Internet on the Cheap

Hello, potential computer consumer. It is my duty to inform you that you have been subjected to a persistent and increasingly pervasive stream of media-wide propaganda. In the course of the past few years, the perception has been implanted into your consciousness that in order to become part of the hip, happening, "wired" generation and join the cyber-info-blahblahsphere where all the Real Cool Shit goes down, it will become necessary for you to purchase an expensive desktop or laptop computer manufactured by a huge, affluent corporate entity. Additionally, you must acquire a pricey connection to the Internet through some weasel-like online supplier who may charge you exorbitant hourly rates, making your excursions onto the (gag) Infobahn a stressful affair where one eye is on the meter at all times. Major credit cards are not only accepted, but pretty much essential. Time to pay up, sucker. Right? Wrong.While this method is probably the simplest way to obtain the requisite gear and services, it is also beyond the means of many worthy people. If paying the rent and buying food demolishes your puny paycheck (if indeed you have one), then that big computer purchase is probably a bad idea. In fact, it's quite possible to satisfy your initial computer yearnings for very little cash.What I'm getting at is this: you really can get on the Internet for cheap or for free with almost any goddamn computer. There are some basic requirements to accomplish this goal, but fewer than you might think.How to Become Totally Wired for $100 or Less, or What You Really NeedThanks to the capitalism-driven, non-backward-compatible rush of technological advance and its attendant consumerist Newspeak, some fairly capable computing machines have been junked by the cutting edge as barely more useful than doorstops. This is the Big Lie that only rich kids can afford to believe. A computer needs exactly four things to be Internet-ready:(1) An 80-column video display. That is, each line of text on the monitor needs to hold 80 alphanumeric characters. Though you could use a 64-column or 40-column display (both of which are common in older home computers), it will drive you insane. The Internet functions on an 80-column standard, so you'd have to watch information formatted for 80 columns wrap around your video screen like so much gobbledegook. The only exception to this rule is if you plan on obtaining your I-net services through a computer Bulletin Board System -- and many do -- in which case the BBS interface may, in fact, compensate for your display limitations. Ask your local sysop what's up.(2) A serial port. This is a little socket on your computer which can send and receive data. It may be labeled MODEM or RS-232C or COM or maybe not even labeled at all, but you have to have one or you're sunk. This is where you connect your modem (see below), a supplementary piece of hardware you also need.(3) Telecommunications software. This is a program that communicates through your serial port with your modem (again, see below). It doesn't have to be very high-powered, but it does need to emulate one of several standard methods of communication. These are called "terminal emulation" modes, meaning the program will emulate a particular type of machine that has become a widely-accepted standard. The big standard is VT100 (and its many cousins: VT52, VT102, etc.), though there are others, like ANSI and H19. VT100 is by far the most widely accepted standard, and it is best to be able to emulate this particular terminal type. If you can get your hands on an actual terminal instead of a home computer, however, no software is necessary.(4) A storage device. In order to load the telcom software onto your machine, it is usually necessary to have a floppy disk drive or even an old cassette tape drive (almost any portable tape player will do) to load the software from. Even if you get the software from off the Internet or some dial-up BBS, you'll still need a place to save it to. There are exceptions to this rule, but a storage device is pretty damn handy in any event.GearThe ModemSkip this if you know what one is and how they work. For the rest of you, a modem is a modulator/demodulator. It turns binary data from your computer into a high-pitched squeal that can be sent across a normal telephone line (like a fax machine -- which is basically just another kind of modem). You connect it to your computer and your phone jack. Data travels from your computer to the modem to the phone line to a remote computer on the Internet which in turn sends the shit out into the great beyond. This also works in reverse. A modem is the single most essential piece of hardware you will need to get on the Net. There is no substitute.Speed is important. The higher the modem's baud rate (baud = bits per second), the faster the data comes and goes, and the less time you spend twiddling your fingers waiting for something to happen on your screen. 