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Getting access to Internet takes time, lots of patience

It looked like all the other membership kits that came in the mail -- the Prodigy Membership Kit, the America OnLine Membership Kit, the Compuserve Membership Kit.

But this one, from Ventana Media, said "Internet Membership Kit," and I was ecstatic. Here was my very own on-ramp to the information highway, to the joys of E-mail, the enlightenment of news groups, the thrill of accessing big-time data bases in one neat little $79.95 package -- including six hours of connect time.

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I am by nature an incurable optimist. When I was a kid, I believed all those comic book ads that said stuff like "Learn How to Be a Ventriloquist in Only Three Days!" And I was always disappointed.

In fact, it took a lot longer than three days to get this package working. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. You'll spend hours fiddling with arcane programs, tweaking configuration files and learning NetSpeak. But once you've stumbled over those hurdles, you will indeed be on the Net.

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From the outset, the title of this software and book combination is a misnomer because there's no way to become a "member" of the Internet. It's not like signing up for Prodigy or Compuserve. No one owns the Internet. It's a huge agglomeration of computer systems operated by universities, corporations and other organizations. The best you can do is find someone to provide you with a dial-up gateway into the system. Then it's up to you and your software to find your way around.

At the simplest level, you can log on to a provider's host with any communications program and begin typing bizarre Unix commands. Or you can try a more sophisticated package like this one, which comes with two books and a disk full of specialized software that are supposed to make life easier.

The software package consists of several programs from NetManage Inc. that run under Microsoft Windows. They will allow you to connect via modem with an Internet service provider and perform basic Internet functions -- read and send mail, transfer files, and log directly onto remote systems. They're known in the trade as Mail, FTP, and Telnet, respectively.

The more important of the two books, the Windows Internet Tour Guide by Michael Fraase, walks you through the software and provides an Internet survival primer that is remarkably lucid by NetSpeak standards. The second book, the Internet Yellow Pages by Harley Hahn and Rick Stout, is a listing of Internet resources.

First things first. To make this work, you'll need a high-speed modem (9,600 or 14,400 bits per second) and an IBM-compatible computer that runs Microsoft Windows. You'll also need an arrangement with an Internet service provider who can supply what's known in the trade as a SLIP or PPP connection.

SLIP stands for Serial Line Internet Protocol, while PPP stands for Point-to-Point Protocol. These are schemes for transferring information that allow your computer to become a real part of the Internet and simplify file transfers, mail and other functions. Many providers also offer dial-up service that can be used with any communications software, but the programs in the membership kit are designed to take advantage of SLIP and PPP links.

Although it can communicate with any dial-up SLIP or PPP service, the NetManage package is set up to deal with CERFnet, a San Diego-based Internet provider that uses an 800 number and costs far more ($20 a month and $10 an hour) than most local Internet service companies. The package includes free sign-up and two free hours a month for three months. CERFnet is a little expensive for my pocketbook, but it's not a bad way to get your feet wet.

If you're accustomed to the simplicity of Prodigy or America OnLine software, which handles mail, information, file transfers and everything else from one friendly program, the Internet package will come as a rude shock.

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A basic configuration program dials up CERFnet and establishes the connection while you run separate programs from NetManage's Chameleon collection to send and receive mail, transfer files, or log onto other systems. Unfortunately, none of these programs works even remotely like any of the others. On top of that, the manual instructs you to log onto remote systems and download additional software to provide full Internet capability.

Establishing the connection took five or six hours. I won't go into the hoops I jumped through, but it turned out that the modem initialization commands the program used didn't work with my modem. Fraase's book had some advice on how to change them, and after much trial and error, I finally made contact.

Then it was time to set up the E-Mail program. I followed the instructions step-by-step, but I must have missed something (I've backtracked five times but still haven't figured out where). I was able to send mail to my Internet addresses on Compuserve and America OnLine, but every time I tried to read mail I sent to my CERFnet address from the other services, I found an empty mailbox or a cryptic error message.

Eventually, I looked at the jumble of NetSpeak at the top of one of the mail messages I'd received on Compuserve and found out the exact name of CERFnet's mail server. I'd never noticed that before. So I plugged that into the Chameleon Mail program, and lo and behold, my mailbox appeared.

Then it was time to get on the Net and download the rest of the software. The first program on the list was Mosaic, a sophisticated program developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois that may eventually turn the Net into a huge, easy-to-navigate hypertext document -- if they get the bugs out.

To get Mosaic, I had to use the Chameleon FTP program. Unlike the others, it worked without a hitch and transferred the Mosaic file to my disk. That's when I learned that this version required Microsoft's new 32-bit Windows extensions. So I had to FTP back to NCSA (don't ya love the lingo?), download those files and install them.

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Eventually, I got Mosaic running -- after a fashion. It's a neat, graphical way to cruise around the world's computer systems, but it crashed every 10 minutes. At Fraase's suggestion, I also downloaded Trumpet, a $40 shareware program that allows access to thousands of Internet news groups -- international bulletin boards that link users with common interests. It made reading news group messages a snap, but it still gives me error messages every time I try to post a message. I guess I'll have to tinker with its configuration, too.

Finally, I downloaded HGopher, a Windows program that puts a graphical interface on the friendly, menu-driven GOPHER software that many Internet systems employ.

So there I was, on the Net, and all I had to do was learn how to use seven different programs and spend 15 or 20 hours fooling with various settings and configuration files.

I was lucky, I guess. A friend who didn't start with a "membership kit" spent the better part of a week's vacation getting these kinds of programs working. And to be fair, this was an ambitious project. There are easier alternatives for people who just want E-mail and news groups -- the most popular Internet services.

But if you're a knowledgeable modem and computer user and are willing to put up with the hassle of setting up a full Internet connection, the Internet Membership Kit is worth a look. For information, contact Ventana Press Inc, P.O. Box 2468, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27515, or call 919-942-0220.

Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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Local Internet providers

Home and small business computer users looking for full-featured Internet access with local calls in the Baltimore area have two choices, ClarkNet in Ellicott City and the Greenbelt-based Digital Express Group.

The two services offer SLIP and PPP connections for users whose software supports it, as well as standard connections that can be used with any communications program.

Prices vary slightly, but a full SLIP connection with up to four hours a day of connect time costs $30 to $35 a month. Additional time is generally $1 an hour. Standard dialup connections are about $10 a month less.

For the latest information on Digital Express, call (301) 220-2020. You can sign up or get information from ClarkNet directly via modem by dialing (410) 995-0271. Set your communications parameters to 8N1. Because ClarkNet is owned and operated by the hearing-impaired, voice information is available through the Maryland Relay Operator at 1-800-735-2258. Ask for extension 410-730-9764. Hearing impaired users with TDD equipment may dial 730-9764 directly.

If you travel and want Internet access from any phone, you might want to consider CERFnet, which is available nationwide via an 800 number. It's expensive ($20 a month, plus $10 an hour), but may be cheaper than calling a local provider long distance. For voice information, call 800-876-2373.


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