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Surfing for nothing
By PETER DIZIKES, New York Times
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2000
Information, as the saying goes, wants to be free. In this spirit, a growing number of Internet service providers have begun offering completely free Internet access: no monthly charges and no start-up fees.
Companies such as NetZero, World Spy, Freei.net, and even Kmart (yes, Kmart) let anyone with a computer and a modem browse the Web at no cost, and, through aggressive advertising campaigns, aim to lure Web users away from fee-based services such as America Online and Earthlink. And the trend is accelerating: In January, established Web names such as Alta Vista and Juno joined their ranks.
Free access has been slower to catch on in the United States than in countries such as Britain, where the debut last year of Dixon's Freeserve, run by an electronics retailing chain, was so successful that many competitors, including AOL, now offer free services.
In Britain, though, telephone customers pay by the minute for local calls, which means a so-called free Internet connection still can be costly.
Few Internet experts expect such dramatic changes on this side of the Atlantic. Zia Daniell Wigder, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, a New York company that provides research on Internet commerce, predicts that 13 percent of Net users will gain access via free providers by 2003 -- a healthy amount, but probably not enough to scare AOL.
"The free services are catching on," Wigder said, "but they are competing against each other, not just AOL."
Why has free Internet access been a greater hit in Britain than the United States? For one thing, industry analysts say, the British tend to spend less on entertainment. Also, established ISPs command greater customer loyalty in the United States.
"AOL offers a very good service that people are addicted to," said Bruce Kasrel, an analyst at Forrester Research, a research company in Cambridge, Mass., that analyzes how changes in technology affect businesses and society. "Free ISPs will not be the primary way people access the Internet in the future."
Nonetheless, free ISPs are a burgeoning presence in the United States, with a dozen companies offering national services and many regional ISPs offering something such as free connections (many charge one-time set-up fees). I recently signed up for several of the largest providers and tested them over several weeks.
The ground rules: I ignored providers who promised free monthly service but charged a hefty set-up fee, avoided services that could not provide a local phone number (in my case, area code 718) and tried to rely only on free technical support, which was sometimes available only by e-mail. In short, my goal was to evaluate the quality of Internet access I could get without paying a cent.
To begin, I downloaded the software from the free ISP Web sites using my existing provider, a regular phone line, a 56K modem and Windows 98. Anyone who doesn't have an Internet provider can order the software by phone, usually for less than $10.
Among the following free ISPs, only Freei is compatible with Macintoshes.
NetZero (http://www.netzero.net), the biggest of the free ISPs, reports having 3-million subscribers, all with PCs (it does not work with Macs). NetZero subscribers must use Windows 95, 98, NT or 2000.
Downloading the software and answering a marketing questionnaire, a necessary part of the sign-up process, took an hour. After I had used NetZero a few times, an ambiguous error message began cropping up on my computer: "691: member ID/password invalid OR we may have temporary system difficulties."
Since I had been using NetZero successfully, I figured it was the latter. But I could not be sure because NetZero does not have toll-free technical support by phone; you must either pay for a call to Southern California or use the service's "platinum" phone support, which is $14.95 per call.
If the service is down, you obviously cannot use e-mail or consult a Web site for help unless you have another Internet provider. I decided to use another ISP to send e-mail to NetZero's technical support service. All I got was a standardized response urging me to upgrade to the latest version of NetZero.
It was faster to register again under another name, with a new ID and password. The error message disappeared, but I would not want to re-register every time I encountered a problem.
NetZero provides free e-mail and comes with a window for advertisements, called the ZeroPort, that can be moved around but not removed from the screen. The ZeroPort was only a moderate distraction; I found it least obtrusive at the bottom of the screen.
"Free Internet access," the WorldSpy advertisements say (http://www.worldspy.com). "Our accountant isn't happy." Neither was I, after realizing that WorldSpy's memory-gulping software would occupy 8 megabytes on my hard disk.
And there were glitches: A dialog box kept reappearing on the screen, the service intermittently disconnected, and occasionally when I dialed in, the WorldSpy application would start, then enigmatically disappear from the screen.
