Getting a ticket to cyberspace is becoming as complicated as buying a seat on an airplane. Prices are all over the map.
A year ago, Internet service providers were rushing to offer unlimited access for a flat rate of $20 a month. Now, these companies (known as ISPs) are tacking on restrictions. Sure, Company A provided unlimited Internet access for $20 a month, but you have to pay an extra $10 for guaranteed access during peak periods. For an extra $30 a month, Company B will throw in high-speed access.
The new pricing works the other way too. If you're savvy about it, and willing to put up with online ads and promotions, you can get virtually free Internet access. "It's not a rising price trend but a diversifying price trend," says Emily Green, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. She pays $50 extra each month to get speedy Internet access through her cable-television company.
For more than a year, Juno Online Services (www.juno.com) has offered a free Internet e-mail account to anyone downloading its software. The software displays advertising while users read their mail. You don't get access to the Internet's graphical World Wide Web, but it's hard to beat the price. The company claims more than 2 million people have signed on for free accounts.
If you happen to live in or around San Francisco or Silicon Valley, you can do even better. A service called Cyber FreeWay (www.cyberfreeway.net) offers free access to the Web as well as Internet mail. The premise is the same as Juno's and, for that matter, broadcast TV. You watch for free, but there are commercials.
Whether you should go the free route depends on your venturesomeness. Analysts are skeptical such services can survive. "That's an unproven economic model right now," says Scott Reamer, Internet analyst with Cowen & Co., based in Boston. While TV rakes in billions of dollars of advertising annually, the Internet last year only netted an estimated $300 million worth of ads. Mr. Reamer says Internet ad revenues would have to grow 10 times before such services will work.
There's still another way to get free Internet access. It's a takeoff from the old box-top offers. FreeRide Media (www.freeride.com) gives points when you buy particular merchandise, such as Oreo cookies and DoveBars. Accumulate 1,000 points in a month - about a grocery bag's worth - and you qualify for $20 worth of Internet service.
FreeRide also offers points to customers who answer consumer surveys or click on particular online ads. On July 1, the company plans to announce a partnership with a national grocery delivery service where members get points every time they have their groceries delivered.
While the idea is similar to Juno and Cyber FreeWay, FreeRide avoids the high costs of offering Internet access directly by signing up local ISPs to do it. Every time a customer redeems points for Internet access, FreeRide pays the ISP. FreeRide gets its money from the companies whose products it features.
That's the way the Internet should work, says Jordan Stanley, president of FreeRide. "There's never been a medium in 20th-century communications that has put the cost squarely on the shoulders of the customer." Newspapers and TV get most of their money from advertising.
If FreeMedia hasn't signed up an ISP in your area, you can't use the points you accumulate. So check out FreeMedia and these other services (using a friend's or the library's Internet account) before signing up. In cyberspace, just as in real life, you get what you pay for.
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