7.0 Hooking up to the Internet

7.1 How do I hook up to the Internet?

By finding an Internet provider in your area who's willing to hook you up, or by connecting with the major services such as Net Access, SprintNet or AlterNet.

7.2 How does the Internet work?

Every once in a while, someone drops me a line in my mailbox asking a question like, "Why do I have to pay the phone company to hook me up and a wholesale provider to connect me? Why not hook me up directly to the Internet?"

Because there is no such thing.

The Internet is not a single person or body, but rather a whole bunch of people and companies working together. The Internet is composed of complex interconnections between several different large companies, who do the long distance routing for you.

If you're a typical person reading this FAQ, the odds that you could participate in this high-level long distance routing are practically nil. You would need a Cisco 7500-series router, which costs over $ 100,000, as well as highly trained engineering help. Effectively, you would have to compete with Sprint or MCI, with your own long distance lines and such.

A company called Net-99 was able to start up by leasing lines from a company called Metropolitan Fiber Systems (MFS). They had a fairly prosperous run and then they got taken over and absorbed into the AGIS network. After that, most of the original partners either left or were booted out. If you're determined to start your own backbone provider, though, history appears to show that it can be done, if you have deep enough pockets. However, if you're considering operation of an ISP, be forewarned that being a backbone provider is far more complex and challenging. My advice to you would be to try to walk before you run.

All these long distance companies peer - that is, they hook up to each other - at places called Interchange Points, such as MAE-East. This is why the traceroute command often shows very confusing routes from one place to another. For a while, MAE-East was the only reliable way to go from one backbone (long distance) provider to another, so a packet travelling from Los Angeles to the San Francisco bay area would go all the way across the country on one provider, whiz through MAE-East, and then go back across the country again to San Francisco.

As an individual provider, you have basically no chance of being able to successfully conclude peering agreements with the big boys at one of these sites. And if they don't have a concrete reason to talk to you - either sites their subscribers want to connect to or payments from you to them - they won't. And bear in mind that if you're at a major interchange point, you will need to peer with all the carriers there to get full coverage - not just one.

7.3 What are the levels of connection you can buy?

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                                                            Maximum
Connection   Equipment Required              Approx Cost    Simutaneous Users

28.8K SLIP 28.8k modem $ 300 around 3

56k Leased CSU/DSU 250 around 8 Router -or- routing card 2300 or 500 T1 Leased CSU/DSU 1400 around 200 Router -or- routing card 2300 or 500 ------------------------------------------------------

Some connections will require that you buy a modem, router and CSU/DSU for both ends of the connection. ISI Network Associates, for example, requires this, meaning that their 56k connection would cost their $ 1,000 startup fee plus two times $ 2,550 - a total of $ 6,100. As an alternative, you could pay a $ 4,000 startup fee and still buy the equipment on your end. Other connections furnish the equipment on both ends, including a service contract. Unfortunately, the latter type of connection is normally prohibitively expensive.

The telephone company rates for these connections range from reasonable to horrendous. On the low end, the phone line I use for my 28.8 SLIP is a conventional residential line which costs around $ 20/month. Leased line fees for a 56k line range (in Southern California, anyway) from about $ 100-200/month. T1 fees range from $ 400 - $ 1,200 a month, depending on the distance between your site and the nearest provider POP.

7.4 What is Frame Relay?

The following Information about Frame Relay connections was contributed by Sean Shaprio ; unfortunately my explanation is sufficiently changed from his original words that errors are particularly likely. He suggests that you read "the little 30 page book (published by Motorola?) that describes it in excellent detail" if you are seriously considering this.

Frame Relay connections are an up and coming form that are closer in nature to a switched telephone connection than a traditional 56k/T1 link. To connect to a provider with frame relay, you run a leased line to the nearest frame relay access point. The connection is then made to your provider, even if it is a very long distance away. The provider runs a high speed connection to his nearest frame relay node, where it can then get split off to several connections. So instead of having multiple 56k connections to his customers, he pulls a single T1 into a frame relay switch; the packets are then switched over to the customer's 56k hookups. This is the service that lets providers like Netcom and CRL operate nationally while still having all their equipment in their original Bay Area headquarters.

Dave Van Allen was kind enough to contribute a more comprehensive explanation of Frame Relay than we had in the past.

Frame Relay's main advantage is that it's a cut-rate form of leased line service. "For instance, in the Northeast Bell Atlantic region, 56k service has an initial install of about $ 200 and a monthly fixed cost of apx. $ 150. You Tools [his provider] offers 56k (with a 56k CIR) access for $ 399.00 per month, including the Internet access (Port) and telco charges. The customer premise equipment (CPE) [the equipment the customer has to buy to use the connection] is about the same for Frame Relay as it is for ISDN - approximately $ 900."

