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Jack Kenny assesses the relative merits of the Internet providers. Choosing the right Internet provider is crucial or the Internet, for you, could be costly and frustrating. Unfortunately there isn't a right answer. It depends on your needs, technical expertise and where you are located in the country. The most important question is: can you contact a provider for the cost of a local or cheap call? Each provider has points of presence, places you can ring in to; a company might have its headquarters in London but also have points of presence elsewhere.

Cheapness is attractive, but this often means that the company will economise on software, documentation and support. Some services are for the technically minded and will expect you to download the software and documentation and tolerate minimal support. Others will send you installation discs, documentation and updates.

Internet providers are emerging all over the country. Most are aiming at the home market; education will usually be a peripheral activity. It is important that the provider does have some provision for its education customers. CampusWorld, for instance, will have an area reachable only by its subscribers, where they will be able to access material such as the FT Profile newspaper database or Teletel, the French teletext service. Research Machines provides a front page of curriculum topics all linked to various sites across the world, while Demon has virtually no education provision you fend for yourself.

Most of the Internet providers aiming at education do make some attempt to filter the information that is coming in or enable teachers to restrict access to the full network. However, it is becoming obvious that we are educating pupils who will live in a world where censorship will be impossible. Unsuitable material exists on the Internet, but it is a tiny fraction of what is available and the average user will not reach it inadvertently. We have to decide whether the best preparation is to shield pupils or whether we need better ways of dealing with these complex issues of personal morality. Eventually, of course, students usually discover what has been hidden.

Children have to learn how to deal with all this, how to enjoy what they find good, how to reject what they find offensive, how to develop their own standards.

Paradoxically you do not want to choose a provider who is too popular. Few things are more frustrating than finding that after you have paid your subscription you cannot reach the provider because the lines are constantly engaged. Choose one that is well resourced.

Cable companies have for some time been promising a great deal for education. If one is in your locality with a cable passing in front of the school then access to cheap, or free, local phone calls could be a possibility.

Perhaps the best advice is to wait a while as competition is going to be intense. Finally, make sure your provider has the services that will help you to evolve. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines which are faster, and at the moment expensive, will almost certainly become more popular. And you may eventually want a 24-hour connection.


* Can you reach the provider witha local call?

* Is the software Windows-compatible?

* Does the provider understand education and schools?

* How many modems per user does the provider insist on?

* How much is the subscription?

* How long do you have to sign up for?

* Are there any on-line charges?

* Is there a help line and howhelpful is it?

* How easy is it to gain access?

* What is the access speed?

* Is there any documentation andhow useful is it?

* Is software provided?

* Is the software free?

* What additional on-line services are provided?

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