You might be thinking “free at last” when it comes to free ISPs. Of course the Internet service isn’t really free. Advertisers pay for it instead of the customer. But in the past year, everybody seems to have started offering free Internet access, from the top Web portals to major department stores.
One of the first, and still the biggest, free ISP is NetZero. Since its inception two years ago, NetZero has drawn some criticism; part of the problem is that it has grown so rapidly. Another problem is advertising. Like many free ISPs, Net-Zero requires you to view banner ads in lieu of paying for the service. Many users find the banner ads to be extremely large and intrusive; they take up the bulk of the page and it’s difficult to resize them.
On top of that, there’s a seven-page registration form to fill out, connection speeds are slow, and the service disconnects you within 20 minutes if you don’t click on recurring ad banners. During black enterprise’s test, this reviewer tried to download the software onto a hard drive and was twice unsuccessful. A third time, it took two hours to download it onto a floppy disk. I called the 800 number only to find out NetZero wanted me to pay $6.95 to get a CD-ROM for a free service.
JUNO, which was originally a cost-based service, now offers free Internet access. However, JUNO constantly tries to get you to upgrade to JUNO Gold and Platinum, where you pay a monthly fee starting at $9.95; but you are assured of more local telephone access numbers and faster connection speeds. Also, its free service is not Network or POP3 compatible, so all business and Microsoft Outlook users should beware. Another caveat: JUNO’s e-mail is frequently backlogged for days; an e-mail sent urgently last week may arrive today.
JUNO also has intrusive banners that cannot be resized and charges for tech support. JUNO recently acquired two free ISP giants, WorldSpy and Freewwweb; these independent services once received the highest customer reviews. Now their clients are forced to download JUNO software.
Riding high on the free ISP bandwagon are private-label businesses: Spinway.com provides free access for Kmart and Yahoo!, while 1stUp.com provides access for Excite and Alta Vista. I found Bluelight.com, supported by Kmart, Spinway, and Yahoo!, to be the most user-friendly. Bluelight.com’s CD-ROM is easily accessible and free at your local Kmart store. It had two dial-up numbers in my area that both MCIWorldCom and Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic) didn’t have. Its ad banner is small and unobtrusive; it fits into the bottom of the screen and you don’t have to click on a banner to stay connected. BlueLight is POP3 and Network compatible; your e-mail account is with Yahoo!; and you can customize your home page to show the latest news, sports, and weather, among other things. This includes the latest Kmart deals; I got my printer and microwave at a 50% discount before they were offered in Kmart stores three weeks later.