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Getting your computer connected to the Internet can happen in a variety of ways; taking the time to understand the benefits or drawbacks of each method will help you determine which is best for you. While there are exceptions, in general you can expect that most methods will require a subscription with an Internet service provider — or an ISP.
Connecting to the Internet with a dial-up modem is one of the oldest and simplest methods. It is used primarily in homes and by small businesses. It is the least expensive method, but with the low price comes very limited performance (in other words, it is slow). Dial-up connections require a modem (built right in to most new computers) and a phone line. The modems allow data to be transferred at a rate of 56 KB per second, which is very slow by today’s standards. Many people dedicate a separate phone line for their modem so they don't have to share it with telephone calls. Any modem slower than 56 KB per second would be best upgraded to a faster one, as the cost is relatively low and the Internet access speed will increase significantly.
Digital subscriber line (DSL)
A digital subscriber line (or DSL) connection is a widely used method of accessing the Internet for homes and small businesses; it provides faster download of files without the wait associated with dial-up. DSL runs over a telephone line, with the line split into three channels: voice (you can receive phone calls without disconnecting from the Internet), a faster download channel, and a moderately fast upload channel. The quality and speed of the DSL connection depends mainly on the quality of the phone line and the distance from your phone company's central office (the farther you are from the office, the slower the connection).
A DSL connection offers "always on" convenience, so there’s no need to connect and disconnect every time you access the Internet. And DSL speeds are 25 to 100 times faster than 56K dial-up modems. One advantage DSL has over cable modems (see below) is consistent performance (or speed) because the connection is not shared with other users. A disadvantage is that you are vulnerable to hacking; however, investing in a personal firewall package can mitigate this risk. The cost is moderately more expensive than dial-up, but with greatly increased performance and convenience. Free equipment and installation deals are common.
Cable modems are another popular connectivity option for homes and small businesses. They offer the same benefits of DSL, including fast upload and download speeds, an “always on” connection, and similar pricing. Instead of a phone line, cable modems are connected through coaxial cable (the same lines that provide cable television feeds). Because these lines are shared across many users, connection speeds can vary depending on how many people are online at a given time. Security is also a consideration, because hacking is easier when many subscribers share the same cable connection. Costs are moderate and similar to those of DSL.
Satellite service is a good option for homes or offices that do not have access to DSL or cable (as can be the case with certain very remote locations). Satellite dishes require a clear line of sight to the satellite and so might be difficult in heavily wooded areas or places with other overhead obstructions; and speeds will vary depending on the contract, though they are generally good. Equipment and installation costs can be high (although check the provider for special deals), with a moderate monthly fee thereafter. The availability of satellite Internet access is a real benefit in those areas that would otherwise have no Internet connectivity at all.
Cellular Internet access uses a cell phone network to connect; wherever you can get a cellular signal, you can get cellular Internet access. Performance will be limited by the capabilities of the phone and the cell tower to which it is connected. The downside is that if the signal drops your connection will drop as well, just as it does with a phone call. The availability of cellular Internet access is a real benefit in those areas that would otherwise have no Internet connectivity at all, or for those constantly on the go.
T1 lines are standard among medium and large businesses and they are the costliest of the six options presented on this page. They’re also extremely reliable and high-performing, and are usually accompanied by excellent support services. When a full T1 line is purchased, a dedicated line is installed on site that is not shared with others. It offers a constant and fast data transfer rate — about 1.5 MB per second (DSL and cable can theoretically reach these speeds but seldom do). A full T1 line is generally split into 24 56/64 KB per second channels to carry voice and data. Costs can be very high at set-up, with monthly fees also higher than any other option.
Satellite and cellular services are automatically considered "wireless," but with the right equipment several other connectivity options described on this page can also be configured "wireless" within a home or work environment. The term "wi-fi" is commonly used by the public to describe any type of wireless configuration (though technically, the term "wi-fi" refers to a special certification that supports the interoperability between different wireless devices).