Personal computer communications for the CPA: a hit or miss? (The Practitioner & the Computer) (Column)by Schmidt, Walter C.
Electronic tax filing is here to stay. The IRS Electronic Filing System (EFS) is expected to handle more than seven million tax returns this year, using direct one-on-one computer communications with the IRS and indirectly though the use of an intermediary service, for a fee. Additionally, the IRP (Information Returns Program) BBS is an online service of the IRS for filers of information returns. This system offers the ability to submit information returns via personal computers. Users of the IRP BBS have access to the latest IRP changes and updates and can access IRS forms. The IRS publication 1527, "What is the Information Returns Programs Bulletin Board System?" is available by calling IRS at 800-TAX-FORM.
Types of Services Available
There are two basic categories of online services:
* Systems that do not charge a fee, but might require a long distance telephone call in order to access the services; and
* Systems that charge an access fee but usually provide a local telephone number for you to use, as part of a nationwide network.
Before starting the discussion of online services, it is necessary to understand the concept of message systems. Message systems are a set of communications tools which, taken together, allow you to exchange information with a group of people who share similar interests--either by leaving messages on the system or talking directly to other members with the use of online conferencing. These message systems also usually include libraries of related programs and text files that can be downloaded to your computer.
Free Online Systems
Let us first take a look at several free BBSs. One is the BBS that may be available through your state CPA society. Another possibility is the long standing CPA computer related BBS run by ACUTE, Inc. ACUTE is an international association of CPAs who have some form of IBM computer installed in their public accounting practice. ACUTE's primary goal is to help CPA firms become more productive and profitable through the use of computers. The system includes a message system and a libray of program and text files. If you have a computer-related question, you can be sure that on this system, someone will take the time and try to help you obtain an answer. More information about joining ACUTE can be obtained at 317-845-8702.
The IBM National Support Center BBS is run out of Atlanta, Georgia, and is an excellent source of IBM-related hardware and software technical information. It maintains many software "fixes," that can be downloaded to your computer, along with other programs and text files available for downloading. The public access number for this BBS is (404)835-6600 using "N81." Note: while most communications software documentation will help you understand the communications parameters necessary to contact a BBS, if you need a quick answer to a question, try contacting your local society chapter or its computer committee.
A Personal Favorite
One of my own favorite bulletin boards is Ed Gelb's Instant Bulletin Board Phone Directory. For a small fee you can gain access to the over 20,000 verified BBS phone numbers. You can list all or some of these numbers by area code, state, or by BBS specialty. The latter is performed by using a key-word search. The BBS operates 24 hours a day and can be reached at 201-694-6835. A key-word search for tax related BBS resulted in a list of 10 listings from as many different states.
National Services, for a Fee
CompuServe Information Service (CIS) is a communications system with a broad range of offerings including financial services, news, travel, and research databases, to name just a few of those offered. It has an electronic mail service that allows you to send messages to other CIS members and to certain other national electronic mail systems such as MCI Mail. You can also send, worldwide, text-based messages directly to Group III facsimile machines without the need of your own FAX board. A CIS customer service operator who can help you obtain a CIS account and explain how to go about using CIS can be reached at 800-848-8990. It costs approximately $15 an hour to use CIS. If you use any of the specialized services, there is an additional fee.
The General Electric Network for Information Exchange (GEnie) is a service of the GE Information Services (GEIS), one of the largest commercial communications network. GEnie provides services similar to those mentioned as provided by CIS. In addition, GEnie and CIS provide a variety of bulletin board message systems and a variety of entertaiment oriented services. GEnie client service can be reached at 800-638-9636. GEnie provides some of its services for a flat fee of approximately $5 per month, with the rest of their services costing approximately $6 per hour after 6pm and before 8am, weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays. It costs $18 per hour at other times.
The Boston Computer Exchange (BCE) is available on CIS, and lists used computer equipment for sale. For a small fee you are given a "check-out period," during which the used equipment can be returned for a full money back refund.
Both GEnie and CIS allow you to scan the latest in stock market activity, or use clipping services to capture all the articles that fit a "profile" you have previously set-up. The clipping services give you access to the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters Financial Report, OTC NewsAlert and many newspaper-specific databases. In addition to capturing articles that fit your key-word profile, you can review current news from the last 24 hours and search by ticker to locate current news on a particular company. The newspaper library databases contain selected full-text articles from over 50 newpapers from across the U.S.
Yet another national service is Prodigy, a joint venture between IBM and Sears. Unlike GEnie and CIS, which are for the most part, text- based systems, Prodigy is a graphics-based system that requires its own software. It provides a variety of services and its software is relatively easy to install and easy to use. To order Prodigy and to obtain the required software, call 800-776-3460 ext. 888. Prodigy charges a flat-fee for access to a majority of its services, with a cost of approximately $13 per month.
If you would like to learn more about the BBS community on a regular basis, I highly recommend Boardwatch Magazine. This monthly publication provides concise, comprehensive, and time information on electronic bulletin board systems and the emerging cottage industry in online information services. They also have their own online BBS that provides Boardwatch back issues to January 1988. In addition to various articles, each issue of Boardwatch contains their comprehensive national list of electronic bulletin board systems, and includes the service name, telephone number, description of the service, the sponsoring organization and the system's location. To learn more about Boardwatch, and to subscribe ($36 per year) call 800-933-6038.
What do you need to get started? Just your computer with an unused serial port, a modem and the necessary cable, the software used to contact the other computer systems, and, most important, your time.
The installation of your modem and communications software is beyond the scope of this article. After reading the documentation that comes with some modems and some communications software you might think it is also beyond your scope of expertise.
Do you want an internal or external modem? Which manufacturer's modem should you buy with that modem speed capabilities? Which communications program should you use?
To name a few commercial communication programs: Procomm Plus (the one I use), Datastorm Technologies, Inc. 314-474-8461; Crosstalk, DCA/Crosstalk Communications, 404-998-3998; Relay Gold, Relay Communications Inc., 800-847-3529; and Smartcomm, Hayes Micro-computer Products, Inc., 404-441-1617. There are also "shareware" products such as Boyan, Boyan Communications, POB 71, Woodstock, Maryland, 21163; and Qmodem, The Forbin Project, Inc., 319-232-4516.
A Good Book
While there are many books available that provide excellent information on personal computer communications, for me, one book stands out as covering all the communications topics you might need to know, with explanations that are easy to understand. It is Dvorak's Guide To PC Telecommunications, by John C. Dvorak and Nick Anis, published by Osborne McGraw-Hill. Don't let the size of it (over 1,000 pages) put you off. And, don't think you will have to know much of what it contains before you finally are able to get your computer up and running. However, when you do come across an instruction to follow or a decision to make in your modem or communication software manual that just does not seem to make sense to you, a quick look at Dvorak's index or its 24-page table of contents will lead you to the answer you need.
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