On the positive side, WorldSpy's technical support includes a toll-free phone number, and the people there were prompt and helpful -- although the first time I tried it, I was cut off in midcall. A representative solved the dialog box problem without much difficulty and assured me that the mysterious disappearing application was caused by a software bug that WorldSpy was attempting to fix.
WorldSpy does not include an advertising window like ZeroPort. WorldSpy is an online retailer, and its Internet service is intended to draw traffic to the site. Its service is compatible with Windows 95, 98 and NT, but not yet with Windows 2000. Overall, I had enough connection problems to give me pause about using WorldSpy as a long-term ISP.
Setting up Freei's software is quick, provided you have Version 5 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Anyone using an earlier version of Explorer will first have to download Version 5, which can itself be a lengthy process, to install Freei. In fact, almost all free ISPs use Explorer as the default browser, perhaps because Netscape is now part of AOL.
Freei (http://www.freei.net), based in Seattle, does not have a toll-free number for support, but the service presented a minimum of connection problems. Since Freei provides access for Macintosh users with OS 8.0 or higher, Apple partisans may choose to go here first and consult friends if technical issues arise. Freei also is compatible with Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000.
One of the best-known portals on the Web, Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.com) recently started offering free Internet access. The software downloads rapidly, and Alta Vista allows users to list several local phone numbers in the setup program. If the modem encounters a busy signal when dialing in, it will try the next number on the list.
Alta Vista provided a reliable connection and has a highly detailed trouble-shooting guide, parts of which pertain to basic networking and protocol issues and could be useful no matter which ISP you use. The service works with Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000. Alta Vista also provides free technical support by phone, which in my case included about a 10-minute wait on hold.
An established ISP, Juno (http://www.juno.com) offers a choice between its premium service for $9.95 a month and completely free access. Among differences, the premium service includes free technical phone support, which costs $1.95 per minute if you choose the free service. Premium users also have more local phone numbers to choose from.
Like Alta Vista, Juno's free service also allows users to list several local numbers in case of a busy signal, and it offers a dependable, consistent connection. It does not take long to download Juno's software, either. In fact, the most time-consuming part of the set-up is answering a tedious personal questionnaire, which is by far the longest of any free ISP reviewed here. Juno's free service also requires Windows 95 or any later version, including Windows 2000.
When I learned that Kmart was in the free ISP business, I pictured a cheesy service with pop-up advertisements distracting me while I perused the Web: "Attention, Kmart surfers. We now have a blue-light special on garden hoses." As its name indicates, though, Kmart has a sense of humor about its cyberventure (http://www.bluelight.com). BlueLight shows a video advertisement while your modem is dialing, and it includes the usual on-screen advertising window.
These distractions aside, BlueLight emerged as a dark-horse winner. It took just a few minutes to download the software and to register. The service is run in collaboration with Yahoo -- the default home page -- and users are given a yahoo.com e-mail address. BlueLight runs with Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000.
I have yet to experience a software glitch, connection problem or curious error message with BlueLight. When I tested its technical support by phone, I reached a representative within a minute. Granted, that required a call to the 409 area code (Texas), but that seems like a reasonable trade-off.
* * *
Indeed, using free ISPs generally means accepting trade-offs such as connection difficulties and limited technical support, but that also can be true of services you pay for. You may have to endure an advertising window, and many free ISPs monitor the online activities of their users.
Most free service providers require Windows as a platform. And if you are using the Internet for professional reasons, it is a good idea to try a free ISP for a while before relying upon it too heavily. But if all that seems reasonable to you, there is one undeniable benefit: a very nice price.
Other free ISPs:
THE SIMPSONS: www.thesimpsons.com
Free Internet access and e-mail brought to you by the site of the long-running hit series, but only for Windows users. D'oh! It runs with Windows 2000.
Where would a major portal be these days without offering free Net access? Excite's FreeWorld works with Windows 2000.
This site says it was the first national provider of free access. It covers nearly every area code in the country.
Local access numbers are limited in some states, especially in rural areas, but iFreedom promises compatibility for Mac users by mid-2000. A Windows 2000 version also is on the way.
National coverage for dotNow is extensive. Before downloading, use its search form to see if your local access number is available.
TRITIUM NETWORK: www.tritium.net
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