Librarians and information specialists in all types of settings are using the Internet to expand the array of information resources available to them. The telnet capability makes accessible at no charge the online catalogs of several hundred libraries, and online searchers can use the telnet function to reduce their telecommunications costs for accessing certain information retrieval services like DIALOG and OCLC's EPIC.
Full-text databases, numerical files, and even software programs can be transferred to one's own computer through an Internet feature known as file transfer protocol (ftp). The e-mail capability has not only become a popular avenue for correspondence, but also is the foundation for new patterns of professional learning and communication through electronic discussion groups and listservs.(1)
While interest in the Internet now cuts across all types of libraries and information centers, readily available options for access to it have been slow to evolve. Those with direct hookups traditionally have been federal agencies, major universities, and some of the larger corporations engaged in high-tech research. Organizations wanting Internet access for their employees and constituents have needed specialized equipment in place and have had to pay ongoing annual fees ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
For a large university or a major corporation committed to providing its staff with access to the Internet, this magnitude of cost is fairly minor. But for the library whose parent organization has not yet bought into the value of the Internet, no matter how large or small, start-up costs of $5,000 to $25,000 and annual costs equal to or even greater than that are serious impediments.
Fortunately, the landscape has started to change with the availability of dial-up Internet access options. In the future, more parent organizations of libraries will no doubt become dedicated nodes on the Internet. But until such time, dial-up access is a solution that is affordable and convenient and technically quite adequate for most libraries and information centers. In a paper in 1992 in Online, Notess described the increasing number of lower-cost, primarily dial-up options to the Internet that provide libraries and small organizations access for usually a few hundred dollars per year without requiring them to have dedicated equipment in-house.(2)
Providers of dial-up Internet access generally fall into one of six categories. These categories are listed in Table 1, along with a few comments about each. A detailed list of organizations and companies offering dial-up Internet access is outside the scope of this paper. A list of many of the early entrants appeared in the Notess paper cited above, and more recent lists can be found on the Internet itself.3 This article's focus is on the criteria that should be employed in evaluating and comparing dial-up Internet access options. While by no means is there an overabundance of options available, the number of providers has in fact grown to the extent that some libraries are now finding themselves in a position to choose among several providers.
Comparing Costs of Internet Access
One set of criteria for comparing dial-up Internet access providers is cost. Many university computer centers that make dial-up access available to the non-university community charge on the basis of computer resource use. The pricing schemes can be rather complex and not very clear to the nonspecialist. For example, one university in the Washington, D.C, area charges outside users according to a two-factor formula based on how many "VAXcluster CPU minutes" and "Disk Kilo-block days" they use.
Fortunately, most dial-up Internet access providers in the other categories listed in Table 1 have avoided pricing formulas based overtly on the amount of computer resources used. There are two common approaches among these providers to pricing dial-up Internet access. …