Different Types of Internet Connections
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 an 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.
You can choose a type of connection to go online. The type of connection you want determines which companies you can choose from to provide the service.
For example, a DSL connection might come through your phone company, whereas a cable connection is available through your cable TV company. Not every type of connection is necessarily available in every area, so check with phone, cable, and local Internet providers rather than national or international providers to find out your options and costs (some offer discounts to AARP members, for example).
Here are the most common types of connections, each of which offers pros and cons in terms of the quality of the signal and potential service interruptions depending on the company and your locale, so do your homework before signing on the dotted line:
Digital subscriber line (DSL): This service is delivered through your phone land 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 may instead 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 relatively fast. 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. DISH and Comcast are two providers of satellite connections to check into.
Wireless hotspots: If you take a wireless-enabled laptop computer, tablet, or smart phone 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 computer usually finds the connection automatically, making Internet service available to you for free or for a fee.
Cell phone networks: If you use a smart phone to connect to the Internet, you can access the Internet through your phone provider’s 3G or 4G network. Some tablets also can connect this way, and you can buy add-on devices that allow other computers to use a cell phone network too.
And if you need Wi-Fi access for other devices where there is no wireless hotspot, you may be able to create a temporary wireless hotspot using your phone.
Unless you have an unlimited data plan on your cell phone, be careful of using your cell phone service for Internet access because you can easily go over your data plan limit and be subject to additional charges.
Dialup: With a dialup connection, you use a dialup modem to connect to an Internet service provider using your home phone line. With this type of connection, you can’t use a phone line for phone calls while you’re connected to the Internet. This is the slowest connection method and is most people’s last resort.
Internet connections have different bandwidths (speeds) that depend partially on your computer’s capabilities and partially on the connection you get from your provider. Faster speeds allow you to send data faster: for example, to download a photo to your computer. In addition, web pages and images display faster. Before you choose a provider, it’s important to understand how faster connection speeds can benefit you.
Dialup 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, you upload a file you’re attaching to an email.) This same operation might take only seconds at a higher speed.
Broadband (which means high-speed) services typically offer different plans that provide different access speeds. These plans can give you savings if you’re economy minded and don’t mind the lower speeds, or offer you much better speeds if you’re willing to pay for them.
Depending on your type of connection, you’ll need different hardware.
A broadband connection such as cable or DSL requires a broadband modem designed for that type of service and a cable TV or telephone line. The provider will usually rent you a modem, so you don’t have to buy it.
If you need to use dialup service, you’ll need a dialup modem and a telephone line. Some computers have a built-in dialup modem (sometimes called a telephony modem); you can also buy them separately.
If you want to share the Internet connection with multiple computers in your home, you will also need a router (unless you have a broadband modem with router features built into it). Each computer in your home will then connect to the router to get Internet access, either via an Ethernet cable or wirelessly.
Each computer will need some type of network adapter. Many computers have that built into them, either wired (more common on a desktop PC) or wireless (more common on a notebook, tablet, or smart phone). The wired type uses an RJ-45 jack, also called an Ethernet jack, which looks like a telephone connector except it’s wider.
If this all sounds like Greek to you, review your computer’s user guide for information about its networking capabilities, and then visit a computer or major office supply store and ask representatives for their advice about your specific hardware.
Many providers offer free or low-cost setup when you open a new account. If you’re not technical by nature, consider taking advantage of this when you sign up.