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An Internet access program is a piece of software on a computer or device that handles communications and other protocols required to retrieve or send information to servers connected to the Internet. These programs not only handle the normal protocols that are used by servers for communication, but sometimes also act as an interface between the user’s computer and the hardware required to transmit and receive signals, such as a router or modem. For the most part, an Internet access program simply acts as a bridge between the Internet and the computer, with little functionality of its own outside of routing network traffic. Other programs, such as web browsers, email readers and peer-to-peer clients generally handle specific tasks that can be performed online, such as viewing a web site or reading email.
The most basic type of Internet access program is one that uses a modem to connect to the Internet. A modem is a device that sends and receives signals that modulate and demodulate across standard telephone lines. An Internet access program for a modem can dial the modem, sometimes through a separate set of drivers, and then send and interpret signals to establish a connection through an available protocol such as the point-to-point protocol (PPP). Without some type of Internet access program, a connection could not be established and it would be impossible to use the Internet, even if the modem could be dialed.
A large number of computers connect to the Internet through a digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem. Both of these units are pieces of hardware that have internal software and embedded hardware that allow them to use advanced hardware protocols for transmission. The Internet access software used for these devices focuses almost exclusively on just passing information back and forth from the device to the computer, without the need to access the hardware directly.
Another type of Internet access program is actually independent of most hardware, and instead is installed on a computer to allow it to connect and use a specific server online. These are usually programs that are branded to a specific company or Internet service provider (ISP), and they allow a customer to securely use the available servers. The programs are designed as an ISP security feature to prevent users who do not have the correct access program from connecting to the network and using the Internet through it.
An Internet access program also can be software used on a computer or device so the Internet can be used over a wireless network, without the use of an Ethernet cable. These programs are able to detect signals, interpret special hardware protocols such as handshaking, and then interact with the service network. Wireless Internet access programs are much more complex than those designed for wired use, because signals that are transmitted must be captured and isolated from all other signals being wirelessly transmitted in the area.
@Soulfox -- That isn't always the case. A lot of desktop computers still don't have built in wireless connectivity and require the user to go out and buy an adapter that typically plugs into a USB port.
Since that is new hardware, the drivers for it probably won't exist on your computer.
Still, most of those are "plug and play." All that means is that you plug in the adapter, the computer reads it and then installs whatever software and drivers it needs.
The good news about these Internet access programs is that you usually won't have to deal with them at all. Any modern computer should have the correct drivers to handle connecting a computer through a "wired" connect, wireless connection or even a modem (although the old "modem and phone line" connection is becoming increasingly rare).
That is good news because configuring things manually for Internet connectivity can be a real headache.