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Caught in the net

There used to be a joke that the only people making money out of the Internet were people organising conferences about how to make money out of the Internet.

This isn't entirely true, as you'll discover as you take your first steps to putting your school on-line. First in the queue with their hands out for money will be the "Internet providers", companies which provide the connection between your computer and the wide blue yonder of the Internet.

There are hundreds of these companies, many of them new businesses that have mushroomed almost overnight, all fighting for new customers, so it's worth carrying out a little research and shopping around.

If you're looking for guidelines on prices, the majority of providers charge around Pounds 10 a month, but there are companies charging less, with some offering special discounts, even free accounts, for schools.

The basic function of an Internet provider is to give you an individual link to the global Internet network. This will usually come in the form of an "Internet account", which gives you a password, connecting software and e-mail addresses.

The Internet provider will also give you a phone number, which your computer and modem will ring each time you want to connect to the Internet.

As you will be using this phone line whenever you're on the Internet, it's very important that the provider offers you a local number, otherwise your phone bills could become nerve-janglingly expensive. Although there is likely to be more choice of local providers in the big cities, the larger companies, such as Demon, CompuServe and AOL (America On-Line), will have a local number for almost every part of the country.

It's worth noting that AOL is offering free Internet accounts for secondary schools, a deal that includes five e-mail addresses, free access to an education section in its on-line services and space for schools to create their own Internet pages. This system only works with PCs at the moment, but an Apple compatible version is planned for the end of the year.

It's also worth asking for a free trial - CompuServe, for instance, offers a free month in which you can evaluate their on-line services. Unlike many of their competitors, CompuServe (with 400,000 subscribers in Britain) charges by the hour rather than a flat fee for the month. After five free hours a month, CompuServe charges Pounds 1.95 an hour.

If you want a service customised for schools, Research Machines, for Pounds 10 a month, offers access to the Internet, plus a series of education links, space to create your own Internet site and a gallery of sites produced by schools - there are currently over 3,000 schools using Research Machines as an Internet provider, of which 600 have created their own Internet sites.

Also aimed at schools is BT's CampusWorld, an on-line education service which costs (with Internet access) Pounds 22 a month. Another education provider is Edex which offers a Pounds 10 a month charge or Pounds 319 a year for a multiple-user service.

There are other considerations, such as how helpful are the help lines? Does the provider have enough capacity to make sure you get a connection whenever you need it? Can you run a network in which a number of separate Internet-linked computers can branch out from a single connection? If you have access to a cable telephone service, are there any deals on the price of calls to Internet providers?

If this all begins to sound like we're heading for jargon city, don't worry. This is a technology that is still in its early days and almost everyone ringing for information will know very little about how the Internet works.

AOL 0171 386 4155 CampusWorld 0345 626 253 CompuServe: 0800 000200Edex 0181 296 9201Research Machines 01235 826868Demon 0181 371 1234Any comments or suggestions to

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