By Reid Goldsborough
Broadband may be the cutting edge in Internet access, with cable and DSL
modem users surfing the Net at blazing speeds. But you pay more for this privilege.
Many Internet novices are America Online subscribers. AOL is the world’s largest Internet service provider (ISP) and succeeds by offering new users with an easy way to get online, providing its own content as well as access to the larger Internet, and saturating nonsubscribers with mailings of its discs.
But AOL is the most expensive way to access the Internet using a dial-up
phone line, with a price of $23.90 per month for unlimited access. If users are looking to economize, they can do better.
The two largest value-priced ISPs are NetZero (www.netzero.com) and Juno
(www.juno.com), both offerings of United Online, a company created when the two services merged in September 2001. About a year later United Online bought another discount ISP, Bluelight, from Kmart Corp.
All three services provide unlimited Internet access. So unlike some other discount services, users are not limited by the number of hours they can spend online each month. The cost for each service is $9.95 per month. Mac users are restricted to NetZero and Juno.
The latest versions of NetZero and Juno software are virtually identical and use the same access numbers. The only difference between the two, according to a company representative, is that NetZero has access numbers in the United States and Canada while Juno has access numbers only in the United States. Because of brand loyalty, United Online plans to continue both services.
I gave NetZero a whirl using a PC and a 56K modem. It performed well over
the course of a week — no busy signals, no dropped connections and good dial-up download speeds.
NetZero and Juno have local access numbers nationwide, though as with all
ISPs, users need to first check that they do not incur charges from their telephone company, charges that depend on how far the nearest local access number is from the user and on the telephone calling plan.
If you’re on a very tight budget, NetZero and Juno also offer access that is
totally free (Bluelight doesn’t) for PC users. In exchange for not having to open their wallet, however, users may have more difficulty getting past busy signals to connect; will get bombarded with banner ads, pop-up ads, and e-mail ads; will be limited to 10 hours of surfing time per month; and will have less e-mail storage space.
Even if users opt for paid service, unlike with pricier ISPs, they won’t get
any online storage space to put up a Web site (users can use free Web hosting
services, though they typically come with more limitations), and phone technical support costs $1.95 per minute (e-mail support is free).
Software for using each service is available via a free download from each service’s Web site, or by phoning NetZero at 877-638-9376, or Juno at 800-879-5866 and requesting that a CD-ROM, priced at $9.99, be mailed to you.
However, NetZero, Juno and Bluelight are not the only discount games in town. PC World magazine recently tested five smaller cut-rate ISPs — 550Access www.550access.com, AllVantage www.allvantage.com, Access4Less.net www.access4less.net, 650DialUp www.650dialup.com and Access4Cheap www.access4cheap.com —comparing them with NetZero. They all performed on par and cost slightly less, from $5.50 to $6.95 per month. Some have small set-up fees while NetZero and Juno do not.
Interestingly, two of them — 650DialUp and Access4Cheap — provide 10
megabytes of free storage space for a personal Web site, the same as pricier ISPs such as Earthlink. One discount service, 550Access, does not provide traditional “POP” e-mail service — you have to use a clunkier free Web-based e-mail service such as Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.
These small, inexpensive ISPs have other downsides. Access numbers are more likely to change as these companies aggressively seek to control their costs, and low profit margins mean there is less likelihood that any given service will survive long term. As I am writing this, in fact, Access4Cheap has just gone belly up. Your best bet, then, is to avoid signing a long-term contract with any discount service.
AOL has been losing subscribers to both cut-rate ISPs and pricier broadband providers. The company reported the loss of 846,000 subscribers in the second quarter of 2003. To avoid losing more subscribers to the discount ISPs, AOL plans to offer a new $9.95 per month stripped-down service branded with the familiar Netscape name that still provides unlimited Internet access sometime early next year. n
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