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ARCHIVED  March 1, 1997

Proper Internet backup can prevent sign-on woes

Yesterday I saw a wonderful little bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be On-line.”In one corner of this sticker was the AOL (America Online) logo. This bumper sticker undoubtedly comes from the days before AOL gained notoriety for being the online service that you couldn’t get online – I’m sure the designer couldn’t foresee how ironic the message would become.
But AOL’s bad publicity is a little unfair. AOL is experiencing what many services, large and small, are experiencing. An MSN (Microsoft Network) member in Boulder recently told me that MSN is suffering from many of the same problems; apparently in the evenings it’s extremely difficult to get online with MSN in the Denver/Boulder area.
AOL’s problem is that it has eight million people, many of whom have joined recently – AOL gets all the bad press, while many other online services and Internet service providers quietly go about their (unreliable) business.
I use Sprint’s Internet service (Sprint Internet Passport), and that’s been suffering from serious network problems in recent weeks, too. I’ve found that although I can get online most of the time, it’s often very slow, and sometimes blocks part of the Internet. Oh, you’ve heard about how the Internet’s packet-switching system allows messages to get around blockages, have you? How data that can’t get through one way will go another way?
Unfortunately, that’s only partly true; it’s still possible for messages to get stuck.
In fact, if you find that you can’t get through to a particular Web site, as seems to happen so often, don’t immediately assume it’s the Web site itself that’s down; it may be a problem on the network you’re using.
One way to find out is using a program called traceroute. This is available for all operating systems; you can run it at the UNIX command line, or through a Windows or Macintosh program. You enter the domain name you’re trying to reach, and the program sends out a series of messages requesting responses from all the connections on the network.. Traceroute will show you where your message is getting stuck, and all too often, it’s getting stuck somewhere on the network “backbone” owned by your service provider.
We’re only three years into the Internet boom, but by now many of us rely heavily on the Internet. (Which, of course, is why there’s so much stress on the system!) I’m online throughout the work day, receiving and sending e-mail and visiting the Web sites I need to refer to for my writing. I can’t afford to be off-line, and I’m sure that’s true for many of us these days.
And even if your connection isn’t essential, it can still be a nuisance to be unable to log on and work. So what can you do? The simplest thing to do is to use two or three services. That’s quite affordable these days. Many services sell unlimited access for $19.95/month, so for $40/month you can have two services. If one’s misbehaving, try the other. And get hold of a traceroute program (if you use the Mac go to http://hyperarchive.lcs.mit.edu/HyperArchive.html, if Windows, try http://www.tucows.com/, and search for the word traceroute).
If you’re having problems connecting to part of the Internet, you can see where the blockage is. If it’s on your service provider’s system, log off and log onto the other service. I’m using Sprint, CompuServe and Internet Express – I can always get on one way or another.
One thing to remember, though. As AOL’s problems have clearly illustrated, “$19.95 unlimited access” often means “$19.95 for as many hours as you can manage to log on and keep logged on.” Some unlimited access services can be very difficult to work with, so you may want to consider a service that you pay for by the hour.
But what about your e-mail? If your service provider or online service is down, how are you going to receive e-mail? You need to understand that you can receive e-mail just about anywhere – you’re not limited to your online service. For instance, I use an e-mail service provided by the company hosting my Web site (http://www.arundel.com/).
I don’t use the e-mail services provided by Sprint, CompuServe and Internet Express. So even if I can’t get into one or two of those services, I can still get onto the Internet and get my e-mail. Of course, the e-mail service could be down, too; if you want almost complete reliability, you can use two e-mail services. Use the e-mail address at just one of the services, then forward copies of your e-mail from that service to the other, so it’s available in both places.
If you can’t get into one mail service, you can still retrieve your mail from the other. E-mail services are quite cheap, starting at around $5 a month.
They’re very handy for travelers, too. If you can’t connect to your service provider while on a business trip, all you need to do is find some kind of Internet access – a friend or colleague’s computer, a cybercafe, in some cases even a library – configure the browser’s e-mail program with your information, then log on and grab your mail.
Last year, people who really should know better were talking about how the Internet would soon replace our hard disks. Everything, all our data and programs, would be stored online, so we won’t need hard disks.
I doubt that will ever happen, but one thing I know for sure is that the Internet certainly isn’t ready for it now! Just logging on can be difficult enough. There are ways around the problem, and for a relatively small cost.
So don’t get frustrated with unreliable Internet service. Organize your online access properly, and you’ll be able to route around those busy signals.Peter Kent is the author of 30 computer- and Internet-related books. He can be contacted at geek@arundel.com.
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Yesterday I saw a wonderful little bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be On-line.”In one corner of this sticker was the AOL (America Online) logo. This bumper sticker undoubtedly comes from the days before AOL gained notoriety for being the online service that you couldn’t get online – I’m sure the designer couldn’t foresee how ironic the message would become.
But AOL’s bad publicity is a little unfair. AOL is experiencing what many services, large and small, are experiencing. An MSN (Microsoft Network) member in Boulder recently told me that MSN is suffering from many of the same problems; apparently in the…

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