The main problem with frame relay is that you are sharing a switched line with a potentially large number of other users; this line has a fixed capacity that is divided between you and them. Your provider will give you a committed information rate (CIR), which tells you the minimum speed your line will connect at, no matter what the conditions. Sprint presently gives a CIR of zero, which means that they do not guarantee that your connection will be continuously running at any particular speed, or even operational at all. So in theory, if you were running a Frame Relay T1, you might have a virtually worthless connection if all the other connection users took up all the bandwidth.

There may be something seriously wrong with the above paragraph. Dave Van Allen again: "In the FAQ, you reference Sprint's CIR of '0', meaning that they don't guarantee any performance. This is not the case as I know it. The CIR of '0' indicated that the FR link has NO committed information rate, and the link is specified to run at the bandwidth sold. So, a 56K FR link, with a CIR of '0' (from Sprint, at least) will run at 56k baud at all times."

The reason I haven't lifted the previous explanation from the FAQ is that it seems to fit the facts; Karl Denninger has been complaining about the "0" Sprint CIR for some time. Certainly the complaints I have read about Sprint's service seem to imply that the "0" CIR may indicate a lower quality service commitment. However, from a technical standpoint, Dave may well be right.

Dave continues: "With Frame Relay, the FR provider has a system of switching ports that share the bandwidth of the Frame network. Because a switched packet network is a non-dedicated data path, the equipment used to provide the service is normally the limiting factor in just how much bandwidth 'everyone' can have. If the provider is under-utilizing the capacity of the switch, then ALL traffic in that switch may always travel at the highest speed -your- line can handle.

"If traffic in the switch gets heavy, then the provider must either add more bandwidth, or limit the speed of the connections during peak periods. This is what the CIR is. CIR is a provider imposed limit on the speed of your connection. Most phone companies sell like this: You get a 56k FR connection with a CIR of 30k - this means that you will be guaranteed that the connection will go at least 30k and will peak at 56k. In reality, in most areas, that connection will do 56k and might rarely drop to 30k for brief periods."

"If you purchase a 56k FR connection with a 30K CIR, you can often request that they special-build you a 56k CIR connection. There will be a small surcharge for this, but it is possible.

"Frame relay can work up to T-1 rates, and it is usually the least costly option at those speeds."

The advantage of Frame Relay should be fairly obvious; since you're sharing a large connection with other people, you aren't paying the phone company for hideously expensive leased lines. Because of this, Frame Relay is a much cheaper service than the traditional 56k or T1 leased line.

This form of connection requires a special frame relay compatible router to work.

* How is the performance compared to standard 56k/T1? Karl Denninger and his partner Joseph Stroup initially decided against offering Frame Relay with their Net-99 service due to low connection quality. However, they are currently offering a pilot Frame Relay project at an attractive rate; they will expand it if it meets their quality standards.

One other major advantage of Frame Relay is that the phone company offers attractive rates for different levels of service that can scale up as you need more bandwidth. For instance, in Pacific Bell territory, Frame Relay costs $ 333 a month for 128 and $ 650 for full-bore T1 with a couple of levels put in. If you start with 128k and max out your bandwidth, you can convert to one of the higher levels for a $ 30 charge and, of course, payment of the higher monthly rates.

An update on this section comes from Roger Books (books@mail.state.fl.us). He writes:

"CIR, Committed Information Rate, the bandwidth gauranteed you by your provider, burst is allowing you to use bandwidth above this, if your CIR is 0 then everything is burst. Do note that if you are using frame over a dedicated link the standard is to leave the CIR to 0 on the assumption that if nobody is competing for bandwidth there is no reason to setup CIR."

That seems to clarify the issue.

7.5 Who are the main national providers, and how much?

This section used to have quite a few more prices than it does, but now you can determine prices quite easily by searching the web. This is especially important since they're changing all the time. What's right today will no doubt be wrong a week from now.

Net Access - http://www.netaxs.com/is a new backbone providers being run by people with a proven track record in this industry. Net Access is already in operation.

Net Access has a long history of providing bandwidth around the Philadelphia, PA and Washington, DC areas. They are now expanding to nationwide service. Net Access is also Philadelphia's oldest ISP. Avi Freedman, owner, is best known for offering some of the highest quality free advice on Inet-Access, and for providing the list with some of the best much-needed comic relief. This FAQ is largely sponsored by Net Access.

I previously mentioned priori.net as a promising business venture. Unfortunately, the company is now approaching Chapter 7 liquidation, meaning that it will cease operations shortly, leaving a great many people out of connectivity. I'll have some more news on this when I find someone willing to talk about it. :-)

ANS has been around for years and years, but for most of that time their pricing was hideously uncompetitive. They made most of their sales to corporate end-users, who need a higher level of reliability than the average, and are willing to pay for it. Recently - around June of 1997 - they have brought forth a push into the ISP biz. They now charge about $ 2,300 a month for a T1, which is highly competitive with other national providers.

