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Accessing the Internet

Introduction

The Internet is now available on a vast range of technologies. Some of the latest devices which offer connectivity to the Internet are: tablets, mobile phones and PDA's. As technology advances at a rapid pace, it's becomes difficult to define all of the options available to access the Internet.

The Internet does no rely on specific hardware and software; all that it requires is that the hardware/software is capable of supporting packet switching and TCP/IP. The desktop computer - alongside a modem/router - is the most obvious device that supports the above. The Internet evolved from of the ARPANET computer network: the first computers attached to the ARPANET computer network were:

  1. SDS Sigma 7
  2. DEC PDP-10
  3. IBM 360/75
  4. SDS 940

Apart from the IBM 360/75, the other computers were manufactured by companies that are long since defunct. It should also be noted that all of the above computers were running on different operating systems: TENEX and MVT were two. Therefore, it should become clear that the Internet does not require specific hardware or operating system.

Public Internet Access

The computer networks which evolved into the Internet - ARPANET, CSNET and NSFNET - were funded by the U.S. federal government, and were not available to the general public. Only by the 1990 were Internet Service Providers (computer networks) created that sold Internet access to the general public.

Access, during the early 1990's, tended to be expensive; likewise the cost of computers and the associated hardware. The cost of access saw the innovation of cybercafe's: where the general public could pay for access (usually on an hourly rate) while having a cup of coffee etc.

By the late 1990's, access to the Internet increased, broadband was invented, and the cost of access was lowered. Likewise, mobile technology advanced, and WAP and other mobile protocols enabled access to the Internet. Telecommunications devices, like mobile phones, lend themselves ideally to the technology of the Internet.

From 2005-2014, a pattern evolved: the Internet was being accessed more and more by mobile devices (smartphones, pda's, tablets, laptops) rather than by desktops. The significant advantage of mobile devices is that they can access the Internet from virtually any location (due to Wifi and access hubs).

Accessing the Internet from your home

The majority of Internet users (2014) still access the Internet via a personal computer; be it a desktop or laptop computer. The majority of home computers run on one of three computer platforms (operating systems): Windows, Linux or Apple's OS. Provided below, is a list of the requirements to access the Internet with a personal computer. For the technological novice, a simple list is:

  1. Landline Socket - needed to connect to the Internet.
  2. Computer - needed to view services on the Internet.
  3. Router - sends and receives data from the Internet; creates a LAN.
  4. Access Account (ISP) - end users need to pay for data transit on the Internet.

The above requirement list, but detailed further:

  1. UK Address - landline broadband (coaxial, fiber optic or copper wired)
  2. Landline Socket - line rental with a provider (BT etc).
  3. Computer - including ports such as: usb and ethernet.
  4. Operating System - which has network capability (packet switching).
  5. Network Device - modem/router/network card to send data to the Internet.
  6. Access Account - with an access provider (Internet Service Provider).
  7. Cables - (USB, Ethernet) to connect the modem/router to the computer.
  8. Cables - to connect the router to the telephone socket.
  9. Software - to access Internet services: web browser, skype, email client etc.

The one disadvantage to accessing the Internet through a personal computer - compared to a mobile phone - is it's complexity. With a mobile device, a user only needs one piece of equipment (the phone) and an access package. With a computer, a user requires more equipment and software - alongside an access package - which can be daunting prospect to a technological novice.

Access Account (ISP): The Options

The Internet is comprised of a hierarchy of computer networks; computer networks below the highest level (tier one network) have to pay for access (upstream transit of data). The end user (home user is the lowest level in the hierarchy of the Internet; therefore they will always have to pay for access to the Internet.

The home pays an Internet Service Provider for access to the Internet. The network infrastructure of Internet Service Providers varies; some only offer dialup access, others only satellite access, while other ISP's offer a variety of access technologies. Likewise, an end-user will need to own the correct hardware that can communicate with the network infrastructure of the Internet Service Provider: a router for broadband, dongle for mobile access etc.

At present (2014) the most common access technologies are:

Dialup

Dialup was the most common connection technology used in the 1990s: the reason being, that a dialup connection requires no infrastructure except the telephone network (which already existed). Dialup is classified as a transitory type of access technologies: due to either the user, telephone network, or ISP terminating the connection.

