It’s free, but it’ll cost you

Internet service providers will give you the PC gratis, but not the access

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But a free PC? Now that’s something different. Or is it? Over the past several months, numerous Internet service providers (ISPs) have enticed customers with the lure of a free computer. The cost of computers has dropped so dramatically in recent years that ISPs are taking a chance on duplicating the cellular phone industry’s practice of giving customers a free phone when they sign up for long-term service.

One of the earliest adopters was Free-PC (www.free-pc.com). The Sausalito, California-based company made a splash in February with its announcement of 10,000 free computers for consumers willing to put up with ads taking up much of their monitor’s real estate. Over a million eager customers signed up in the week after the announcement to receive the first disbursement of computers in June. Here’s what you would have gotten: a PC with a 333 MHz processor, 15-inch monitor, 32 MB RAM, 4 GB hard drive (of which 2 Gigs are available to the user), 56 Kbps modem, CD-ROM, floppy drive, Windows 98 and free e-mail and Internet access (the standard model that most free PC companies offer). Here’s what you would have had to give: detailed demographic information about your household, including income, date of birth of all members of your household, household income, a credit card number (for security reasons) and a solemn oath to spend at least 10 hours per month using the computer for 30 months.

If you don’t use the computer the required amount, you will have to return it or pay up to the $600 cost of the machine (depending on how much of your obligation you’ve fulfilled). Besides the revolving ads that will be crazy-glued to your desktop, you also give Free-PC the right to monitor your computer use.

“Consumers should also understand how much privacy they’re giving up,” advises Mark Bates, an analyst with PC Data, a Reston, Virginia-based IT research firm. Which Websites you
frequent, the software loaded on your machine and which applications you use most are just some of the data that will be collected about you. Although the company promises none of this information will be given to third parties, it will be used in the aggregate to help its advertising sponsors target you as effectively as possible.

Other companies, such as DirectWeb (www.directweb.com) and Gobi are giving PCs away in much the same manner as telephone companies offer free cell phones. In return for a multi-year subscription to their Internet service, you are given a PC. With Gobi (www.gobi.com), you commit to a $29.99 start-up fee, a shipping and handling fee of $45 and a $25.99 fee per month for unlimited Internet access (for 36 months). “We try very carefully to stay away from the term ‘free’ PC. It’s basically semantics,” states Gobi CEO Ganesh Ramakrishnan. Over the course of the Gobi contract you can expect to pay $1,010.63. And by subsidizing the cost of the PC, Gobi and other companies like it can appeal to people

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