Is there real value in offers of free Internet access


For holiday shoppers planning on giving or getting a computer, one of the first add-ons you'll need is Internet access.

There are package deals aplenty in retail stores, coupling Internet access with the purchase of a new PC; in some cases, you can get the computer for free if you agree to pay for the Internet access for a set period of time (usually three years).

In most areas, your local phone company offers Internet access. In Hardin County InfiNet and others provide reasonably priced connections, ranging from $17.95 to $21.95 a month.

If you've used the Internet much, or read up on it, you're probably aware of cheaper access -- cheap as in free.

NETZERO. NetZero was a leader in offering free Net access in the U.S. when it debuted in October 1998.

In the United States, free Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are establishing a toehold in a service business that typically charges for its product.

NetZero, like its imitators, get no revenue for the service they provide. Instead, they sell advertising that is displayed in a small window that floats on your computer's desktop every time you use the Internet.

This ad window can be moved all around your screen, but it can't be closed. It closes automatically when you disconnect from the free Internet provider.

Free providers like NetZero require you to divulge some information about yourself, your family, income, etc., when registering. This information helps NetZero ``target'' banner ads that the service believes will show services and products that might interest you enough to earn a mouse click.

My experience with NetZero has been fairly positive to date. But it's only fair to note that I haven't been forced to depend on NetZero -- or any of the free ISPs -- as my sole Internet connection.

My trials with NetZero have been intermittent connects over the past dozen months, during peak and non-peak hours. I've only received a handful of busy signals -- predictably during the peak evening hours. My most recent connects have been solid and without delays.

Another point to mention is that all of these free Internet providers have dial-up numbers only in a few major Kentucky areas -- notably, Louisville, Lexington and usually Bowling Green. If dialing into a Louisville phone number is a toll call for you, you won't save much money on a ``free'' service.

For a small monthly fee, I can make Louisville a local call from my home, so that make's it easy and affordable to call Internet providers based there.

For more information, visit NetZero's Web site at

FREE ACCESS. The AltaVista search engine has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts in the past year, evolving into a Web portal.

AltaVista rolled out its AV Free Access Internet service earlier this year.

Using Free Access requires downloading and installing the Free Access software (available online free, or on CD for the cost of shipping and handling) on your computer.

Like NetZero, Free Access is also advertising supported.

AltaVista's Free Access software is also bundled with products from a variety of hardware and software vendors, including Computer Renaissance, eBizMart, and Discount PC Int'l.

AltaVista's Internet service also sports a floating ad box that can be set aside or moved quickly. And like NetZero, you can bet AltaVista officials are collecting data on customers to better target those floating ads.

To its credit, the AltaVista banner offers buttons for functions, news and other links to display information in that window.

In my trials, since October, the service has worked reasonably well with few busy signals except during peak usage hours.

For more information, visit on the World Wide Web.

FREENSAFE. Surfing the Internet is a lot like traveling around a large city. Parts of it are fun and useful, and parts of it aren't places you want your children to visit.

FreeNSafe's goal is to provide free access to the best the Internet offers while filtering out the trash, the objectionable parts that kids might stumble into.

Like its free-access brethren, FreeNSafe is ad supported. A single banner ad window stays on top of your Windows desktop anytime you are connected via FreeNSafe to the Internet.

A single clickable ads changes in the window every 30 seconds.

The filtering aspect of FreeNSafe is unique -- no other free Internet provider offers it, though a number of the ``pay'' ISPs offer that type of filtering service.

My trial of FreeNSafe was only for a short time during peak periods.

Since FreeNSafe is so new (they've only been online since October), many people shopping for an Internet provider may have not even heard of them.

For more information, visit FreeNSafe's Web site at

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS. While my trials with these three ``free'' Internet providers was positive, I can't bring myself to depend on them entirely for my Internet access.

All three would have been long-distance calls from my home had I not had the wide-area calling already installed on my phone. Before you commit to using one, you better make sure Ma Bell doesn't sock it to you in toll charges first.

And even the act of offering free Internet access begs the question: If you aren't paying for the service, do you have the right to complain when it doesn't work?

Some industry watchers say the ad-supported business model won't sustain long-term growth or lead the service to making a profit. With faster, high bandwidth Internet access available in the not-too-distant future, is there a market for free Internet access?

Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer paid access as my main connection to the Internet.

If you're looking for backup Internet access, or an account to try for free to see if this Internet stuff is something you might like, then you'll enjoy one of these free Internet accounts.

Macintosh users may have to look a little harder for free Internet access, as most of the services I seen are only available for owners of PCs.

PRICE REDUCTION. Prices for new computers seems to continue to spiral lower as manufacturers scramble for a way to make money and sell systems cheaper.

To that end, chip maker Intel is targeting the very lowest of the low-end computers, hoping its new chip -- code-named ``Timna'' -- can be manufactured at a lower cost.

Computers now on the low-end of the price range have very little profit built-in. The new chip will mean consumers can afford brand new technology offering decent performance for a lower price.

The Timna chip will combine a Pentium processor with graphics and memory controller functions, lowering the overall cost of creating the computer.

The Timna chip will join the Celeron, Intel's current low-priced computer chip. For more information, visit Intel's Web site at

Y2K FEARS. Despite reassurances from nearly every government office, state and local agencies, utilities and every business in between, people are still fretting over Y2K.

Last week pop singer Jewel cancelled her New Year's Eve concert in her home state of Alaska, citing worries over Y2K.

High ticket prices may have also contributed to the problem, as only 1,000 of the 8,000 available tickets had been sold since mid-October.

Jewel isn't the only singer to throw in the towel on a New Year's Eve bash. In New York City, the so-called New Year's Eve ``Party of the Century'' was cancelled due to slow ticket sales.

The dusk-to-dawn bash would've featured rock legend Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Sting, and others.

The concerts are victim to what a CNN-Time poll showed was American's mood toward the end of this millenium seems to say they plan on staying close to home.

The poll showed that 72 percent of Americans say that are not planning to do ``something special'' on New Year's Eve.

Me? I'll be watching it all from the safety of my Lazy Boy recliner!

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