How to Connect a Computer to the Internet

Basics to getting online

man using wifi on laptop
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The specific steps required to connect a computer to the internet depend on the type of internet access involved. Most internet access methods used in homes involve a small hardware unit called a modem that connects to a physical medium supporting one of these fixed location services:

  • Phone line (for DSL)
  • Cable internet (CATV) line
  • Fiber optic cable
  • Wireless antenna (for satellite and wireless broadband services)

Portable computers, like tablets, can be connected to fixed location networks inside a home, but they also support mobile broadband internet access via cellular networks that can be used at home and while traveling. Finally, outside the home, portable computers can also reach the internet via Wi-Fi hotspots, hardware access points installed in fixed locations that are in turn networked to internet service through one of the other above methods.

Configuring an Internet Gateway (If Applicable)

A network gateway is the hardware device that joins a local network to the internet. On fixed location networks, the modem connects to the gateway device. Home networks most commonly use a broadband router as their gateway device, although technically any modern home computer can be set up as the gateway instead.

When using mobile broadband networks or Wi-Fi hotspots, the gateway hardware that directly connects a computer to the internet is set up and maintained by service providers. However, some end-users prefer to add a portable network router (typically advertised as a travel router) into their configuration. Travel routers serve as an additional layer of the internet gateway, helping to more conveniently connect a group of devices to the same internet service and share data between them. Administrators configure travel routers similarly to other types of consumer routers.

Configuring the Internet Client Device

Configuration parameters must be set on a computer to match the type of network gateway and internet service being used. Typically required settings for client computers include:

  • Username and password — required for log in to Internet services based on PPPoE

  • Choice of a network by name (SSID) — for Wi-Fi home networks and hotspots

  • Wireless security key (or passphrase) that matches the gateway — for Wi-Fi networks

  • Wi-Fi turned off — for connecting via mobile broadband (cellular) networks

  • Domain Name System (DNS), MTU and other service-specific settings — as required by the provider

Troubleshooting Internet Connection Problems

Mistakes in configuring network equipment often lead to failure connecting to the internet. In wireless networking, entering incorrect security keys is one of the most common errors. Loose cables or cables plugged into the wrong locations cause similar errors on wired networks. Broadband modems must be connected to a home router uplink port and not any other of the router's ports, for example.

It may also be necessary to contact the internet service provider (ISP) to resolve connection problems. When connecting to a provider's network for the first time, the customer subscription must be activated and any special settings the provider requires (such as login information) set via the gateway. Once a computer has successfully connected to the provider's network the first time, subsequent problems tend to be unexpected outages due to weather or technical issues the provider is having with their own equipment (assuming the home network itself is functioning normally).

Advanced Internet Connection Topics

In some cases, you can set up two or more internet services on one device or on one home network. Smartphones, for example, can be connected via a Wi-Fi to a home wireless router but can communicate over the cell network instead when Wi-Fi isn't available. These so-called multi-homed configurations help keep you connected the internet with fewer interruptions, as one of the network paths can still work even if the other one fails.

An internet connection can be established, but computers may still not be able to reach websites normally if the local network has an incorrect DNS configuration (or the DNS provider experiences a service outage).