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Freedom On A Budget: A Review of Free Access ISPs

Peter Gallivant

Today's freedom activists, and particularly permanent tourists, need Internet access for communications, if only because using snail (or postal) mail ties you down to a physical location. You might as well wave a flag in the air and cry, "Come arrest me!"

However, the Internet has some drawbacks as well. For one, if you use a conventional Internet Service Provider, you might be backtracked to the originating network. To get your physical location, a law enforcement agency can track your post to a particular dialup at the ISP, pull telephone company records, identify the originating phone number on your data call, and come knocking on your door. You can avoid this by never calling from the same number twice (try pay phones with an acoustic coupler and a prepaid phone card).

But if you have a paid account, the ISP probably has a credit card number and billing address on you. Uh oh.

Enter the free access ISPs.

Typically, these are advertising-supported services. You download the company's special software and install it on your computer, and every time you log on to the free access network, you are treated to nonstop banner ads. You are also normally signed up for innumerable spam lists. But for zero financial-cost access, you can ignore the banners at the top of your screen and delete spam unread. And sometimes you can bypass the online advertising altogether.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. Let's take a look at some of the free services available.


Real name: dotnow.com. In the interest of balance, I spent days trying to download this outfit's software for evaluation. No luck. The first day, I couldn't even get their server to respond. The next day, I could hit the main page but couldn't get past that. Eventually, I got to a questionnaire page, which asks assorted questions about you, your household, and how much money you have to spend. The server never responded when I attempted to post the form. I recommend not bothering with these folks just yet. But keep them in mind for later; they might finally get a better 'Net pipeline than a 56K DDS, and you can always use another free and anonymous account.


Free-internet is a little better. I could actually download their software, and I have used it extensively. Of these services, this is the one I know best.

Free-i is an easy download, without a bunch of silly questions to delay you online. After you install the software and run it for the first time, that changes. You will be presented with several questions somewhat more intrusive than those I encountered with dotnow. But none will tie you by name to a specific location. In fact, part of the registration process calls for you to identify the state you are in, and your userid will reflect this (i.e., joeblow1999@tx.freei.net). But it doesn't really matter what state you claim. This could be useful for purposes of misdirection.

A nice thing about Free-i, from the permanent tourist's point of view, is that they have a national (US) network with dialups across the country. And their software allows you to easily specify what state and city to use as you travel. A definite plus, as it once cost premium charges for such national access.

Your Free-i account comes with an email account. It is accessible as webmail or with your own POP3-compliant email client such as Eudora or Pegasus--handy, if you use a PGP plug-in for encryption.

On the downside is the quality of that network. I could be nasty and suggest that they bought their equipment as a blue light special from K-Mart, but we aren't there yet.

Free-i access can be very hit-or-miss. Some days in some cities, you can access them virtually at will with no delays. Other days... On one day, I made fifty-one dialup attempts; in only seven was I able to connect to the network. The other forty-four tries failed due to busy signals, ring-no-answers, modem negotiation failures, and a failure of the network to recognize my ID and password.

Data rates can be a problem. While my connections have always been at 24kb/s or better, it will usually seem like only half that due to the endless advertising being downloaded in the 'background' as you web browse and check your mail. Free-i is definitely overdoing the advertising, because when I have actually *tried* to read some of the ads, they've scrolled by or been replaced before I could decide whether to get more data by clicking one. If they would just cut down the quantity, they'd provide more usable bandwidth and quite likely get more advertising hits.

Fortunately, you can get away from the ads. Instead of connecting through the proprietary software, you can build a standard Dial Up Networking connection which will work just fine. I highly recommend this procedure if you are a Hushmail (encrypted webmail) user, as about 25% of the time the Free-i software conflicts with Hushmail's Java application causing Netscape to lock up. But please: Free-i is providing you a service. If they make no money because all of their users bypass the ads all the time, they can go out of business and you lose the service. Think "enlightened self-interest"; putting up with some ads sometimes is a reasonable price.

Free-i is also prone to packet loss, although not consistently; some times and places data transfer is fine. Other days, other cities, I've seen 10 - 50% packet loss over the Free-i network. That means as much as half of the data I am attempting to send or receive never makes to its destination (This is usually what has happened when your browser sits idly claiming to be waiting for a server response--the server probably did reply, but the packets got lost on the way to you. Or your request never made it to the server in the first place.)

