Free Internet provider may carry a price


Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Would you pay $20 a month for an unlisted phone number? One that telemarketers wouldn't call?


If that's the case, don't consider using a free Internet service provider; stick with your current ISP. The $20 a month you're paying buys you a degree of privacy.


If you don't care so much about being unlisted, if you're OK with the idea of a marketing company tracking your Internet activity and showing ads on your computer screen or if you're happy to mislead that company by making up answers to its questions, it's time for you to stop paying for Internet access. Get it for free.


Here's how it works. You use your current access or a friend's access to go to a free Internet service Web site. You answer questions about your personal demographics – age, income, birthday, what you like to visit online – and then download the provider's free "banner bar" software. Install that software, and you can use it to dial a local number and sign back onto the Net.


All your regular Internet software – Netscape, Internet Explorer, Outlook, Eudora, whatever – will still work just the same. On the surface, the only changes will be that you aren't paying any monthly or hourly fee for Internet access (the good news) and that you will see the banner bar constantly showing advertising on your screen (the bad news). Behind the scenes, though, the ISP will track everything you do. That information is typically sold to advertisers and other online firms.


How do you find one of these free service providers? On the Web, check the excellent list at USA's Free ISPs, www.nzlist.org/user/freeisp. Some are national, some are regional and some local. Of the scores of free services listed there, how do you know which one is best? This is what to look for:


Compatibility with your computer. Nearly all work with Windows, but some also permit use with Macintosh or Linux computer operating systems.


A local POP. That stands for "point of presence," a phone number that's close to you, close enough that the phone company can promise you that it won't cost you more to dial that number and stay on for hours. (In some places, not all numbers within an area code are local calls.) Some free ISPs have only one or a few POPs. Others have many.


No setup or annual fee. It isn't really free if you have to pay those kinds of fees, and there are plenty of services that don't charge them. (And don't ever give them your credit card number, even if they promise not to charge on it.)


No referral requirement. You shouldn't have to sign up friends. Of course, if you like to do that, this doesn't matter.


Support for all your Internet software. Not all free services give you access to newsgroups and e-mail, though even when they don't, you can sometimes wiggle around the limits. Still, it's easier if the service simply supports them.


A small banner bar displayed on your monitor. These can be as big as about 632 X 80 pixels or as small as about 490 X 90 pixels. Because the banner bar is on screen as long as you're connected to the Internet and always on top where it obscures any other windows, you want it to take up minimal space. (If the banner uses the Web programming language Java, find another service provider. Java is a great technology for some things, but it's slow and clumsy while you're trying to do other things on the Internet.)


A useful banner bar. Some bars are pretty much only ads. Others do have some useful news, weather and search features. You want a banner bar that isn't too annoying, one that doesn't have ads that are too frequent, too lively or too colorful.


Easy, fast, reliable connection. You can only find out by experience if the service is actually easy to connect to or if the numbers are always busy or slow. You'll also discover if it is a service that tries to disconnect you every few minutes.


Limited privacy invasion. Check for these things: a short questionnaire, an online promise not to automatically sell your data to other companies and a chance to opt out of receiving e-mail from "partners" of the firm.


So who has a local number for reliable, useful and unobtrusive service? Look first to see if any club, school or professional organization you're in offers a service. That could save you from competing with hordes of others trying to sign on to a general free service. Trying a regional or local outfit can also cut back on that crowding.


Of the national outfits, I don't like NetZero.com because it has one of the biggest banner bars and lots of bothersome questions, and will disconnect you if you don't click on ads. Juno.com also has a humongous banner bar, many questions and a separate POP for e-mail. Forget that.


Freei.net has a smaller bar – and one that downloads a lot faster when you first install – but somehow its bar manages to be the most annoying.


Bluelight.com – from the team of Kmart and Yahoo – asks a lot of questions but has a bar that's not too bothersome and that actually disappears when you're at Yahoo's Web site. If that's where you spend a lot of time, this might be your best bet.


TheSimpsons.com – that's right, from Fox and the cartoon show of the same name – uses software from 1stUp, which also provides free Internet technology to lots of organizations that want to slap their own labels on. The banner is middling size, but not annoying, and the personal questions aren't too pressing. I had some bug trouble during my testing, though, making me question its reliability.


AltaVista's MicroAV.com has a small banner bar with some useful search and information features plus a reasonable questionnaire. I'd rate it pretty highly. I also like Freelane (freelane.excite.com), which has a small, useful bar and few questions. Both of these services have Windows and Mac compatibility.


Your choice of a free ISP – as your main connection to the Net or as a backup for those times when your regular ISP is busy or down – depends on where you are. There's little to lose in signing up to test one or more, then keeping the one you like best. If you're worried about privacy, make up a persona during testing and only part with your true information when you settle on one.


I haven't yet found a free digital subscriber line, or DSL, service that I trust. The ones I've seen often ask for long commitments and special fee payments.


Send e-mail for Phillip Robinson to prr@earthlink.net. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.