Avi Freedman of Net Access, another company going into the national backbone market, says:

ANS is, in my opinion, the highest-quality ISP in the known universe. ;If they sell T1s for under <$2500/mo they should be seriously considered. Like, an order of magnitude better than any other national provider out there.

MCI has made a really big push into the Internet market. Of all the major providers, it now seems to have the best reputation for technical quality. In fact, you will notice that it's doing a healthy percentage of the net's long distance communications now. They are legendary for having the industry's worst billing practices; expect hopelessly garbled invoices. They also have at times been accused of trying to begin volume charges for their bandwidth; what that means in this competitive market is anyone's guess. Rumour has it that they have started publishing such charges, but their precise nature has yet to be determined.

Kevin Kadow says that AlterNet will sell to resellers at $ 750 over their quoted prices; my previous FAQ draft said that they were not selling to resellers at all. However, they are "getting more buddy-buddy with Microsoft after their deal." However, a couple of people have defended AlterNET, saying that they have the best service quality of any Internet provider.

In mid-1997, this was largely contradicted by some sweepingly extensive service outages, some of several hours' duration. Note that "AlterNET" and "UUNET" are the same company.

I recently commented to the Inet-Access list that Sprint and other large net providers have a reputation for poor service. I then heard from three different Sprint users who professed complete happiness with the service, so it looks like they have cleaned up their act. Only a few months ago, I heard bad things about them at about the same rate.

One observer says that MCI and Sprint's reputation seems to vary significantly by service city, so you may want to check out their reputations in your area before signing up.

If the national provider rates seem too expensive, you may wish to hook up with a local provider. Watch out for the connection quality, though; if the local company sells you a T1, and all they have is a T1 connection themselves, you're bound to get mightily poor throughput to the rest of the Internet.

You might be especially happy dealing with a local provider service if it has multiple T1s to more than one net provider. This will ensure that you don't lose connectivity even if one of their downstream providers has trouble.

If you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Little Garden (TLG) has an excellent reputation and very fair rates. For that reason, the Bay Area is largely overloaded with Internet providers, so unless you have a very special business plan, you may not want to set up there.

For information on Net-99/AGIS, see the next section.

7.6 What happened to Net-99/AGIS?

In late 1994, Net-99 was started with a tiny amount of money (reputed to be around $ 30,000), some shadowy figures in top management, and the entire personal and reputational capital of one Karl Denninger, a legendary success story.

Karl Denninger had won considerable points here by starting a new backbone provider at a time when backbone providers were all overburdened, overwhelmed and generally poorly managed. Karl's Macro Computer Solutions (MCS) had always been an impressive operation, and his involvement with Net-99 was said to be the guarantee that it would provide service with integrity and good will. Naturally, Karl didn't disabuse anyone of this impression, and neither did anyone else in Net-99.

Behind the scenes, though, Joseph Stroup, a considerably less impressive figure with quite a bit less in the way of networking credentials, was really running the show. (I still remember the striking contrast between Joseph Stroup's illiterate three line messages and Karl Denninger's 100 line plus masterpieces of the "drive the point home, and then drive it in again and again and again" school of argument).

Net-99's technical staff was of high quality, but the network itself was being held together by Cisco 2501s, which were not ready for the task of handling a major national backbone. Despite this, customers were generally impressed with the service. One major industry figure told me that it was "like a cult." In summary, people were so relieved not to be dealing with incompetent Sprint, questionable MCI or overpriced UUNET that they'd take pretty much anything as good service.

lDespite this apparent success, a little under a year into the history of the organization, constant mismanagement at the top caused the situation of Net-99 to decay. Joseph Stroup sold the company for approximately $ 1,500,000 - an absurdly low amount for a company in a rapidly growing business with nearly $ 2 million in sales, but quite a nice return on the $ 30,000. Karl Denninger, incidentally, got nothing and was, to say the least, rather upset. This was especially true since the most powerful routers used by Net-99 were actually on loan from him, and because his image as loaned to the venture was one of the things that drove the venture. But no written agreement, so no share in the proceeds.

So AGIS took over Net-99, and almost immediately realized that they'd bought an inadequately managed and equipped service, in striking contrast to its public image. Unfortuantely, they didn't recognize the quality of the Net-99 staff, and virtually all the top technical people left the company for greener pastures within a week or two of the takeover. This left AGIS with a network but nobody good to run it.

Things got so bad that a mailing list of dissatisfied AGIS users was created. with what I've seen classified as highly contentious discussions. AGIS rapidly went from one of the best places to buy bandwith to one of the worst.

