Internet access through a phone system requires two things: a modem and a dial-up access account through an ISP. Modems are devices that convert the digital signals generated by a computer system into analog signals that can travel across a phone line. A computer can have either an internal or external modem. External modems tend to be less problematic to install and troubleshoot because they don't require reconfiguration of the host system. Internal modems use one of the serial port assignments (that is, a COM port) and must therefore be configured not to conflict with other devices.
The second piece of the puzzle, the dial-up ISP account, can easily be obtained by contacting one of the many local, regional, or national ISPs. Most ISPs offer a range of plans that are normally priced based on the amount of time the user is allowed to spend online. Almost without exception, ISPs offer 56Kbps access, the maximum possible under current standards. Most ISPs also provide email accounts, access to newsgroup servers, and often small amounts of Web space.
It is a good idea to research an ISP choice carefully. Free services exist, but they generally restrict users to a certain number of online hours per month or use extensive banner advertising to pay for the services. Normally, you pay a monthly service fee for an ISP; doing so provides a degree of reassurance because the ISP can be held accountable. Paid-for service also tends to provide a higher level of support.
Another big consideration for dial-up Internet access is how many lines the ISP has. ISPs never have the same number of lines as subscribers; instead, they work on a first-come, first-serve basis for dial-up clients. This means that on occasion, users get busy signals when they try to connect. Before signing up for a dial-up Internet access account, you should ask the company what its ratio of lines to subscribers is and use that figure as part of your comparison criteria.