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2,862 Tutorials

Get online with low-cost internet access

PLUS: set up an email address, install a web browser

If you are not online and you would like a cheap web connection, this guide is for you. We tell you how to get cheap mobile or fixed-line broadband, how to get an email address, and how to install a web browser.

QUESTION When I retired nine years ago I bought a Packard Bell desktop PC running Windows XP. I'm now considering connecting it to the web on a pay-as-you-go basis. I'll be using the connection only to read email and conduct the odd search. I suspect that mobile broadband offers the best solution, but often find that my mobile phone, connected to the O2 network, has reception trouble. How can I check the coverage and pricing of other mobile networks? And once online, how should I go about finding a suitable search engine and setting up email and security? Brian V Davey

HELPROOM ANSWER Mobile broadband allows people to get online from wherever they have a phone signal, simply by plugging in a USB dongle or tethering their mobile phone (we'll explain this later). It suits people who don't like to set up direct debits or who have low bandwidth demands, since most operators restrict usage, but unused credit usually expires after a set period. Given that you're already experiencing reception problems with O2, however, mobile broadband – or, at least, mobile broadband from O2 – may not be the best solution.

Don't rule out home broadband purely on the basis of your low-usage requirements.

If you have a home phoneline installed, an entry-level broadband package costs only a few pounds per month and offers a much faster connection to the web. You will, of course, need to sign up to a minimum contract term – usually from 12 months.

As an existing customer, you can take up 02's reduced price Basics package. It's free for three months, then £8.50 per month thereafter. We also recently awarded Plusnet, which costs £6.49 per month, our Best Budget Broadband 2012 award. You can see information about other deals by reading our Broadband Survey results.

If you're adamant that you want to stick to pay-as-you-go broadband, however, there are lots of places you can visit to get information on coverage and pricing in your area. This process is made much simpler if you're able to use a friend's computer or visit a local library to temporarily get online. If this isn't possible, all the major mobile operators have high-street branches and will happily help you instore. And failing that, you can always give them a ring.

For O2, simply call 4455 from your pay-as-you-go handset to speak to customer services; alternatively, you can get hold of a customer services representative on the landline via 0844 809 0222. For Orange dial 0800 079 0435; for T-Mobile dial 0800 956 3089; for Virgin Mobile dial 0845 650 4500; for Vodafone dial 0808 040 8408; and for 3 dial 0800 358 8460.

We entered your postcode into the online coverage checkers for each of the mobile networks. With the exception of Vodafone and, as you suspected, O2, all report good service in your area. For the benefit of other readers, we've listed addresses for the individual network operator's coverage checkers below:

If you're able to get online to research mobile broadband deals, you may also like to check out our Broadband Advisor for information on both home and mobile-broadband options.

You don't say what type of mobile phone you're using, nor whether it lets you access the internet. For those who have recent smartphones and are already paying for mobile data, tethering is another solution for getting your PC online.

Tethering involves connecting your smartphone to the PC or laptop via a USB cable or wirelessly using Bluetooth, then using your handset as a modem. The advantage of such a setup is that you won't need to buy a 3G USB dongle and can use the credit on your existing SIM.

Check the documentation that came with your handset to find out whether tethering is possible. Note that depending on your usage a dedicated data SIM can offer better value, however.

Obtaining an email address is easy. If you're not allocated one with your chosen broadband service, the easiest way to set one up is to use a free web-based client such as Google's Gmail. Head to mail.google.com and follow the instructions.

Security software is vital, but the level of protection required will depend on your online activities. Start off by installing a free antivirus program such as AVG Free (free.avg.com), and ensure that your Windows Firewall is turned on. An alert will pop up in the Taskbar if there are any problems with your security setup, although you're unlikely to need much more than basic Internet security and antivirus if you're doing little more than sending emails.

Windows XP is bundled with the Internet Explorer web browser, which you can use to visit websites and the search engine of your choice. If you use Gmail for your email you can also access this through Internet Explorer; alternatively, you can use a standalone client such as Outlook Express, which is also bundled with Windows XP.

When you first hook up your PC to the internet you'll probably find there are a lot of updates to install. Note that these may consume a large chunk of your data allowance, but are necessary to keep your system secure and up to date.

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