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NetZero: A Free ISP Service
By Thiravudh Khoman

Pop quiz: What does the average internet user crave the most? A T1/1.5 megabit connection to the internet? Definitely nice, but dream on McDuff. How about free and unlimited access to the internet? Granted many people already have free access to the internet at their universities or places of work, but for those of us who have to pay our own way and who can see one or two 20 Baht bills flying out of our wallets for each minute we're online, the prospects of free internet'ing are very attractive.

No commercial ISP in Thailand offers free access to the internet (yet!). However, in the U.S., a company called NetZero already offers advertising-supported free dial-up access. I'm in Salt Lake City, Utah as I write this article and I've already gone through a dozen sessions with NetZero.

Really Free?

Is NetZero really free? Except for the cost of a telephone call to a NetZero-participating ISP, the answer is "yes", there are no other monetary costs involved. NetZero's list of ISP's numbers nearly 1,500 to date, and as long as you're in a fair sized city, the possibility of finding a local access number is pretty good. The "no free lunch" part of this answer though, is that whenever you're connected to NetZero an advertising window (figure 1) will pop up on your screen. This window is slightly larger than a typical Yahoo! advertising banner, but can be made a bit smaller and moved to different locations on-screen. However, it cannot be completely removed from your screen until you disconnect from the internet.

Because of this, many people wouldn't consider this a truly "cost-free" offering and would be philosophically opposed to such commercial opportunism. Personally, I find it to be no more - and conversely, no less - annoying than typical web advertising banners or commercials on free TV, and consider it an acceptable trade-off against the costs of internet'ing on the road.

In the past, whenever I needed to access the internet in the U.S, I used the services of a U.S. ISP. But since I used this so infrequently, the monthly costs were difficult to justify. Eventually, I discontinued this in favour of global roaming services offered by local ISP's. While this was cheaper on an annual basis, the expenses could still run to Baht 1,000 or more per trip. Also, I've found out that one cannot absolutely rely on global roaming. During my last trip, my Thailand- based ISP experienced problems and could not authenticate my global roaming logins in the U.S. I would have lost access to the internet for half my trip if I hadn't borrowed a friend's AOL account in the U.S. Using NetZero on this particular trip, meanwhile, has reduced my costs to almost nil.


To use NetZero, you must first download their software (over 3mb in size) from https://www.netzero.com. It's best to install the software when you're in the U.S. because you'll need to dial into one of NetZero ISP's to answer questions regarding your login, password, name, address (the form only accepts U.S. states and country), and personal/business attributes. The purpose of these questions, of course, is to finetune the ads that will be shown to you. WARNING: Whether subsequent finetuning is done based upon your actual internet usage is unknown - but I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case.

Performance-wise, the service rates only a "fair". In Salt Lake City, there was only one NetZero ISP and most of the time I could only manage a connection speed of 26-28kbps with my 56kbps modem. Conceivably, this could be a shortcoming of this particular ISP only. Given that new ads are occasionally being piped to your computer and the fact that some authentication or logging seems to be occurring at some other distant server, things may feel even slower. A visit to https://www.anonymizer.com showed that I was actually logged into a server in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Salt Lake City. Therefore, speed-wise the service DOES leaves something to be desired. But since there was no big hurry for me to log off in order to shut off the money valve, I could grudgingly live with these shortcomings. Of course, I wouldn't want to perform any large downloads on such connections.


In terms of program compatibility, I could browse using Netscape Navigator 4.x without any problems, although if you normally have your browser set to use a proxy server, this has to be turned off. Also, as I hinted above, you should think twice before visiting "risque" sites - who knows if your movements are being tracked by Big Zero? My preferred email client, Eudora Pro 3.x, needed to have its SMTP server set to "mail.netzero.net". I have access to my own SMTP server which works independently of the ISP I dial into, but this SMTP server couldn't be used either. Mail MUST be routed through NetZero's SMTP server only, so that they can add an advertisement at the end of your emails (à la HotMail).

To be honest, I had expected better performance from NetZero - perhaps it's just teething pains and will improve over time. But given the cost savings, I believe the trade-offs are fair to both sides. As with all things though, decide for yourself. Like someone who hitches a free ride, you'll either have to tolerate the driver's conversation or walk.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman