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Free Internet Access

Record numbers of people have signed with the major providers offering free Internet access since the middle of last year. Most are more than willing to tolerate the sacrifices free access providers ask to avoid paying an average of $250 a year for fee-based service. Under the circumstances, some people are wondering if paid net access will soon be a thing of the past.

Our opinion: Don't bet on it.

The Verdict
If you rely on the Net for work or school you may want to think twice about signing up with a free provider, unless you need a backup in case your primary ISP slows down.

What to look for
As you visit different providers, you'll rapidly discover how difficult it can be to separate the contenders. With the similar-sounding claims most of these companies make, it can be almost impossible to spot the differences between services, unless you're willing to take the time to look at the fine print.

If you want to be thorough, the first thing you'll need to do is learn to speak Technobabble. The second thing you'll require is a law degree.

It is important to look at the Terms Of Service (TOS), the legal mumbo jumbo you'll see when you register. NetZero, for example, expects users to periodically fill out surveys. Customers who do not comply loose access to the service. Users of AltaVista's free service are disconnected if they fail to click on banners for the company's advertisers at regular intervals.

Ad Blocking and Patches
In some cases ad-blocking software will limit the number of ads you'll be forced to watch when using a free isp. Commercially available alternatives like browser ad-on webwasher (available for Windows and Mac) work in some cases. Patches which disable some of the more irritating features common among free isps are also widely available, a fact providers aren't exactly thrilled about.

When "Free"Is Actually ...Er "Unfree"

Free Access providers brag that they can save consumers a ton of money. But in most cases, the free services they offer aren't really free at all. Nearly all ask something in return.
So what do you have to give up when you don't pay for something?

Lots it turns out.

Juno Online

The free Internet access service offered by Juno has grown rapidly over the past months. The company's subscriber base has been bolstered by the addition of former members of the now defunct worldspy and freewwweb services.

Many providers offering free Net access are experiencing growing pains, the likes of which we haven't seen since the great AOL debacle a few years back. One of the few free ISPs to survive, Netzero continues to attract users at a rate that is increasing as more free isps abandon service.

minuses: Browser-based Ads. In order to maintain a netzero membership, users must agree to participate in periodic e-mail surveys


This UK based service provider did a pretty amazing thing. In next to no time FreeServe knocked out America Online as the leading Internet Service Provider in the United Kingdom, using a simple strategy: they stopped charging admission.

Now if only the British government would do something about telecommunications costs. Telephone rates are still ridiculously high, making time online prohibitively expensive for most people.

Broadband Digital Group

A Newport Beach, California, company with strong ties to Net advertising interests, has already signed up 400,000 customers interested in it's free DSL service. Could this be the wave of the future?


With millions of daily visitors to it's search engine and related portal pages AltaVista would seem to have an advantage attracting members to it's free Internet service.

Pluses: Available for both Mac and Windows. International coverage.

Minuses - The MicroPortal interface must be left on during surfing sessions. While online, users must click on an ad at least once every thirty minutes or face automatic disconnection. A major annoyance for anybody who uses the service for anything other than just checking email.

A partnership with web giant Yahoo may make this free isp a success for kmart - assuming both companies are willing to stick with it.

At least one dot com with a free access model was getting it right, at least if you asked freeWWWeb's fans.

That was before the company went bankrupt, demonstrating an obvious reality facing companies offering free Net access - making a business profitable without a source of revenue is uh...

....kind of tough.

Editor's Note: freeWWWeb customers are being referred to Juno Online. freeWWWeb is reportedly receiving a fixed number of shares of Juno's common stock for each customer passed on.


A growing number of e-commerce sites and online communities are adding free Net access as part of their basic services. Of course, the companies themselves aren't providing the service. The dirty work of running the network is left to contractors like

It's a smart move - considering how many people identify with films, tv shows and other high-profile products.

A significant number are willing to make the move, if only to be guaranteed an email address like or

Expect this trend to continue and to pick up real steam over the months to come, taking on slightly kafkaesque proportions as web sites across the board start offering access, leading to some pretty strange e-mail addresses.

Anybody for


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