Itching to try Internet? Get in line

August 04, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's free public portal to the global Internet computer network has been swamped with users in its first week of operation, leaving some would-be net surfers high and dry.

At least 400 people a day have been logging onto the Enoch Pratt Free Library's computers, the hub of a state-organized system called SAILOR. Michael Walsh, a Pratt official, estimated that users have kept all the library's available computer lines busy about 20 hours a day since the service started July 27.

Library officials weren't surprised by the digital gridlock: so far, SAILOR has room for only 48 users at a time. They can dial in on one of 16 lines by using a local Baltimore phone number, or they can connect through another computer system tied into the Internet.

"As soon as we turned on our lines the first morning, we had 16 users on the phone lines all the time," said Mr. Walsh, the Pratt's manager of systems and technology. "We've had someone call up and say they couldn't get on at 6 a.m." The other 32 access lines, open to users logging in from other systems, have also been clogged, he said.

SAILOR suffered what officials characterize as a minor technical glitch on its first day of service, July 27. Computer users with older, slower modems -- devices that enable computers to talk to each other -- found they couldn't connect with the Pratt. The system vendor, a California firm, dispatched a technician from New York who fixed the problem by about 3 a.m. the next day.

"It has not been a flawless takeoff," said Stuart Ragland, the Pratt's help desk manager, who fields telephone questions about the service. "But anyone with a background in installing new computer systems would be surprised if there weren't some hitches."

The public is forgiving, he said. "They're all excited at the prospect of getting in on the start-up of a new network," he said. "A lot of them are knowledgeable about the problems and very philosophical about the whole thing."

Once plugged into SAILOR, Marylanders can search the Library of Congress' catalog, browse through archives of popular song lyrics, use an on-line thesaurus or peruse the University of Maryland at College Park's undergraduate calendar.

SAILOR is one of the first systems in the United States to offer free public access to the Internet through public libraries.

Maryland's system may also be the only Internet site in the country with an electronic menu selection titled "What's New, Hon?" (The selection will explain new databases and other services as they are added to SAILOR.)

So far, the Pratt is the only Maryland library offering access to SAILOR. By the end of September, libraries in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties are expected to join and provide patrons with local phone numbers.

That will bring the total number of SAILOR phone lines to 96. Eventually, the state network is expected to accommodate up to 300 users at a time, Mr. Walsh said.

A reporter trying, periodically, to log onto SAILOR by phone and through other points in the Internet yesterday started at 7:30 a.m. and didn't succeed until 11:55 a.m. Would-be users are greeted by a curt message that serves as the system's busy signal: "Connection Closed by Foreign Host."

Usage seems heaviest around 8:30 a.m., from noon to 2 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., Mr. Ragland said. Users with questions can call the library's help desk, at 396-4636.

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