As stated, dial-up uses the copper landline telephone infrastructure; a user requires a dialup modem, which converts data packets into a analogue audio frequency signal - to establish a link to an ISP. Dialup has a theoretical limit on the speed it can transfer data: which is a 56 kbit/s download rate and a 48 kbit/s upload rate. V.90 and V.92 are two dial-up protocol technologies which maximise this data transfer limit. Dialup connections were enabled by either an: external modem, or an internal modem.

The advantage of dial-up is it's simplicity, it requires no infrastructure except an existing telephone network. For this reason it is (2014) still used in rural areas of the UK; which are not connected to a broadband network. The disadvantage of dial-up is it's speed: at least 10 times slower than broadband. A dialup connection - when established - stops all incoming and outgoing phone calls. The download/upload speed can be greatly effected by line noise.

Broadband

"Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access"

Broadband Internet access refers to an access technology which provides a download rate (speed) of at least 256 kbit/s. The term can be broken down into two components: 'broad' and 'band': 'broad' refers to ability to support multiple signals/channels, and 'band' refers to a single signal/channels. Broadband is a generic term (sometimes simple a marketing term) which can cover a range of technologies, but, as a whole, it's characteristics are as follows:

1. Always connected - no need to dial in everytime you want to use the Internet.
2. At least five times faster than dial-up access.
3. Supports simultaneous use of a telephone line and access to the Internet.
4. Supports multiple traffic types simultaneously.

Most broadband services in the UK use the DSL technology; which is the most widely-available type of broadband service. Coax, cable, fiber optic, twisted pair, and wireless broadband mediums are the current (2014) alternatives. The access speed of broadband is typically effected by a users proximity to a telephone exchange. In 2009, the average broadband speed (in the UK) is in the region of 700 kbit/s, with a high of 50,000 kbit/s. Many ISPs have generated 'negative' press coverage for selling 'high speed' access packages to people who live in locations which could never achieve the speed.

Satellite

An option for remote rural areas, or boats at sea; who typically are without access to dsl or cable broadband. It obviously requires the installation of a satellite dish. There are two versions of a satellite connection: the cheaper option uses a dial-up connection to upload data demands and downloads the data via the satellite. The more expensive option use the satellite connection to upload and download data. The downside to a satellite connection is it's high latency / slow response time; which makes satellite an inadequate technology for online services like gaming. Weather can also effect the connection quality.

ISDN

Integrated services digital network (ISDN) is an international communications standard for sending video, voice, and data over digital telephone lines or normal telephone wires. ISDN is a reliable technology which was heavily used in the broadcast and general business community. With an upload and download speed of 128 kbit/s, it's not a viable alternative for home users; who have access to broadband. But it's still a high speed alternative to those who only have a dial-up possibility.

Local Area Networks

Local Area Networks (LAN) was a popular option (in the 1980s-1990s) for accessing the Internet. LANs were typically located at educational, governmental, military and corporate locations. Therefore, access to LANs was limited and that was why most home users had to rely on dialup connections to access the Internet in the 1990's. However, with the release of routers, many domestic homes (2014) now create LANs where four or more devices can use the home's landline Internet connection.

Many routers are now wireless routers: which means they use Wi-Fi (and WiMAX) to provide greater access to the LAN. Wi-Fi uses a radio signal to enable devices - smartphones, laptops, tablets - to connect to the Internet through the router. Wireless routers can provide an 'always-on' connection and can be accessed from anywhere within the radius of the radio signal. Wi-Fi routers are continually improving to provide a stronger radio signal and provide access for more devices. Many public spaces - hotels, airports, train stations - provide a Wi-Fi 'hotspot' where members of the public can access the Internet. The Bluetooth technology is capable of creating personal area networks .

The advantage of connecting to the Internet through a LAN: is that the device connecting to the Internet through the LAN does not - necessarily - have to concern itself about the infrastructure and cost of setting up the Internet access. All the device has to concern itself with is gaining access to the LAN.

Mobile

This access option uses mobile phone towers to provide access to the Internet. This access option is wireless, and be accessed by either a mobile phone, or a dongle connected to a computer. A dongle, and similar mobile connection devices, enable computers to access to mobile phone networks (just like a mobile phone does).

The quality of the connection to the Internet - via a mobile network - relies solely on the mobile coverage and signal strength of the location. The mobile networks which provide access to the Internet are either: 2G, 3G or 4G. These mobile networks use a variety of protocols to connect to the Internet:

2G: GSM, CDPD
3G: UMTS, CDMA2000, GSM
4G: HSPA+, WiMAX, LTE, MBWA

Smartphones come with inbuilt software to access Internet services. Google, for example, developed the Android mobile operating system.