2400 baud is the minimum standard for serious, daily Net access. Depending on your budget or the stickiness of your fingers, you may be able to wrangle a 9600,14.4K, or 28.8K baud modem, but some of the older serial ports max out at 2400, so it might not do you much good.The Serial PortUnless the modem is an internal model (i.e. a naked circuit board inserted inside the computer chassis), you need a serial cable to connect it to your computer. These vary depending on make and model of computer. Check the serial port on the back of your chosen computer and get a cable that matches the funny little holes. A new standard cable is about $15 from any computer supply house (including Radio Shack). If you have some weirder old tech machine, you may need to hunt a little harder for the proper cable or actually build your own due to non-standardness.Cheapo Mainstream RigsA slow old PC or Mac will run you just a few hundred bucks, and that's where most people with sufficient cash should start -- since these are the dominant platforms in Western society today and (big plus) you can steal software and advice from your computer-enabled friends and co-workers. You don't need a hard drive or special graphics ability or anything really, except the previously mentioned Four Essentials. You can get away with spending very little cash at first and then upgrade stuff as you need to. (This is in direct contrast to the industry flacks who sing the song of "Buy more than you need right now because you never know how much of a power user you might become!" Bullshit. Like all tools, computer gear should be purchased as the need arises to accomplish a specific task.) All peripherals -- modems, serial cables, monitors, etc. -- are industry-standard so you can practically get what you need from the corner store. Additionally, these machines are even capable of handling a no-frills SLIP/PPP connection (where actual Internet Packets are sent and received over a phone line), but that topic is beyond the scope of this article. In any event, keeping the total investment under $100 is tricky, so let's move on...Even Cheaper (and far cooler) Old Tech RigsIf your budget is truly minuscule and you aren't afraid of a little research and hard work, there is a sleeping army of Internet-capable units collecting dust in basements and attics and garages all across the planet. I'm talking about the last great wave of home computers, the "obsolete" 70s and 80s models swept from their center stage position by the ubiquitous PC/Mac oligarchy. Large corporations like Apple and Tandy have completely abandoned their earlier platforms as economically infeasible to maintain. No new software, no new hardware, no technical support, nothing. Many Radio Shack salesfolk for instance, will deny that their older computers ever even existed. Yet these antiques are still around, waiting for you to reclaim them.The key to this process is hustling up the right gear and software for little or no money. If you find yourself shelling out more than $100 to get the show on the road, something is wrong. Repeat to yourself: scam, scam, scam. Haunt thrift shops and rummage through garage sales. Ask your friends if they know about some old clunker going unused. Hunt around for cheapo parts and peripherals. It can be done -- people do just throw this stuff out -- but there's always the predatory dealer of aged equipment who'll stick a "collector" for a semi-rare part. The idea is to pick it up for next to nothing from those who were just going to toss it anyhow. If you can't do that, then buy a cheap PC and forget the esoteric route. Kermit Is Your FriendKermit, so dubbed in honor of the muppet frog, is an almost universally-supported file transfer protocol and terminal program provided as a public service of Columbia University. Kermit has been compiled by different parties for almost every computer platform you can imagine, including these and other wheezing antiques. It's also free. You can probably find the Kermit software you want either by direct ftp or through Columbia's automated email server.ftp: A.CS.OKSTATE.EDU contains a complete mirror of Columbia U's ftp site and seems to be easier to gain access to. email: send mail with "INFO" as the body of the message to: KERMSRV@CUVMB.CC.COLUMBIA.EDU. For a list of filenames, send "SENDFILE AAFILES.HLP" as the body of the message.General Tips:(1) Get all the documentation you can get. Not knowing some stupid command or the ASCII code for the backspace key can leave you totally screwed. Older systems are anything but "intuitive" or "user-friendly" to set up. Usenet is your friend where the docs either can't be found or come up short. Post your questions to the appropriate group and cross your fingers.