The next episode in the history of AGIS stars the legendary Sanford Wallace, owner of Cyber Promotions, the spamming firm. If you've received mail from savetrees.com or cyberpromo.com or any number of other domains, you've gotten spammed by Cyber.

This did not endear Cyber Promotions to the average Internet user. As a result, a concerted public relations attack was made on their provider (I believe it was Sprint) to try and get their net connection disconnected. And this was finally successful, but Sanford had a trick up his sleeve: AGIS.

So AGIS connected CyberPromo, and they have been connected ever since. This has provoked numerous attacks, hate mail and crack attempts against the AGIS systems, some of which were successful. Since AGIS never really had the good people needed to stem these attacks, this was a real problem for them.

However, so far AGIS has stuck to its guns, and the $ 6,500 a month per T1 revenues that CyberPromo is paying them. Hmm, it only takes $13k a month (two T1s worth) to bribe a backbone provider? Odd.

AGIS has helped found a junk email "global remove" registry. However, so far it's been rather laughable. Just for fun, Justin Newton of Priori created an account on one of his machines and subscribed it to the "remove" list. Sure enough, he's been getting spam at the rate of 4-5 a day, thus showing that there may be another use for the "remove" list.

When AGIS tried starting a morotorium on junk email while they were formulating their anti-spam plans, Cyber Promotions broke the morotorium by finding another connection, multi-homing and using the second connection so the spam could keep flowing. This upset even AGIS, and they cut Cyberpromo off for a brief time. But within 24-odd hours, he was back up, running and as unrepentant as ever.

Service quality, as far as I can tell, has continued to deteriorate. I cannot recommend AGIS at this point.

Before I wrote that summary, I had some earlier material

Karl Denninger, who gave the venture much of its early reputation, recently sent a message to the Inet-Access mailing list giving the reasons he left Net-99. Apparently they told him he had a stake in the company based on a handshake deal, but then when Net-99 was sold, he was neither consulted nor paid. In addition, he believed that they were taking advantage of the equipment he had effectively donated to the effort; they promised him a Cisco 7000, but never delivered. As a result, he became disillusioned with the company and quietly severed all connections with it.

An anonymous Net-99 customer had this to say about the merger:

(begin quote)

Some anonymous comments on AGIS/Net99, as I have been a customer since August.

The transition has gone smoothly. AGIS is moving Net99's infrastructure from MFS Telecom over to WillTel. The moving of the circuits and routes has gone well.

There have been some bumps in the billing department. Most of the errors have been in the customers' favor, so no complaints here. I have heard noise from former Net99 employees, not sure if it is griping or grounded in fact. I have heard some noise from AGIS about how Net99's infrastructure was cheap and poorly designed, etc. Sounds like someone upset somebody in the buyout.

All in all, their performance hasn't changed much since the buyout. They've raised their prices, so I'm glad I got in when I did.

(end quote)

Still, Net-99 customers seem to be staying with the company, although some have griped about service problems. We'll wait and see what happens here; I'd like to hear more comments from Net-99/Aegis users for the current status of the venture. Your anomynity will be protected if you so request.

Since I wrote that, people have started complaining vociferously about Net99 service quality, in particularly with regard to their reverse DNS. The reverse DNS problem has gotten so serious that an informal mailing list has been created for Net99 customers to discuss their complaints.

For information on Net-99, check out http://www.net99.net/. For AGIS, look at http://www.agis.com/.

7.7 Where could I get a list of national and local providers?

An excellent starting point is the DLIST, "an online list of Internet service providers who offer dedicated line connections." To find out how to receive an updated version of this list, send mail to dlist@ora.com. (From the book 'Connecting to the Internet: An O'Reilly Buyer's Guide', by Susan Estrada, which includes a printed copy of the DLIST in an appendix).

Here is the ``Yahoo'' reference, which is apparently more up to date:

http://www.yahoo.com/Business/Corporations/Internet_Access_Providers/

Note that this all has to be on one line.

To scope out your competition before taking the plunge, an excellent resource is The List of providers at http://www.thelist.com/. For quite a while, this service even provided ratings for the services from customers. Unfortunately, that part of the service had to be discontinued due to abuse. A great pity since it was an extremely useful service.

7.8 What about a SLIP connection?

For the most part, a SLIP connection is not considered sufficient for a serious provider. However, it may be the best way to start if you are unsure of demand for your service or want to test-market your ideas. It certainly lets you hook up for a minimal amount of money, assuming you can find a resellable connection.

If you get SLIP, try to get CSLIP (compressed SLIP), and make sure you know what baud rate the line is fixed at. I got a 28.8k SLIP with the baud rate fixed at 28.8, and the result was that I could not get a newsfeed consisting of alt.* plus rec.* without falling behind. Be sure you get as good a SLIP connecion as possible.

Next section: Should I join an Internet Trade Association?