Free-i is worth checking out, if you bear in mind that you get what you pay for.


Just kidding; this is *bluelight.com*, K-Mart's offering to the Internet world. If you recall endless delays and waits in the checkout lines at K-Mart, pre-boycott, then you already know what trying to download their software is like.

For those who object to doing business with K-Mart (and who can blame you, even if they did can that socialist sow O'Donnell), consider the irony of using the enemy's tools against itself.

But it's probably a moot point. I could never get the software to give them a try. First you have to wade through a marketing questionnaire that makes you wonder if K-Mart has ever even heard the word 'privacy'. I lied through my virtual teeth with gleeful abandon. These weasels actually expect you to give them your name, address, and telephone number; all are required entries on their snoopsheet.

And then I came to a screeching halt. Two or three times, I received the message, 'Cannot register with ISP at this time. Try again later.' Each try means working through the questionnaire again. If you do this in one browser session, your questionnaire remains filled in (but watch out for those check boxes volunteering you for more spam); but if you need to close your browser, you're screwed. A few more attempts to get the software garnered the less than illuminating response, 'No response from Yahoo.' It seems that Bluelight and Yahoo are in cahoots in this scam, and your registration must go through both simultaneously, a feat I never accomplished. Ho hum.

Bluelight claims to have nationwide dialups, but it seemed a moot point.


You probably know Juno already. Thousands, if not millions, of people use this service for free email. But they have also branched out into free web access. Their servers are quite responsive. I was able to download and install the software without any difficulties. I was originally looking into email when I checked out Juno, but was pleased to learn that running the app gave me the option of signing up for free web access. As with the other services, there is a marketing survey. It is comparable to Free-i's questionnaire. I could live with it.

Juno has dialups across the U.S., making them accessible by nearly anyone. I rarely encountered a busy signal (and alternate dialup numbers are provided), and data transfer rates were acceptable. Advertising was not too obnoxiously intrusive; actually, it's quite bearable for a free service. But if you do find the ads a little much, Juno has a paid service option (but then you run into the privacy problems with that all over again).

Downside: Juno mail uses their proprietary client. If you like Eudora or some other POP3 client, so sorry. Fortunately, the client is something most of us can live with. It is cut-&-paste compatible with PGP. Also, while they have nationwide dialups, there doesn't seem to be any easy way to access a different local number as you travel. Keep a pocket full of phone cards, if you're PT.

I was unable to access the Juno network directly, bypassing the ads. But as the ads are less intrusive than those on Free-i, I would not worry about it too terribly much.

All of these services request some amount, more or less, of personal data as the price of subscription. To pay my way (TANSTAAFL, after all), I will answer the questions which do not compromise my privacy. But no company needs a physical address to send electronic banner advertisements. When a company wants to know who I am, I lie. Just as Mr. Tiggre has said before, my concealment of my identity from such outfits is for protection of privacy, not to defraud. These services make just as much money from showing 'Joe Blow' online commercials as they do showing them to Peter Gallivant; I've harmed no one, and protected my privacy.

These services all require 32 bit MS Windows (Win9X/NT, presumably 2000 and ME work, too). Bluelight claims that a Mac version of their software is 'coming soon'. But it's been 'coming' for at least several months now. No Linux versions seem to be in the works.

(c) 2000

To create a dialup connection which does bypass the Free-I proprietary software, doubleclick "My Computer" on the Windows desktop. Then doubleclick the "Dial-Up Networking" folder icon. Next, doubleclick "Make New Connection."
This starts a wizard which will prompt you for a connection name (such as "Free-I Toledo", or wherever you may be accessing the service) and for a "device"; this is which modem to use- accept the default shown. Click "Next", and in the new window input the Free-I access number displayed when you ran the proprietary software. Click "Next", then "Finish". You'll have a new connection icon in the Dial-Up Networking window, which you may wish to copy to your desktop. To use the new connection, doubleclick the icon.
Input your Free-I user name (which is the entire Free-I email address which you were given, for example, joeblow@oh.freei.net) and password. If you are the sole user of your system, you may wish to check the "Save Password" box so that you will not need to input this data every time you access the service. Finally, click "Connect" and wait while your computer connects with the Free-I network.
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