(2) Try to obtain at least a floppy drive for the unit in question (unless it's a dumb terminal). Standard 5.25" (DSDD) floppies are still available and a floppy drive is quite convenient for (a) software installation and (b) your personal archive of stuff from the Net. Be aware, however, that a floppy drive often implies Operating System software which you must also acquire to manage and access your files. Contact the appropriate user/info pool above for more data.(3) Grabbing software off the Internet for a foreign computer platform is usually a pain. For example: If your buddy lets you use his PC to download Commodore 64 Kermit, you still need to move the data from the PC to the C64. You have two options: (a) find some program that allows the PC to read/write C64 disks or (b) connect a serial cable with a null modem adapter (available at your local computer store) to each computer, upload the data from the PC to the C64 and hope shit doesn't get mangled in the process (if it does, tweak your telcom software, check your connections, and repeat ad infinitum). Needless to say, it is preferable to get a properly formatted disk (or even cassette) by mail if you can't find one locally.(4) Test that modem. When you have all your gear hooked up and your phone plugged into the modem and your telcom software installed, try typing "AT" and hitting return. You've just sent the 'attention' command to the modem. The modem should respond with "OK"'. It has answered back that it is ready. If that worked, try 'ATDT'. You should hear a dialtone coming from your modem. If the above does not work, it's time for some troubleshooting. Check your cable between the modem and terminal, check your software settings, check your modem.(5) Be Zen about things. It will almost certainly take you a few weeks of investigation to get your jalopy in working order. Persistence and patience will win the day. Your mantra is: beg, borrow, steal. Good luck.The Telnet ScamAn elegant way to avoid paying lots of money for your Net access is to piggyback in on someone else's account. If there is one Internet command for the impecunious to learn it is telnet.Telnetting allows you to log on to another computer anywhere on the Internet -- as long as you have a user name and password for the remote system -- without spending a fortune on long-distance charges. If you have a pal (or unwitting enemy) with a local Internet account either through work or school, said person could allow you to log on with his/her name and password where you could drop down to the dreaded Unix prompt and telnet to another computer toll-free. This allows you -- the cheap but industrious Net scammer -- to obtain Net access from anywhere in the world you can hustle up a free or cheap account. Such as:A University account belonging to someone who doesn't really use it... like your cousin's girlfriend or your brother-in-law or whoever. You get the username and password from them and telnet in from wherever you are. This is a popular scheme. (The only drawback is that sometimes they want the account back.)Freenets in other cities like Cleveland OH, Chapel Hill NC and Seattle WA offer limited-access free accounts to local citizens, which is a very cool thing. But what if your burg is less Net-oriented? If you have a willing accomplice in a locality where accounts are available, he/she could fill out the proper forms to get you an account. Then just telnet in and enjoy life by proxy in a community obviously quite superior to your own.Somebody with a free or cheap account moves across the country, but keeps the old account active. You could either telnet from or to this account, depending on the cooperation of your friend and your relative geographical position to the account. Rule #1: never relinquish a free Net account until they pry it from your cold, dead fingers.Keep in mind that if the call you make to your telnet connection is a toll call or if the account you're piggybacking in on has an hourly surcharge of some kind, then the low-budget paradigm dissolves and you are left paying the big bucks anyhow.More information on telnetting may be found in any of the sundry Internet volumes out there these days. Old favorites Zen and the Art of the Internet (Kehoe) or The Whole Internet Guide (Krol et al) will suffice.Thanks for the Information:Matt Ackeret, Willard Baker, Bigbubba, Ron Bull, Tony Cianfaglione, Tomas Cuellar, Nathan K. Edel, Denis Fafard, Ivan "Firefoot", Mark Flacy, Don W. Guido, Aron Hsiao, Gareth Jones, James Jones, Eric Levinson, Gilbert J. Mast, Mark Mentovai, Seth Morabito, George Page, Joseph Polletta, Gunther Richter, Jonathan Rynd, Francis Swygert, David R. Villegas, Dennis Wright, and the kind-yet-faceless hordes of Usenet.Sidebar: Cool Old RigsIf