What? Not online yet?

It's all right. There's no need to feel like a loser here. Billions of people still aren't online. In spite of all of the hype surrounding technological advances and the Information Age, the World Wide Web is still complex to understand and use.

A sure sign that the Web has been widely accepted would be for my 93-year-old grandmother to be e-mailing me about her day. So far, that hasn't happened.

But despite the Web's complexity, its vast amounts of information, shopping and other resources is compelling an increasing number of households to sign up with Internet service providers (ISPs) and learn the ways of the Web. How do you join them? What's all this about, anyway?

Perhaps the easiest way to start is to think of a pile of magazines, newspapers, journals, books and even store catalogues. Pick one up and open it to any page, and that's basically what a Web page looks like. The biggest difference is that you read (or view) each "magazine" (Web site) on a computer screen and not on paper. There are individual pages inside each Web site, just like a magazine, but the only way to flip over to them is to click your computer's mouse. See the articles that follow for more information on finding sites on the Web, shopping, keeping your kids safe on the Internet, and buying and selling at online auctions.

Getting "on the Web" can be a complicated process as well. America Online (AOL) is a household word for Internet access, but in the D.C. area there are more than 100 companies that can provide you with a connection to the Net, of which we list about 80 in the chart that follows. When you sign up with an ISP, it will either give you the required software for your computer or instructions (usually on a CD-ROM) to walk you through the process of working with the Internet programs already on your computer.

We've broken our list down into five kinds of ISPs--cable-modem providers, DSL (digital subscriber line) providers, local providers, national providers and, a new category this year, advertiser-subsidized free providers. Cable-modem and DSL providers offer higher-speed, always-on access to the Internet--so you never have to wait for your computer's modem to screech through its connection sequence--but at a cost. Local providers offer more flexible options and claim better service and fewer busy signals; national providers enable you to take your Internet access with you when you travel. Advertiser-subsidized providers offer standard speeds at zero financial cost, but you have to tolerate their required on-screen ad banners. The one thing they have in common is they will all allow you to view any Web site in the world.

One thing that's not on our chart is WebTV and similar options--for instance, Sega's Dreamcast video-game system--that offer Web access but use your television to display the pages instead of a computer. More such Internet access devices are on the way; someday, even your refrigerator may provide you with Web access. For the totally computer-phobic, these are options worth considering.

So far, the process may sound simple enough, but there are a few more things you need to know before picking an ISP.

* How much will it cost you? If you think you're going to be spending any serious amount of time online, go for an unlimited-service package. If you're going to spend a lot of time connected, consider getting a second phone line--then compare the total costs with a cable or DSL connection if one is available to your house. Also, make sure the call your modem makes is local, so you won't see additional charges on your monthly phone bill. If you're not sure, check with your phone company.

* Twenty-four-hour tech support is important when you are working online late at night and you run into problems downloading a file or accessing an e-mail message. It's especially important if you're just getting started online.

* A software starter kit, typically supplied on a CD-ROM or floppy disk, can also make it easier to install the software and sign yourself up for an Internet service.

* Extras such Web server space, which you can use to post a personal Web site, and additional e-mail accounts are also worth comparing when you select an ISP. (For more detailed advice, see our explanation on Page E14.)

* Don't believe everything you hear about the speed of somebody's Internet connection. A variety of factors affect how fast you can get to a Web site and view or download Web pages, including the time of day and the amount of "traffic" on the Internet (both at your ISP's computers and across the Net at large). No matter what ISP you choose, the story is pretty much the same. Don't expect to quickly access and skim through ZoogDisney--a popular spot for kids both here and around the world--on a Saturday morning, for example.

No matter what your friends tell you or you hear on a TV commercial, the only way to speed up your online access is to consider faster technologies--these days, cable modems or DSL connections. But with speed comes a trade-off; not only are they not for beginners, but each carries its own set of technical caveats, geographic limitations and higher prices.