable company to get your Internet service via the cable that brings your TV programming rather than your phone line. This is another type of broadband service, and it's also faster than a dial-up connection. Check with your cable company for monthly fees.

  • Satellite: Especially in rural areas, satellite Internet providers may be your only option. This requires that you install a satellite dish. BlueDish and Comcast are two providers of satellite connections to check into.

  • Wireless hotspots: If you take a wireless-enabled laptop computer with you on a trip, you can piggyback on a connection somebody else has made. You will find wireless hotspots in many public places, such as airports, cafes, and hotels.

    If you’re in range of such a hotspot, your laptop usually finds the connection automatically, making Internet service available to you for free or for a fee. You may need to ask the folks at the hotspot for a password to log in.

Internet connections have different speeds that depend partially on your laptop’s capabilities and partially on the connection you get from your provider. Before you choose a provider, it’s important to understand how faster connection speeds can benefit you:

  • Faster speeds allow you to send data faster (for example, to upload a photo to a photo sharing site). In addition, web pages and images display faster.

  • Dial-up connection speeds run at the low end, about 56 kilobits per second, or Kbps. Most broadband connections today are around 500 to 600 Kbps. If you have a slower connection, a file might take minutes to upload (for example, a file you’re attaching to an e-mail). This same operation might take only seconds at a higher speed.

Depending on your type of connection, you’ll need different hardware:

  • A broadband connection uses an Ethernet cable and a modem, which your provider should make available, as well as a connection to your phone or cable line.

  • Some laptops come with a built-in modem for dial-up connections (though these are being left out more and more as people move to wireless connections) or are enabled for wireless service. If you choose a broadband connection, your phone or cable company provides you with an external modem and wireless router (usually for a price). Remember, however, that you can’t use this connection when you travel with your laptop.

  • If you have a laptop that doesn’t have a built-in wireless modem, you can add this hardware by buying a wireless CardBus adapter PC card at any office supply or computer store. This card enables a laptop to pick up wireless signals.

If you fly with your laptop, you may not be able to connect to the Internet during the flight. Also, it’s important to remember that during takeoff and landing, you’ll be asked to turn off electronics so that they don’t interfere with air traffic communications. Some tablet computers and smartphones come with an Airport setting that disables any disruptive communications while in flight.

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