you're a determined geek with empty pockets, then read on.Asking around on the Net has produced the following list of "old school" machines that meet the basic requirements outlined above. (This is by no means an exhaustive listing, though -- there are certainly other computers out there that are up to spec.) Included in each section are pointers to all the information an enterprising soul would need to get one of these cantankerous devices humming away in the slow lane of the Internet. Some of the info, paradoxically, is on the Net itself, but since many of you have potentially helpful friends with Net access, we cheerfully include references to ftp sites, Usenet groups, and World Wide Web pages. Here goes:Manufacturer: Tandy/Radio ShackTRS-80 Model 4(p) PRO: built-in video display; one-piece unit; standard 24-pin serial port means no-hassle modem hookup; usually has two 5.25" double-density floppy drives (and if it doesn't, inexpensive and plentiful PC DSDD floppy drives may be installed instead); looks like cool Space: 1999 computer; will run all brilliant, minimalist TRS-80 arcade games -- including official Sega Zaxxon (oboy!)CON: max baud rate seems to be 2400 (high speed connections are noisy and inconsistent)SOFTWARE: Kermit (with H19 Emulation) send SASE plus blank DSDD 5.25" disk to Reign of Toads, PO Box 40498, Albuquerque, NM 87196-0498. Or see Kermit section below. H19 is an extended version of VT52 term emulation with fairly widespread support on Unix shell accounts. OS disk and other software available from CN80.PUBLICATIONS: Computer News 80 ($4 sample, $24/year sub from CN80): low-budget nerd zine (typeset on Model 4s) that is mostly a pitch for their various Model III/4 software and hardware items. Some, like the laser printer and mouse upgrades, are quite silly and un-cost-effective. Others, like their huge selection of inexpensive public domain software, are excellent resources.NET RESOURCES: (Usenet) comp.sys.tandy; (ftp) Tandy Software Archive GROUPS: MCTRUG POB 170717, Arlington, TX 76003. They have a newsletter!GEAR: CN80; Pacific Computer Exchange; Tandy National PartsVENDORS: CN80 PO Box 680, Casper, WY 82602-0680; 307/265-6483; stan.slater@ Pacific Computer Exchange 1031 SE Mill, Ste B, Portland, OR 97214; 503/236-2949 (tend to be expensive); Tandy National Parts 800/THE-SHACK.NOTES: 64K and 128K models exist. The Model 4p is a semi-portable version of the Model 4 with a built-in 300 baud modem. It is otherwise identical.TRS-80 Color Computer 1/2/3PRO: good support network; can use TV set as monitor if necessary; lots of these lying around in thrift shops; if you're hardcore, you can join the legion of CoCo3 die-hards who soup up their rigs with multitasking OS9 system softwareCON: cheapo "bit-banger" serial port limits speed to 2400 baud; only CoCo 3 can do 80 columns (but not with a TV display)SOFTWARE: MickeyTerm on cassette tape (no 80-column support). Greg-E-Term on disk or on ROM cartridge for diskless computers. UltimaTerm for CoCo 3 only. Each of these three are $6 for disk/tape, $35 for cartridge -- not including shareware fee -- from FARNA Systems. Kermit-CoCo $7.50 on disk from Mark E. Sunderlin, 4873 Robin Ave, Stephens City, VA 22655-2459; megabyte@chinet.uucp; or see Kermit section below.PUBLICATIONS: Tandy's Little Wonder ($25 homebrew 140-page manual with an insane amount of CoCo data, worth the price); "the world of 68' micros" magazine ($23/8-issues). Both from FARNA Systems.BBS: Bull's Barn BBS 717/834-4071; Color Galaxy Milky Way 707/585-8246; CoCo SIGs (Special Interest Groups) on Compu$erve, GEnie, and DelphiNET RESOURCES: (Usenet) bit.listserv.coco, comp.sys.tandy; (emailing list) contact pecampbe@mtus5.BITNET to subscribeHARDWARE HACKS: You'll probably have to make your own serial cable: Go to the nearest Radio Shack and order part #26-3020. This is from their Consumer Mail Center (CMC) catalog, so it will have to be ordered (be pushy with ignorant salespeople if necessary). You get a six-foot cable with a four-pin DIN plug on each end. Cut one end off and attach a DB-25 connector -- RS parts #276-1547 (m) or #276-1548 (f) and #276-1549 (hood). Details on wiring all this up and making it work may be obtained by email request at True RS-232 port for higher speeds may be obtained by using Radio Shack's RS-232 Pak and Multi-Pak Interface, if you can find them.GEAR: FARNA Systems; Pacific Computer Exchange; Tandy National Parts (see Model 4 "Vendors" list.)VENDORS: FARNA Systems, Francis G. Swygert, Box 321, Warner Robins, GA 31099-0321, dsrtfox@delphi.comNOTES: Only the CoCo 3 supports 80-column display. You need either a monochrome composite monitor or an analog RGB monitor for 80 columns. A closed circuit B&W security monitor works fine for 80-column text.Manufacturer: Commodore Business MachinesCommodore 64/128PRO: