Maryland's groundbreaking effort to provide free public access to the information highway begins today as Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library opens its gateway to the Internet.
The Pratt system is the first in a state-organized computer network called SAILOR that allows access to scores of public data bases, as well as to the Internet, a global network whose tentacles extend to 130 countries.
By dialing in with a modem, computer users can embark on an journey through cyberspace that can connect them with thousands of computer systems, library catalogs and other resources around the world.
For those in the Baltimore calling area, the cost is a local phone call.
The opening culminates more than two years of work by Maryland's Department of Education and library community to develop SAILOR.
The SAILOR network, which eventually will span the state, offers users access to all sorts of government information, from the Library of Congress card catalog to a copy of Maryland's "Lemon Law," which provides consumer protection for the buyers of bad cars.
Maryland officials hope that SAILOR, one of the most ambitious public Internet programs in the nation, eventually will become a huge electronic depository of state information, as well as a pathway to other systems.
The Pratt library is making available 16 modem lines for outside calls to SAILOR. That means only 16 people will be able to dial into SAILOR directly from outside the system at one time. Given the limited number of lines, library officials acknowledge that the network's debut could produce an electronic traffic jam.
"We think it will be very popular," said Pat Wallace, who is overseeing the Pratt project. "We won't know until the dust settles Wednesday evening."
Other library systems in the Baltimore area are planning to add local modem connections in the next several months, which should lessen the Pratt's load. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties plan to open 16 modems each in August.
Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties are expected to come on-line with an additional 16 each in September, providing a metropolitan dialing pool of at least 96 lines.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties should be up and running with SAILOR some time this fall, Ms. Wallace said. By June 1995, SAILOR should be accessible throughout the state by a local phone call.
"The thing people are most fascinated with is not having to pay on-line charges, and they're amazed at how they can maneuver through the Internet," Stuart Ragland, the Pratt's help desk manager, said of early test users.
The SAILOR system presents users with a friendly, menu-based program known as a "Gopher," named for the mascot of University of Minnesota, where it was developed. Gopher allows users to use simple keystrokes to navigate through the Maryland's databases and connect with thousands of other Gophers around the world.
Mr. Ragland said he expects a flood of calls as inexperienced users sign on, but he's confident he can talk confused beginners through the process.
"I'm getting really good at making earthly analogies," he said.
Users of other systems on the Internet can connect with the Maryland system by using SAILOR's Internet address, which is 188.8.131.52.
In addition to free public access to Internet databases, the Pratt is offering a fee-based Internet electronic mail service. E-mail is a messaging system that allows users to write messages of virtually any length to other Internet users around the world, ranging from college students and researchers to President Clinton.
The Pratt has two types of accounts. For $35 a year, users receive an e-mail address with one megabyte of storage space, enough for approximately 250 single-spaced, typewritten pages. For $100 a year, users get 5 megabytes of space, as well as access to "FTP," an acronym for "file transfer protocol." This enables users to retrieve documents or files from other computer systems and transfer them to their personal computers. In addition, they will have access to "telnet," a program that allows them to log directly onto other Internet systems.
Until now, Internet e-mail has required access to a computer system connected to the Internet, such as those at colleges or universities; an account on a commercial Internet provider, which typically runs about $25 per month; or a subscription to an on-line information system such as Prodigy, CompuServe, America OnLine, Delphi or GEnie. Commercial systems typically charge at least $9 per month, and some impose additional hourly charges or fees for Internet messages.
To receive an e-mail address, any Maryland resident may open an account in person at any Pratt library branch. Applicants will need to provide identification bearing a photograph. The library will send users their password through the mail. The Pratt has allotted an additional eight modem lines using a different phone number for its e-mail users, although they can also access their accounts from the regular SAILOR number.
The Baltimore County Public Library will also offer its users e-mail accounts, although a schedule and fees have not been established yet, according to Deputy Director Jean-Barry Molz. Other libraries in the metropolitan area have not yet announced whether they will offer the e-mail option.
For information and help with the Pratt's system computer owners can call 396-4636.
Here's how to connect to the SAILOR system with a personal computer:
1. Set your modem software to the modem's top speed (from 1,200 to 14,400 bits per second). Set 8 data bits, no parity and 1 stop bit. Terminal emulation should be VT100.
2. Have the modem dial 605-0500 in Baltimore. When the systems connect, press Enter.
3. You should see a "Welcome to SAILOR" message and a short menu. Type "2" and press Enter.
4. At the "login:" prompt, type "gopher" and press Enter.
5. At the "Password:" prompt, just press Enter.
6. You should see a short welcoming screen and a request for your terminal type. If you are set to a VT100 emulation, just press Enter. That will bring up SAILOR's main menu screen.
Within a Gopher system, you can choose a menu item by typing the number and pressing Enter, or by using the up and down cursor keys to point to an item, then pressing Enter or the right cursor key. To move back to a previous menu, type "u" (for "up") or use the left cursor arrow. A slash at the end of an item means it leads to another menu; a period at the end means it will bring up a document.
To learn more about the commands in Gopher, pick No. 1 from the main menu, "Using SAILOR/", then pick No. 2, "How to use SAILOR/" and proceed from there.