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Once, only people who studied or worked at an institution directly tied to the Net could connect to the world. Today, though, an ever-growing number of "public-access" systems provide access for everybody. These systems can now be found in several states, and there are a couple of sites that can provide access across the country.

There are two basic kinds of these host systems. The more common one is known as a UUCP site (UUCP being a common way to transfer information among computers using the Unix operating system) and offers access to international electronic mail and conferences.

However, recent years have seen the growth of more powerful sites that let you tap into the full power of the Net. These Internet sites not only give you access to electronic mail and conferences but to such services as databases, libraries and huge file and program collections around the world. They are also fast -- as soon as you finish writing a message, it gets zapped out to its destination.

Some sites are run by for-profit companies; others by non-profit organizations. Some of these public-access, or host, systems, are free of charge. Others charge a monthly or yearly fee for unlimited access. And a few charge by the hour. Systems that charge for access will usually let you sign up online with a credit card. Some also let you set up a billing system.

But cost should be only one consideration in choosing a host system, especially if you live in an area with more than one provider. Most systems let you look around before you sign up. What is the range of each of their services? How easy is each to use? What kind of support or help can you get from the system administrators?

The last two questions are particularly important because many systems provide no user interface at all; when you connect, you are dumped right into the Unix operating system. If you're already familiar with Unix, or you want to learn how to use it, these systems offer phenomenal power -- in addition to Net access, most also let you tap into the power of Unix to do everything from compiling your own programs to playing online games.

But if you don't want to have to learn Unix, there are other public-access systems that work through menus (just like the ones in restaurants; you are shown a list of choices and then you make your selection of what you want), or which provide a "user interface" that is easier to figure out than the ever cryptic Unix.

If you don't want or need access to the full range of Internet services, a UUCP site makes good financial sense. They tend to charge less than commercial Internet providers, although their messages may not go out as quickly.

Some systems also have their own unique local services, which can range from extensive conferences to large file libraries.

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