easy to find (thanks to early 80s status as Most Popular Home Computer); cheap due to plentifulness; will use standard TV set for display; your kid brother used to hack with one so you can ask him questions about it; tons of info and software and great support community on the Internet (including many informative Web sites); and damn if the new owners of Commodore (Escom AG) might not start making them againCON: software-driven 80-column mode makes for fuzzy characters which are "a pain to read" (though a third-party 80 column card does exist); screwy non-standard serial port requires that you either use a special Commodore-manufactured modem, make your own adaptor for a standard 2400 baud modem (see "Hardware Hacks" below), or get your hands on the special SwiftLink adaptor for high speed modems; very slow and annoying floppy disk drive.SOFTWARE: Novaterm (currently supported shareware) $25 from Nick Rossi, 10002 Aurora Ave N #1159, Seattle, WA 98133,; or via ftp: Kermit v2.2 $5 from Kent Sullivan, 16611 NE 26th St, Bellevue, WA 98008,; or see Kermit section below. Desterm via ftp at Waterloo Archive.PUBLICATIONS: C= Hacker ezine (currently publishing) available on Commodore 8-bit WWW Server and at Waterloo Archive, dieHard print magazine $2.95/sample from P.O. Box 392, Boise, ID 83701-0392, 208/383-0300). Commodore Format (Freepost BS4900, Somerton, Somerset TA11 6BR, UK.)BBS: Starship CUCUG BBS 217/356-8056; PCC BBS 412/396-5483NET RESOURCES: (Usenet) comp.sys.cbm, comp.binaries.cbm; (WWW) Commodore 8-bit WWW Server, Yahoo Commodore Index, Jim Brain's Commodore Home Page, among many others; (ftp) University of Waterloo Archive GROUPS: Champaign-Urbana Commodore Users Group PO Box 716, Champaign, IL 61824-0716,; Pittsburgh Commodore Group PO Box 16126, Pittsburgh, PA 15242, See also "BBS" listing for each group.HARDWARE HACKS: "Make Your Own RS-232 Adaptor" articles appear in issues 4 and 8 of the C= Hacker ezine (see below). See also comp.sys.cbm FAQ file. The SwifLink high speed adaptor is $39.95 plus shipping from Creative Micro Designs,GEAR: The Grapevine Group; Creative Micro DesignsVENDORS: Creative Micro Designs PO Box 646, East Longmeadow, MA 01028; 413/525-0023; The Grapevine Group 3 Chestnut St, Suffern, NY 10901; 914/368-4242; The Commodore 128 is essentially a better C64. The main differences for our purposes are: hardware-driven 80-column mode for more legible characters (requires a CGA monitor) and a serial port capable of faster 4800 baud throughput. Will use either the same software as a C64 or can take advantage of custom C128 versions.Manufacturer: Apple Computer Corp.Apple II/IIc(+)/IIe/IIgsPRO: can act as dumb terminal with no software (send info request to; good support network on and off the Internet; system software readily availableCON: possibly more expensive than the target $100; stock II and IIe are not 80-column (see "Hardware Hacks" below)SOFTWARE: Kermit-65 3.87 $4.50 (disk no. COMM-06) from Washington Apple Pi or see Kermit section below. ProDOS Kermit $10 from David Kricker, 24 Hillcrest St, Waltham, MA 02154. ProTERM 3.1 from Quality Computers or try the demo at WUArchive; ZLink (shareware) from WUarchive or $25 from Dave Whitney, 4306 156th Ave NE #II-230, Redmond WA 98052; Talk Is Cheap $40 from Carolina System Software, 14207 Glenhurst Way, Orlando, FL 32837. ProDOS User's Kit (OS on disk with manual) $1.95 from Edlie Electronics, System software also available from Apple Corp. ftp site. Also: a disk with Zlink and several utilities is available for $2 from Chuck Orem, PO Box 1014, Benton City, WA, 99320-1014,, RESOURCES: (Usenet) comp.sys.apple2.*, comp.binaries.apple2, among others; (ftp) WUArchive, Apple Corp. Enhance (geared toward educators, but free) from Quality Computers. Shareware Solutions II 166 Alpine St, San Rafael, CA 94901; Washington Apple Pi 301/593-0024 (7 bits, odd parity]; The New Chalkboard II (Canada) 403/461-BYTEUSERS GROUPS: Washington Apple Pi 7910 Woodmont Ave, Ste 910, Bethesda, MD 20814; 301/654-8060; see "BBS" listing; The Apple User Group Connection can tell you the closest Apple II user group; 800/538-9696 ext 500.HARDWARE HACKS: The standard IIe requires an "80-column card" and a Super Serial Card (available from Quality Computers for $70 new) to meet spec. The IIc/IIgs have 80 columns and serial port built in. Stock Apple II may be upgraded to IIe. Through many weird upgrades available from third parties, you can use cheap PC hard and floppy drives. See the comp.sys.apple2 FAQ.GEAR: all below "Vendors"VENDORS: Quality Computers 800/777-ENHAnce or 313/774-7200; Edlie Electronics 800/645-4722 or 516/735-3330. Alltech Electronics 619/721-7733. Classroom Computer Co. 20 Sunnyside Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941.


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