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One can't help but be impressed by the advertising the Free Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are tossing around; NetZero's slogan, "Defenders of the Free World"; IFreedom's picturesque view of Mount Rushmore with an American Flag -- it makes one proud to be an American Internet user and to long for freedom. Or does it?
Can there actually be such a thing?? A free dial-up connection to the Internet that works? And what about free DSL? Well fear not fellow patriots, we'll try to sort this out for you in our following review.
To Be, or Not to be Free
Getting Started. We evaluated five of the free national dial-up ISPs: Altavista, KMart's Bluelight ("Would you like free Internet with that special?"), IFreedom, NetZero, and WorldSpy. When investigating free ISPs, the very first thing you have to do is make sure they provide a local connection number. After all, if you wind up paying long distance charges, it makes no sense to sign up. Thankfully, all the ISPs let you search for a local phone number before you download the software.
<Hint: If you are unsure if a number is a local number, dial it on your phone and determine if it connects to a modem. To prevent your modem from dialing long distance, do not provide area codes for connection numbers.>
Handing out your Personal Information. If you are squeamish about your privacy, then Free Internet may not be for you. Before you are allowed to download the connection software, all the Free ISPs want personal data from you. All the ISPs want to know your name, address and phone number, and most ask about your income and Internet habits. Thankfully, no providers wanted a credit card number.
Downloading Software. We started our favorite uninstaller, and began the arduous process of downloading software from the Free ISPs. Unless you want to send off for a CD (and pay for shipping) there is no way around lengthy download sessions. By far the smallest software download was AltaVista with 600KB, and the largest was IFreedom with its whopping 20MB download. WorldSpy wouldn't allow download of its software, claiming the site was too busy (however, a CD could be ordered for $5). All of the ISPs provide an exe file that you click on once the software is downloaded, so no zip software is needed.
Surf's Up? We attempted to connect (in the Dayton, Ohio area) with the remaining four ISPs: Altavista, Bluelight , IFreedom, and NetZero. All connections were attempted early in the morning to avoid Internet jam-ups. We were unable to establish a usable connection with IFreedom and NetZero, and curiously enough, both services used the same local telephone number. <Now that's an interesting business model!>
So much for freedom! Three of the Five ISPs eliminated before any surfing was done!
Undaunted, but somewhat less enthusiastically, we proceeded to evaluate the two remaining ISPs, AltaVista and BlueLight.
Run Free, Stay Free?. Thankfully we were able to establish a good Internet connection with both AltaVista and BlueLight. Overall we found the services very usable and quite similar to our experience with pay providers in our area. Both services allowed unlimited access to any Internet site, downloading of files, and they would also provide you with a free Email account.
Both services bring up an Internet Explorer Window, however you can then boot up Netscape or any other browser you wish. We were even able to boot up Outlook express and check our pay ISP mail account. However, nothing is truly free in this world, and Free ISPs are not an exception.
Free DSL, Yet to Come. Neither supposedly nationwide free DSL provider, iNYC or FreeDSL, had service in our area. If DSL is not available commercially in your area, don't expect the free services to arrive anytime soon. Links are provided to the free providers in our Free Internet Comparison Table so you can review what they have to offer.
We suggest you sign up with at least two of the free ISPs if you intend to rely on them for your primary Internet usage. Depending on conditions in your area, you may have an entirely different experience with the ISPs than we had. Of course, if you currently have a pay Internet account, the free ISPs are a nice alternative when your pay service goes down.
We could not evaluate the free DSL providers as service was not yet available in the Dayton, Ohio area. We roundup the services and provide links to the ISPs in our Free Internet Comparison Table which follows.
Free Internet Comparison Table
Provider Download Size Advertisement Strategy Usability Comments 600KB Movable full length horizontal bar Good Ad Bar always on until Internet exit. 4MB Unmovable 2/3 screen horizontal bar Good Ad Bar always on until Internet exit. 20MB Must visit an advertiser every 20 Minutes Poor Try this one last. Huge slow download. 5MB Unknown Poor Had same local connection number as IFreedom. Neither would connect long enough to be evaluated. Unknown Unknown Very Poor. Even after several attempts, would not allow software download.
Free DSL Service Providers
Provider Comments To receive free service the user has to visit advertisers and accumulate "iBates™". Commencing on January 2, 2000. No service area was announced however the company claims they will provide their service for all of the U.S. Consumers can begin registering today for FreeDSL at http://www.freedsl.com, with service activation planned for April 1, 2000. No service area was announced.
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